A Project of the Coast Guard Aviation Association

2001 – Drug Interdiction in the Eastern Pacific Transit Zone

Off-loading cocaine from the CGC Steadfast at Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica, Dec. 2, 2007

Transit Zone drug interdiction had been de-emphasized in deference to source country operations. Through the efforts of Admiral Kramek, who was Commandant of the Coast Guard and also Coordinator for Drug Interdiction transit zone drug interdiction was again proven to be effective when sufficient and proper law enforcement assets were available.  A series of proof of concept pulse operations, which included airborne use of force, were conducted in the Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic areas. The operations were very successful and resulted in supplemental funds to provide more ship and aircraft hours; upgrade Coast Guard aviation assets; and the formation of an armed helicopter interdiction squadron.

In 1993 a source country program was again initiated. The aim of this program was to assist host nations in destroying the drug trafficking organizations, drug crops, drug production facilities, tracking or seizing drugs scheduled for transshipment, and developing alternative economic projects to relieve the farmers dependence on drugs as a cash crop. Initial results were not satisfactory due to the power of the drug cartels and lack of source country resources. Colombia, the main source of cocaine, became chaos for a period of time. By 1996 disruption began to take place and the Cali Cartel was beginning to disintegrate into smaller cells. The Colombian Government formed a force of 500 soldiers and police to track down the cartel members resulting in a further erosion of leadership and vastly improved intelligence gathering capabilities.

Southern Command, located at Howard Air Force Base, coordinated multiple counterdrug operations in the source area and was equipped with sophisticated equipment to gather intelligence. In addition to air suppression, operations were aimed at disrupting the riverine and coastal drug smuggling. Coast Guard Special Forces (DIAT) conducted small boat riverine operations in the interior of Bolivia.  Howard AFB was a secure base and was ideally suited to provide unified logistical support for counterdrug operations. From the centrally located base, the Department of Defense (DOD); the U. S. Customs Service (USCS); and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), directed by the Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATFS), operated airborne early warning, marine patrol, and tracker aircraft.  Initial contact of a suspected airborne trafficker was made by ground radar, early warning aircraft such as an Air Force E3, a Customs P-3B, or a Navy E2-C would pick up and track the target and direct either Air Force F-16s or Customs Citation aircraft for a visual intercept. Information was then passed to appropriate foreign government law enforcement agencies for purposes of apprehension.  Tactically the program was a success and lead to increased emphasis on maritime transport and the development and use of high speed motorboats known as “go-fasts”.  Initially the primary transit zone was in the Caribbean. Marine air patrols for surface interdiction were primarily carried out by Customs P-3B and DOD aircraft with assistance provided by Coast Guard assets.

By July of 1998, the United States recognized that the Panamanian Government would not extend access to Howard AFB beyond December 31, 1999. By September the DOD had developed basic site selection criteria and began the search for new forward operating locations (FOL). Key criteria were (1) proximity to the source and transient zones, (2) protection of U.S. personnel and equipment, and (3) adequate infrastructure to minimize construction costs.  Locations selected were Manta, Ecuador: Aruba and Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles, and San Salvador, El Salvador. These sites provided greater geographical coverage, deeper access into the source zone, and diverse locations which complicated the traffickers’ attempts to monitor flight operations. Initial operations from Manta and the Netherlands Antilles took place in 1999 and from San Salvador in 2000.

Drugs coming into the United States from South America pass through a six million square mile transit zone roughly the size of the United States. This zone encompasses the Caribbean and the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Interdiction in the transit zone had been re-emphasized in 1997 and the Coast Guard had again become key in reducing the maritime flow of drugs and a primary force provider for the JIATF.

During the period, beginning in 1997, when the Coast Guard conducted a series of proof of concept pulse operations in high threat areas, 71 percent of the non-commercial cocaine smuggling in the Caribbean was conducted using “go-fast” boats.  Coast Guard C-130s and HU-25s were used for maritime patrol but were not as effective as Customs P-3s and Navy E2Cs. The pulse operations were successful, proved the effectiveness of airborne use of force and demonstrated the need to upgrade the sensor capabilities of Coast Guard marine patrol aircraft. Beginning in 1997 HC-130 aircraft received a major sensor upgrade that allowed for the detection, classification, and evaluation of vessels day or night, from higher altitudes, and from greater stand-off distances. Four HU-25 aircraft were reactivated and six HU-25As were upgraded with SAR/ISAR radar and FLIR/EO beginning in 1999. In 2000 a permanent helicopter interdiction squadron, using armed MH68 helicopters, capable of both day and night operations, was established.

Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments (LEDETS) were deployed aboard U.S. Navy ships as well as the British, Dutch, and Belgian naval vessels operating in the Caribbean and involved in counter-drug operations. Bilateral agreements were made with 22 Caribbean and Latin American nations to improve the effectiveness of the counter-drug mission. Law enforcement training and security assistance was provided to Caribbean nations and became increasingly effective over the years. In addition a continued maturation of interagency cooperation was taking place and the availability and effective utilization of intelligence ensued. FY 2001 marked the third successive record year for Coast Guard maritime cocaine seizures. By 2001, for the first time, even though it was a much longer route, more cocaine was being routed via the Eastern Pacific than the Caribbean.

By 2002 approximately 70 percent of cocaine destined for the United States was initially transported through the Mexico-Central America corridor, primarily via the Eastern Pacific and Western Caribbean maritime routes and then overland through Mexico. During the period prior to late 2001 the predominant method of transporting cocaine through the Eastern Pacific transit zone was by small commercial ships or fishing boats.  These were the vessels of choice because they were capable of carrying multi-ton loads. They would leave from clandestine ports on the west coat of Colombia and off load to small boats off the Mexican coast for the run to the shore. As interdiction efforts became more successful, because of an increase in assets and much better intelligence information, cocaine traffickers began increased utilization of large “go-fast” boats and a lesser utilization of larger fishing vessels.  “Go-fast” boats were also the primary means used by traffickers to transport cocaine via the Western Caribbean route, from the north coast of Colombia through the Western Caribbean to Central America. Cocaine arriving in Central America subsequently moves overland along the Pan American Highway toward Mexico. The high volume of legitimate tractor-trailer commerce makes detection and interdiction difficult. Mexican drug gangs would then transport the shipment to the U.S.-Mexican border. Cocaine was/is smuggled across the border via commercial and private vehicles, rail, buses, tunnels, and pedestrians. Transshipment of cocaine from the source countries by air had been considerably curtailed.

The Eastern Pacific transit zone is a massive area with few geographical choke points. To meet the challenge of patrolling this vast area the Coast Guard coordinates closely with other government agencies and Central and South American nations to disrupt and deter the flow of illegal drugs. To be successful, complete and forceful interagency collaboration in areas such as intelligence collection and dissemination; detection and monitoring; interdiction, and apprehension; and prosecution and investigation is absolutely essential. Intelligence analysts provide information to detection and monitoring forces that in turn provide information to interdiction and apprehension forces.

One of the most effective intelligence operations available to anti-drug forces is Operation PANAMA EXPRESS. This initially was an interagency task force of agents and analysts engaged in long term investigation targeting the highest levels of traffickers responsible for the financing, production, transportation and distribution of cocaine throughout North America and Europe. The interagency task force became proactive in 2000 and became known as Panama Express. Since that time it has expanded its scope of operations. Personnel from DEA, FBI, ICE, the Coast Guard, and the US Attorneys’ Office collect actionable intelligence which is passed to the Joint Interagency Task Force South which uses the information to better direct air and naval assets for the purpose of interdicting vessels smuggling cocaine through the transit zones.

With the advent of Panama Express there was a significant increase of drug-running vessels interdicted. Panama Express would become aware of, normally by means of human intelligence, a drug shipment going out on a specific fishing vessel or go-fast with a proposed departure date. This would be passed to JIATF South who would then provide this information to the Coast Guard and Customs marine air patrol forces flying patrols out of Manta and Campela. Simultaneously surface assets in the transit zone would also be alerted. The wide area surveillance accomplished by the fixed wing maritime patrol aircraft operated by the Coast Guard and Customs, which have the speed and endurance to cover large sections of the Eastern Pacific, was/is critical in positioning units for intercept. Upon detection JIATF South would position a Coast Guard cutter or a Navy ship with a Coast Guard LEDET on board for intercept. Once the trafficker was identified, marine patrol aircraft would, from a standoff distance, monitor the smugglers’ progress and provide updates on the position and course of the vessel. When in range the surface unit would interdict the fishing boat. When a boarding was imminent the tactical control was shifted to Coast Guard District Eleven before conducting law enforcement actions. This provided the legal authority to board, search for and confiscate the cocaine, and apprehend the crew.  This had a dramatic impact on the seizure rate.

In response the traffickers greatly increased the use of large four engine go-fasts for runs to both Mexico and Central America for transshipment to Mexico by land. In January of 2002, to counter this strategy, Coast Guard HITRON deployed helicopters for Eastern Pacific operations. Conducted under strict secrecy, information on the deployment was not released until March. The helicopters coordinated efforts out of San Diego with Coast Guard cutters and specific U.S. Navy assets.

On 16 January the Midgett made a successful interdiction and again on January 24. On 26 January the Steadfast made a successful bust. On 3 February the Boutwell recovered 2.5 tons of cocaine from a 40-foot go-fast. On 12 February the Boutwell and Hamilton teamed to stop a go-fast with 7,670 pounds of cocaine with a street value of $34 million. The Midgett made an interdiction on 22 February and the Boutwell and Hamilton successfully teamed up again on 12 march. All of the interdictions were made using intelligence provided by Panama Express.

