A Project of the Coast Guard Aviation Association

1996 – Drug Interdiction Surge Operations Re-established

A decision was made by President Clinton in 1993 to adopt a source country policy designed to help producing countries build interdiction forces. The focus was on the drug crops, the kingpins and their organization, and the production and trafficking networks of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. The adoption of the Source Country Strategy was not to be an abandonment of interdiction in the transit zone but for all practical purposes there was little emphasis placed upon it.

In 1994, Les Brown, the director of the Office of National Drug Policy appointed ADM Robert E. Kramek, Commandant of the Coast Guard, to be the U.S. Interdiction Coordinator for counterdrug operations. At this time the majority of cocaine that entered the United States came across the United States-Mexican border via Central America. However, many trafficking groups from Colombia who had risen to power since the Cali syndicate’s fall returned to traditional Caribbean routes. The preceding Commandant had felt that the Coast Guard had overemphasized drug interdiction and military readiness. As a result drug interdiction was cut back to 9% of the budget. The Colombian groups, aware of this, targeted Puerto Rico as a major point of entry for the transshipment of multi-ton quantities of cocaine being smuggled into the United States. ADM Kramek wrote a letter to Director Brown stating that a consensus of agency heads believed there was a need to restore assets to the interdiction force structure and a return to the pre 1992 level of effort. ADM Kramek specifically asked Director Brown to set up a meeting with the President and National Security Advisor to brief them on the situation and discuss the current state of implementation and national strategy so as to prevent a serious problem. Brown did not share ADM Kramek’s views on interdiction and did not act upon the request.

The Congressional Oversight Committee held hearings on the national drug policy during which ADM Kramek and others, including former Coast Guard Commandant Yost, an advocate of interdiction, testified. The hearings included a fact finding trip to the transit zone. The result was a recommendation for increase in assets and the development of interdiction in the eastern Caribbean. A surge operation, FRONTIER SHIELD, was planned and executed.

FRONTIER SHIELD was a genuine case study for the regional impact of interdiction. In October of 1996, the Coast Guard, in conjunction with interagency partners, conducted a large surge operation in the maritime approaches to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The operation committed an unusually large numbers of vessels and aircraft to blanket known trafficking routes through the Greater and Lesser Antilles. In less than six months, 11 vessels carrying a total of more than 20,000 pounds of cocaine were seized. An additional 17,000 pounds of cocaine was jettisoned by smugglers fearful of being apprehended. During this period, trafficking in the eastern Caribbean dropped sharply, from 38 percent of total traffic down to 23 percent, and continued to drop thereafter. By the end of the year 103,000 pounds of Cocaine and almost the same amount of Marijuana were seized. Ironically, the street value of the contraband seized was more than a billion dollars greater than the Coast Guard’s total annual budget. What did make it through – estimated at only half of the previous year’s quantity of cocaine cannot be determined for certain, but the success was unmistakable. Operation FRONTIER SHIELD was continued and improved upon. Traffickers learned to avoid eastern Caribbean routes moving further west as had been predicted.

In testimony before Congress ADM Kramek stated that the lessons learned during FRONTIER SHIELD were being applied to the design work in the STEEL WEB campaign plan. It was recognized that the decrease in trafficking was in response to the increased probability of interception leading to the consequence of losing assets, cocaine, and imprisonment if apprehended.   He went on to say that his foremost concern, and a harsh reality, is that this operation is not sustainable for the long term without adequate funding and proper resources to combat the increased utilization of “go-fast” boats by the traffickers. He alluded to methods used in the operation and needs for more effective interdiction. LCDR Randy Forrester, a HU-25 pilot from Air Station Miami, Florida; and LT Jim Cullinan, a C-130 pilot from Air Station Clearwater, Florida, both of whom deployed to FRONTIER SHIELD with forward looking infrared (FLIR) equipped aircraft were made available to answer any questions that the committee might have. Both pilots attested to the increased effectiveness which advanced technology can provide and the need for additional detection and upgrading of airborne deterrent assets.

