Editor’s note: This blog is part of an ongoing Coast Guard Compass series titled “In the Zone”, which documents the service’s efforts to combat transnational organized crime networks in known drug transit zones. This piece is a guest piece that features Coast Guard crews operating in known drug transit routes in the Caribbean Sea.
Written by Lt. Brett Gary
The Coast Guard’s Western Hemisphere Strategy makes it clear that combating transnational organized criminal networks is a top priority, and that the service will continually seek new methods and assets for doing so.
One new method that has proven highly successful in recent years has been the deployment of the Coast Guard’s maritime safety and security teams to assist with the disruption of these networks throughout their known operating routes in the Caribbean.
In many ways, MSSTs are a perfect fit for the role. Although their core mission is ports, waterways, and coastal security, the units have proven their versatility in successfully completing a wide array of missions, from building partner capacity and conducting counter-piracy overseas, to conducting recreational boardings and providing safety for major marine events.
Additionally, the expertise with this mission translates easily to the counter-narcotics realm, as the two share a lot of commonalities, such as boathandling and tactics employed. There are certainly notable differences, but focused training makes the transition seamless.
With such training, the teams have proven to be up to the task—for a new mission set, yes, but with the same team-focused attitude as always.
“Using MSSTs for this mission works, and the numbers show that,” said Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Duffy, commanding officer of Maritime Safety and Security Team Miami.
The team has garnered four drug busts and one migrant interdiction over the course of three deployments to Sector San Juan.
“It’s certainly a testament to the professionalism and proficiency of our people and the personnel from every other unit involved,” said Duffy. “For MSSTs, a key to being successful is a sense of humility. Wherever you go, you’re one contributor to this big team effort; you’re there for a limited time to support sectors and stations that are getting this job done day in and day out.”
For MSST deployments to Puerto Rico, the team effort is particularly wide-ranging, and it neatly encapsulates the Coast Guard’s commitment to building a network culture while promoting unity of effort. In a process designed and managed by the 7th Coast Guard District, MSSTs assigned to the mission are put through a work-up by the district’s tactical law enforcement team, then evaluated and certified by Station San Juan. From there, the MSSTs work hand-in-hand with the station, under the tactical control of Sector San Juan, which coordinates intelligence-driven mission tasking.
While underway, MSST crews often patrol and respond in concert with Customs and Border Protection marine units, a partnership which proves especially effective.
“Working with CBP is great,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Alejandro Cordova, a pursuit coxswain at MSST Miami. “We have built a strong relationship that allows for expanded coverage within these known trafficking areas and is essential to mission execution.”
Most recently, MSSTs have taken on partner-nation shipriders in order to extend combined authorities into foreign waters, such as those of the British Virgin Islands.
MSST efforts are closely coordinated with Coast Guard cutters and aviation assets, along with CBP aircraft, that are constantly patrolling and extending reach and capabilities farther than any small boat possibly could. In August 2015, an aviation asset vectored Coast Guard Cutter Vigorous to intercept a northbound go-fast. When the cutter arrived on scene, the go-fast jettisoned its contraband and fled – straight toward an MSST Miami crew that was likewise underway and headed at them. The MSST apprehended the suspects, returned them to Cutter Vigorous, and assisted the cutter with the recovery of 541 kg of cocaine.
“A successful outcome during these operations really hinges on the multitude of surface and air assets that the Coast Guard and partner agencies bring to the table,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class David Figueroa, a pursuit coxswain at MSST Miami. “When all these assets work together, that needle in the haystack becomes easier to find.”
Such operational successes are an accomplishment in and of themselves; but more than that, they show how the Coast Guard’s commitment to teamwork is bearing fruit.
“It’s rewarding because, at a deployable specialized forces unit, you’re by definition always going to an area of operational need,” said Duffy. “At the same time, it’s humbling because you’re always going there to be a contributor to a larger team that’s already doing great work; it really draws attention to the Coast Guard’s diversity of units and partnerships, and how they’re leveraged to get the job done.”