Pacific “go-fast” adjacent a Coast Guard OTH with a Coast Guard interdiction crew on board

The February 12 interdiction by the Boutwell and Hamilton was “textbook”. A Coast Guard HC-130H picked up the 42-foot go-fast in international waters off the Central American coast. Flying at 10,000 feet, the HC-130H tracked the go-fast off the coast of Costa Rica. JIATF positioned the Boutwell and Hamilton and at the proper time each simultaneously launched their MH-68A helicopters, call signs Shark 1, and Shark 2, for intercept while putting their Over-the-Horizon Rigid Hull inflatable boats in the water to recover the cocaine and smugglers.  Upon helicopter intercept Shark 1 fired warning bursts from its 7.62mm machine gun. The go-fast stopped but soon started to move again. Shark 1 provided cover and Shark 2 moved in and disabled all four engines with 13 shots from the 50 caliber rifle.  The inflatables arrived and the cocaine and smugglers were taken into custody.

Interdiction operations continued to improve in proportion to the amount of intelligence available and the ability of the tactical forces to obtain and use it. However, several challenges to the ability to sustain the desired level of interdiction in the transit zones took place. The hours flown by Navy P-3 maritime patrol aircraft on interdiction missions decreased nearly 60 percent between 2000 and 2005 – primarily because of structural problems in the wings. The United States experienced a terrorist attack on September 11, 2001 that resulted in assets being diverted to security missions. The year 2003 saw the invasion of Iraq and a reduction in DOD assets for drug interdiction.

The year 2005 was the year of the massive airborne rescue response to hurricane Katrina. Shortfalls in flight hours took place but were largely offset by Customs, the Coast Guard, and several allied European nations — the Netherlands, France, and the United Kingdom. Customs had obtained eight additional P-3s with improved detection capabilities and shifted flight hours from source country to transit zone interdiction. The Coast Guard, in spite of reduced availability, was able to provide additional patrol hours because of tremendous assistance in maritime awareness patrols performed by Coast Guard Auxiliary aviation and the fact that budget considerations are apportioned along functional lines but allocation of flight hours is mission specific.  The multi-mission capability of the Coast Guard allows the same assets to be used for drug interdiction, migrant interdiction, and other missions.  In many cases drug interdiction and migrant interdiction can be conducted by the same aircraft or ship during deployment. By careful management of flight hour resources the effectiveness of available flight hours can be increased. The Coast Guard multi-mission concept was again validated.

Transit zone interdictions in 2003 amounted to 176 metric tons; 219 metric tons in 2004 and 254 metric tons in 2005. In 2005 the British adopted the airborne use of force (AUF) concept using Coast Guard tactics and training procedures. Aggressive tactics in the Caribbean continued to shut down the major routes in the central and eastern Caribbean. Air smuggling reemerged as a method of transporting cocaine via Central America. Traffickers flew, primarily at night, into marginal airstrips in Guatemala, Belize, and later Honduras, using small aircraft. Most of the aircraft were damaged or abandoned but the landing locations provided quick egress into Mexico via unpaved and unmonitored roadways.

Ecuador became a transit country for cocaine produced in the High Andean Ridge of Bolivia and Peru and the trafficking in the Mexico- Central America Corridor during 2006 evolved to include four general routes – littoral along the coasts of Central America, north of the Galapagos, south of the Galapagos and far west of the Galapagos.  The Galapagos routes take the traffickers over a thousand miles off shore but adds substantially to the required patrol area. Traffickers used multiple at-sea transfers and increased the use of decoy vessels. Fishing boats were used as a means to refuel, equip, and act as lookouts for the boat making the run to shore. All of this added complexity and challenged the interdiction forces. Increased surveillance and bilateral agreements enabled the Coast Guard to render the support vessels useless by means of “fuel neutralization” which meant the removal of excess fuel to prevent the vessel in question from transferring excess fuel to a trafficker making the run. The littoral route was the trafficker’s choice on the east coast of Central America and by 2006 was being used extensively on the Pacific coast.

Ship interdiction hours had been increased by using high endurance cutters based out of Hawaii as well as the West Coast. Coast Guard air surveillance hours were increased by using Atlantic Area HC-130s and increasing the number of interdiction hours flown by the Sacramento air station. This provided a substantial portion of JIATF South’s maritime patrol capacity. Sacramento, a Pacific Area unit, deployed approximately 300 days a year to DOD Forward Operating Locations (FOL) at San Salvador, El Salvador and Manta, Ecuador. Crews usually deployed an airplane for 28 days with a personnel swap once each deployment. Over $2 million worth of C-130 parts were pre-staged in El Salvador to increase deployed availability and increase effectiveness. Nearly half of Sacramento’s programmed hours were flown from these FOLs.In 2007 an all time high of 316 metric tons was interdicted. Removals in the open ocean decreased slightly but contributions made by partner nations along the coast line, now better trained and equipped, made up the difference.

