February 25

Seafaring drug smugglers challenging Coast Guard

Budget cuts have hobbled the only U.S. military service authorized to make drug arrests hundreds of miles offshore.

By Elliot Spagat and Julie Watson
The Associated Press

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The crew of a 45-foot Coast Guard patrol boat runs through its pre-departure briefing in San Diego recently. With the drug war locking down land routes across Latin America and at the U.S. border, smugglers are increasingly using large vessels to carry tons of cocaine and marijuana to the U.S.

The Associated Press

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Coast Guard officer William Pless talks on the radio while steering the vessel through a dense fog during a patrol off San Diego.

The Associated Press

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With more than 42,000 active-duty members, the Coast Guard is assisted in the drug war by other U.S. agencies.

It works closely with other nations, but that help only goes so far. Bilateral treaties sometimes limit waters it can patrol, and some of the foreign navies are small and underequipped.

U.S. officials, for instance, cannot venture into Mexican waters without prior permission and will stop a chase and alert Mexican authorities if suspected boats cross into that territory. Treaties with nations such as Colombia allow U.S. authorities more latitude.

"The land border is a much simpler border to defend. You can put up fences. You can put people out there. But it's a finite area. You know where your land starts and where it ends," Papp said. "When you go out into the maritime, it's huge."

The Coast Guard oversees 95,000 miles of coastline and 4.5 million square miles of maritime territory where the United States has rights: "We don't have that many ships, and we don't have that many aircraft, so there are many different places and routes that the bad guys can take to try and get around us."

Rear Adm. Karl Schultz, the 11th District commander, said the tiny Coast Guard is doing its best to optimize its resources but the challenge is "like a police cruiser in Cleveland responding to something in Atlanta."

Off California, smuggling vessels are typically spotted by planes from the Coast Guard or a federal agency, such as CBP, California National Guard or the Department of Defense. Coast Guard or CBP boats are then called to board suspicious vessels.

CBP is prohibited from firing on boats off the U.S. coast unless the pursuit begins within 12 miles of shore. The Coast Guard has no such constraints, so the onus has fallen on it as smugglers have ventured farther offshore.

The Sinaloa cartel has been loading marijuana bales vessels as far south as the Mexican port of Mazatlan and running them up northern Baja California after taking control of that state's coastal territory several years ago, said Michael Carney, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's assistant special agent in charge of investigations in San Diego.

Smugglers driving three-engine boats have been landing along remote coasts of Northern California, reaching as far as the beach town of Santa Cruz, which is about 350 nautical miles from the border city of San Diego. That's a shift from the one-engine drug skiffs seen landing for years in San Diego County.

Support vessels carry fuel and supplies to go longer distances, and smugglers transfer loads onto U.S.-owned pleasure craft, believing they are less likely to raise suspicion than a foreign boat.

Last month, a Coast Guard C-130 plane circled 200 feet over drug runners who jettisoned plastic-wrapped marijuana bales off Mexico's Baja California coast, about 175 miles south of the U.S. border. A Coast Guard inflatable boat closed in each time the three-engine vessel switched fuel tanks, according to Lt. Steven Davies, who monitored the hour-long, 30-mph chase from a nearby cutter.

By the time the four men were arrested, there were no drugs on board, but the Coast Guard fished 3,500 pounds of marijuana and 34 pounds of methamphetamine from the ocean.

Papp, speaking at a defense conference this month in San Diego, said that the Coast Guard's resources to patrol the high seas and intercept threats are "woefully inadequate at this point."

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Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Jones, the Coast Guard chief of enforcement for the San Diego sector, talks about the vast area of the Pacific Ocean that the Coast Guard polices.

The Associated Press

  


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