- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2008

HOMESTEAD, Fla. — U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at Miami’s busy Air and Marine Branch received “vague intelligence” that a boat speeding west from the Bahamas and bound for Florida was carrying 100 kilos of narcotics.

Thirty miles south at the Homestead Air Reserve Base, a crew of four Air Interdiction and Enforcement agents — two pilots and two radar operators — pulled on their flight suits, threw bulletproof vests over their shoulders and scurried to board their Dash 8 aircraft, a sleek-looking, twin-engined, medium-range turboprop aircraft.

Scanning a map of South Florida and the Caribbean, the pilots conferred over the best route to take to intercept the boat. Airborne at 5 p.m., pilot Guy Farmer slowly pulled the plane to an “intermediary” altitude of 5,000 feet over the greens and blues of the vast ocean below.

The higher the altitude the better, said radar operator Neil Dahl through a headset from the rear of the plane, where he was tracking and labeling boats below with a high-powered, 360-degree, forward-looking radar. Hundreds of radar blips were shouting out to him, challenging him to find the one carrying drugs.

The aircraft’s radar system can track hundreds of vessels on the water, picking up not only large freighters and the smallest of sailboats, fishing vessels and “go-fast boats,” but its success depends on the operator. Used properly, the system can identify the type of boat targeted, how fast it’s traveling and what direction it’s going, even picking up debris floating in the water, tangled seaweed and oil slicks.

This mission will last a minimum of four hours. If the agents find the suspect boat, or any other that looks suspicious, it may turn into a chase involving Customs and Border Protection (CBP) boats and the U.S. Coast Guard and could last several more hours.

No drug-carrying boat was found that night, but plenty more missions lie ahead.

This four-man crew is just part of a larger mission by CBP’s Air and Marine Branch to stop terrorists and their weapons of mass destruction from entering the country and to find and halt smugglers of drugs and people.

Using all sorts of airplanes, boats, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles, the agents here search for vessels headed north from Cuba or west from the Bahamas. They are in charge of patrolling a vast territory that encompasses the eastern, southern and Gulf Coast areas of Florida’s nearly 1,200-mile shoreline.

And each member of CBP’s Air and Marine Branch in South Florida interviewed during a three-day tour this month of the agency’s operations said they were ready for the challenge.

“For me, it’s personal,” said Mr. Farmer, the air-interdiction pilot. “I had a friend die from an overdose, so it is gratifying for me to try to contribute towards putting a stop to it.”

Before joining CBP in January, Mr. Farmer flew 13 years in the U.S. military. Since then, he said he has been on about 10 “extremely gratifying” interdiction operations for CBP, including one in which agents seized nearly 50 kilos of narcotics.

Despite the inherent dangers and the long and often challenging hours, he said the job was a good way to keep flying and “feel like you are doing something worthwhile.” He said it helps to know he is assisting in a massive effort to stop terrorists and curb not only the illegal flow of drugs and people into the United States but also cutting down on the collateral damage associated with smugglers.

“Boats are stolen, boats sink. People drown. It’s dangerous,” he said. “I understand they want a better life, but the smuggling ring is not the way to go.”

Nationwide, CBP’s Air and Marine Division manages the largest law enforcement air force in the world. It was created in 2004 when air and marine operations then assigned to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were transferred to CBP.

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