The National Drug Intelligence Center estimated that by the end of 2007 66% of the cocaine was being transported via the Eastern Pacific route, 24% via the Western Caribbean route and a little less that 10% via the Central and Eastern Caribbean routes. Steel Web had clamped down hard and had proven to be effective. The Coast Guard began equipping all of the HH-65C helicopters with the ability to use AUF.

Drug traffickers, realizing the effectiveness of armed helicopters, had begun to develop semi-submersibles in 2006. The early semi-submersibles were made of fiberglass; could carry about 5 tons of cocaine and moved at about 6 knots. The newer ones are being built of steel; capable of carrying 12 tons of cocaine and move at 12 knots.  They are custom built, average 50 feet in length, and typically contain three compartments: an engine room, berthing/bridge area and a cargo hold where the drugs are stored. GPS is used for navigation. Diesel driven, they have two 500 gallon fuel tanks, with two additional 75 gallon tanks. The boats are built in the Colombian jungle at an estimate of nearly $1 million each. The vessels have a very low profile making them difficult to detect. They stay just above the water to obtain air for the crew and engines which are below the water line and immune from helicopter sniper fire. Only eight were intercepted during 2008 – one was captured and the others scuttled. Colombia confiscated seven empty craft on land before they were used.

Fiberglass semi-submersible

The use of semi-submersibles has increased significantly. In July of 2010 the introduction of fully submersible submarines marked a quantum leap.   The traffickers have adapted to effective interdiction and law enforcement agencies have had to adapt to the change in tactics. The Coast Guard pushed for and obtained legislation that would make the use of “unflagged” semi-submersibles in international waters a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The reasoning was that there is no legitimate use for a vessel of this design and severe punishments coupled with the chances of being caught would significantly contribute to the suppression of air transport of drugs through the transit zones. Initially only used in the Pacific they began to be used in the western Caribbean in 2011.  The DEA reports that the vessels are made by specific groups, sometimes in collusion with FARC, which funds its Marxist insurgency with the drug trade. It is their intent to disrupt these groups and apprehend the principals. The effort will be made because drug interdiction has become even more of a security issue. If a semi-submersible can be used to carry 10 tons of cocaine it could also be used in suicide attacks on targets such as warships, fuel tankers or other specific targets.

Since January 2012, the United States, in partnership with various European and Latin American nations, has been conducting Operation Martillo (Martillo = Hammer), a multi-national, interagency and joint military operation to combat aerial and maritime drug trafficking off Central America’s coasts. Operation Martillo is led by U.S. Southern Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S), with strong support from the Departments of Homeland Security (particularly the Coast Guard), Treasury, State, Justice and Defense.

The operation targets drug boats before they land in Central America where the cargo is then divided and sent to the U.S. As part of Operation Martillo, four frigates, with Coast Guard LEDET aboard, patrol in two zones off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of South America, and two transshipment points in Guatemala and Honduras. Partner nations also contribute dozens of smaller boats. Numbers from the State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report indicated that about 80% of drugs headed to the U.S. initially travel through Central America. Operation Martillo affected the drug traffickers’ to a degree and pushed drug trafficking routes towards the eastern Caribbean. History has shown that the traffickers will go the route of least resistance.

In 2010 the Coast Guard and Custom/Border Patrol began a joint operation aerial surveillance of the US/Mexican Border using the maritime version of the MQ-9 unmanned Aircraft. It is used for both migrant and drug interdiction. In 2012 the Coast Guard successfully evaluated a small long endurance UAS from a Coast Guard cutter. The UAS was a ScanEagle. It tracked and located a go fast in the eastern Pacific and an armed helicopter was vectored for a successful interdiction. The plan is to utilize UAS vehicles on the Cutters as Force multipliers.

The degree of success of interdiction efforts is dependent upon funding; interdiction assets; intelligence capability, tactics; the size and geography of the search area and interagency coordination. True interagency coordination and cooperation is now the norm – very much different than the early years. The Coast Guard and Customs are in the same government department. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), while still primarily in investigation and law enforcement has become much more willing to share intelligence and use it not only to disrupt organizations but to interdict the flow of drugs and the apprehension of traffickers. The DOD is a willing participant and the detection and enforcement capabilities of Central American and Caribbean countries have increased significantly. The Coast Guard has been and will remain a major player.

The Early Years

The Growth Years

Coming Of Age

The Modern Era

The Present Era

Oral History