About 38 tons of cocaine will slip past Navy and Coast Guard vessels and into the U.S. this year because of across-the-board Pentagon budget cuts, the leader of a drug-interdiction task force says.
"Sequestration has impacted our capabilities," said Navy Rear Adm. Charles D. Michel, director of Joint Interagency Task Force South, based in Key West, Fla. "Our current projection is that an additional 38 tons of cocaine will get past us."
The task force uses Navy and Coast Guard ships and aircraft as it works with Latin American countries to identify and intercept vessels smuggling cocaine into the U.S.
But the Navy's 4th Fleet, which is based in Mayport, Fla., and provides ships for the task force, "currently has no vessels assigned to the counter-drug mission," fleet spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Corey Barker said.
Without the 4th Fleet's resources, capturing smuggled cocaine before it reaches land will be much harder, Adm. Michel said.
"Once it gets on land, it's broken into much smaller packages and becomes harder to interdict," he said.
Last year, the task force seized 152 tons of cocaine — more than four times the 36 tons captured by all other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in the U.S. in 2012.
The task force's seizures accounted for about 40 percent of all the cocaine seized by law enforcement globally.
Task force vessels usually patrol the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico and eastern Pacific to intercept smugglers' vessels that range from speedboats to submarines.
Adm. Michel is close-mouthed about the intelligence assets the task force deploys, saying they range from signals interception and surveillance to human intelligence, such as tips from informants. Analysts combine intelligence from all sources, including foreign partners, to identify potential targets.
"Only the Department of Defense can do that," the admiral said.
The Pentagon is cutting $46 billion from its budget this year under the automatic, across-the-board spending reduction plan called sequestration, and faces about $500 billion in spending cuts over the next decade.
Smugglers' use of submarines highlights the lengths to which drug cartels are able to go to deliver cocaine to the U.S.
"This is an $85 billion a year trade," Adm. Michel said, noting that the money flows to drug traffickers in the three countries that produce the world's cocaine — Peru, Bolivia and Colombia.
Drug cartels have "many of the capabilities of a nation state," he said. "I'm not aware of any law enforcement agency with an anti-submarine capability."
Coast Guard officers, who have military and law enforcement authority serve on Navy frigates and their own vessels, and can arrest smugglers and seize their vessels and cargo.
The sequester, along with the Navy's decision to expedite the decommissioning of its frigates, has left the task force without the ships it needs, the admiral said, adding that there are many demands on Navy resources.
"It's not just all about the money," he said. "This is a very complicated and daunting problem."
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