ADM Kramek prevailed –. During the rollout of the 1997 National Drug Control Strategy, the President stated,  “we have to do more to shield our frontiers against drug traffickers.” He went on to say, “we have had some successes against trafficking, and we can do better with interdiction, and we’re learning how to do it,” citing the success of the Coast Guard’s Operation FRONTIER SHIELD as his example.

Operation BORDER SHIELD and Operation GULF SHIELD were two Coast Guard operations conducted in 1997 that complemented existing law enforcement efforts that took place along the land border with Mexico. Operation BORDER SHIELD on the Pacific side and GULF SHIELD on the Atlantic/Gulf of Mexico side logically extend land border efforts into the surrounding maritime region. The overall strategy was a combination of enhanced surface and air radar, infrared surveillance and covert tracking, and OPBAT-like apprehension efforts using rapid response aircraft, boats and task forces    These forces consisted of medium endurance cutters, patrol boats, fixed wing aircraft surveillance, helicopter response assets, and rigid hull inflatable small boats.


Operation BORDER SHIELD was designed to shield the coastal borders of Southern California from maritime drug smuggling. The two areas of primary concern were the northern Baja Peninsula (offshore component), where Coast Guard air and surface patrol assets operated, and the U.S.-MX border area (inshore component) in which coordinated, real time end-game interdiction was conducted with multi-agency forces.

In April 1997, the Coast Guard initiated a short-term surge of air and surface interdiction resources in both component areas to detect, monitor, classify, and intercept suspected drug traffickers.  Criminal drug smuggling organizations transported small loads of contraband along the coast to delivery points in the United States. Small “go-fast” boats and watercraft, including Jet-Ski’s, Sea-Doo’s, and Zodiacs, operated primarily at night, and conducted approximately 4-6 deliveries a week. The speed, short travel distance, and low radar signature of these vessels was a challenge for interdiction forces. Traditional enforcement methods of occasional air flights and random surface patrols were not effective.

A combination of surging surface and air surveillance offshore, and real time inshore response using alert aircraft, boats and task forces was adopted and proved to be effective. Resources dedicated to the ongoing first phase of BORDER SHIELD included: a 210 foot medium endurance cutter, two patrol boats, fixed wing aircraft surveillance, helicopter response assets, numerous utility boat and rigid hull inflatable small boats, one Law Enforcement Detachment (LEDET) and roughly 25 operations personnel.


Operation GULF SHIELD was designed to shield the coastal borders of the Gulf of Mexico from maritime drug smuggling. The area of primary concern was the coast of Texas, from the border with Mexico northward 100 miles and seaward as much as 15 miles.

GULF SHIELD began as a two phase operation to deny maritime smuggling routes along the south Texas border. Phase one was a sixty day surge of resources and Phase two was a long term maintenance operation to deter any resurgence of drug traffic.

Drug smugglers used fast open hulled 25 foot boats (lanchas) capable of speeds in excess of 30 knots. They operated at night along the surf line in groups of two or more. Their small size and speed made them difficult to detect and apprehend. Lanchas accounted for 21% of known maritime smuggling events that were documented by Coast Guard Atlantic Area in FY 1996. The average load of illicit cargo was 500 to 1,000 pounds of cocaine or marijuana.

Interdiction strategy was a combination of enhanced surface and air radar and infrared surveillance, covert tracking, overt beach patrols, and OPBAT-like apprehension efforts using rapid response aircraft, boats and task forces. It is of note that this was the first time since WWII that the Coast Guard used “Beach Patrols.”  Resources dedicated to the maintenance phase of GULF SHIELD included: a medium endurance cutter, a 110 foot patrol boat, a H-60 helicopter, rigid hull inflatable small boats, and operations personnel. Additional complementary resources, such as mobile radar units and listening and observation posts, were provided by interagency participants including: U.S. Customs, DEA, Border Patrol, JTF-6, and Texas law enforcement agencies.

The Present Era