- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

ON BELLINGHAM BAY, Wash. — The sleek 39-foot Midnight Express powered through the blue water just east of Lummi Island, its four 225-horsepower Mercury engines easily pushing the craft past 60 miles an hour.

It will go faster, much faster, but Peter S. Ostrovsky of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) won’t say how fast. It’s a secret.

The vessel is the newest craft in the ICE fleet of high-performance boats to plow through the coastal waters here, now under attack by an armada of powerboats, sailboats, commercial fishing vessels, zodiac boats, kayaks and canoes seeking to deliver illicit drugs to the United States.

The smugglers’ favorite cargo is a potent brand of hydroponically grown Canadian marijuana selling for as much as $6,000 a pound in the United States. Known as BC Bud, a tribute to its British Columbia birthplace, the newest marijuana has spawned a $3 billion-a-year market, outdistancing the combined income of the province’s agricultural industry.

But smugglers also are using the waterways here to ferry other drugs into Canada, including heroin and cocaine — some of which are being traded for BC Bud — and the less-expensive Mexican marijuana. Cash from the illicit sale of the drugs in the United States also is being brought into Canada by way of Puget Sound aboard a variety of craft.

“This is the only place in the country where drugs are headed both north and south,” said Mr. Ostrovsky, a veteran of the drug wars in Miami who heads marine operations on this vast expanse of waterways on the western edge of Washington state. “The history of Puget Sound is well-rooted in smuggling. It’s always been here, and I don’t see it stopping anytime soon.”

Mr. Ostrovsky thinks much of the new marijuana is produced and sold by Canadians acting as independent contractors. Other BC Bud operations are controlled by various gangs, he said, including Vietnamese organized-crime groups and Canada-based outlaw motorcycle clubs, such as the Hell’s Angels.

Drug trafficking grew so rapidly here that federal authorities initiated a strategy in March 2000 known as the Integrated Marine Enforcement Team (IMET) to bring together law-enforcement agencies to address problems of mutual concern and to combine resources. The team initially involved the Customs Service, Border Patrol, U.S. Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Canadian Customs.

Mr. Ostrovsky said the operation originally concentrated on boats entering U.S. waters at the western boundaries of the San Juan Islands here. Two Customs vessels, an RCMP boat, two Coast Guard vessels and air surveillance provided by both the RCMP and Customs made up the team, he said.

The first vessel encountered was found to contain marijuana with a street value of $400,000. In its first six days of operation, IMET agents seized four southbound boats with more than $1 million in marijuana and a northbound boat with $180,000 in illicit drug profits.

Mr. Ostrovsky said IMET’s success was intelligence-driven, predicated by prior investigations. He said interdiction efforts also are based on the latest intelligence data gathered by agents in the field.

“There are no cold patrols here,” he said. “These vessels are deployed based on available intelligence. By sharing information with other agencies, we are able to capitalize on enforcement opportunities.”

Mr. Ostrovsky said a variety of small pleasure craft, usually shorter than 30 feet, form the heart of the smuggling trade, because they are able to hide among a vast number of boats that can be found on Puget Sound at any given time. He said many of them just follow the numerous ferry boats that operate in the area, moving vehicles and people between the United States and Canada.

He said about 95 percent of the smugglers are Canadians, men ages 22 to 45, who operate during daylight hours and “don’t run when they get caught.”

“Basically, we’re catching them with their hands in the cookie jar, and they really have no place to run,” he said, noting that none of the smugglers on Puget Sound — so far — has used the infamous “go-fast boats” of their southern counterparts. “No, it hasn’t come to that, yet.”

Before the September 11 attacks on the United States, he said, there was little discussion about terrorists on the waterways here. But, he said, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction are now a priority that “we take very seriously” while continuing to shut down drug smugglers.

“We now have the equipment and vessels to do the job, and those resources are being deployed based on the vast amount of intelligence data we are now gathering,” he said. “Even when we don’t take off the mother lode, we certainly are disrupting the operations of smugglers and those who would attack us.”

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