Stopping Drugs At Sea

The U.S. Coast Guard may be the least celebrated of the US. military services. It’s a law enforcement member of the intelligence community, but its glamour is limited. It doesn’t take lives, but saves them – those in peril at sea and those who may perish from deadly drugs on their way here. The Coast Guard’s reach is global, but its mission is to protect America. America first but internationally oriented, an enviable combination.

Catching the enemy in the act is not easy. It takes a seamanship that might be admired by a John Paul Jones. First a suspicious vessel has to be sighted among all those at sea. A drug carrier may elude attack by mingling in a congested area near a port the way a drug laden truck squeezes among other vehicles at a land entry. Heavy traffic is the smuggler’s boon. If his boat is farther out, say 300 to 400 miles, it’s pretty clear he has something to hide.

A Coast Guard team approaches the likely suspect and calls for it to stop. It usually does since it’s much harder to run away at sea than on land. There’s seldom violence because the operation follows a pattern understood by both pursued and pursuer. If the boat carries a U.S. flag, the team can board right way once it seems to be safe. If there’s a foreign flag, the team must get approval from headquarters that can be done quickly or may take a few hours.

Coast Guard Cutter Stratton boarding team (US Coast Guard/Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone)

Then comes the challenge of finding the suspected drugs which can be ingeniously concealed. The Coast Guard must match wits with some of the most inventive criminals on earth. The contraband may be in a secret compartment or under a false floor or in a spare engine on deck. In Miami Lt. Commander Daniel Delgado notes that on one occasion some fresh concrete seemed suspicious. Back in port, a jackhammer cut through the concrete to reveal the profitable cargo below.

Sometimes the trafficker may toss the drugs overboard to avoid detection and arrest. What floats to shore are known as “wash-ups,” debris that is often spotted by beach goers who pick it up and turn it in. It’s not a suitable souvenir.

For obvious reasons there are far fewer drug busts at sea than on land, but each haul is many times larger. The traffickers take their losses in stride. They can easily make these up in the trips that get through. Despite its best efforts, the Coast Guard estimates it only stops abut fifteen per cent of the sea smugglers.

There may be something if not purifying, at least cleansing by water. The Coast Guard is spared the every day scandals of land enforcement. There’s a going rate of $10,000 for a guard who lets a drug laden truck across the Mexican border – a pittance compared to what’s inside. A seagoing Coast Guard team faces no such temptation and can take pride in its accomplishments – not to detract from the heroism of the U.S. border patrol who can face every day violence from the aggressive drug cartels

At some point the U.S. must withdraw from its highly dubious efforts to intervene militarily in nations overseas with an idea of reforming them. Then more attention and budget can be given to the Coast Guard, a prime defender of the U.S. and those who want to come here without, to be sure, drugs.

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