ABOARD THE U.S. COAST GUARD CUTTER GALLATIN, off the coast of Colombia — Deep blue water churns on all sides, its movement as constant and unpredictable as the drug smugglers this ship is here to track.
“I bet they tarp tonight,” one crewman said, referring to a technique in which smugglers toss large tarpaulins over their speedboats to prevent detection.
It’s been a week since the Coast Guard cutter intercepted a “lancha rapida,” known to the crew as a “go-fast boat.” That boat’s four occupants now are handcuffed to a railing on the Gallatin’s lower deck, and the 4,000 pounds of cocaine they were transporting from Colombia to Mexico is locked in a cargo hold.
A reporter and photographer from The Washington Times joined the Gallatin for a 10-day drug-interdiction patrol in late May.
The Gallatin and a handful of other ships are patrolling an area called the “transit zone” in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific as part of an international, multiagency dragnet focused on eliminating the flow of cocaine from Colombia.
With headlines dominated by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since the September 11 attacks, the battle against Colombian cocaine has raged quietly, with President Bush committed to spending about $2 billion a year on interdiction.
Efforts in the transit zone are more coordinated and sophisticated than ever before, and cocaine seizures are increasing. The Coast Guard set a single-year record in 2004, seizing nearly three-quarters of the 150 metric tons (about 330,700 pounds) that were captured by U.S. agencies in the transit zone.
But the Coast Guard is caught in the middle of a long-term war, which critics decry as one of the most expensive failures in the history of U.S. foreign policy.
Despite the United States’ having spent more than $150 billion to stem the flow of cocaine in the past 25 years, the National Drug Intelligence Center maintains the drug’s availability has not decreased in domestic markets.
And although most of the drug-related arrests in the United States since 1995 have been for marijuana, state and local police still rank cocaine as second only to methamphetamine as the No. 1 drug threat facing America.
Critics continue to argue that “as long as there’s demand, there will be supply” and point to the White House’s own claim that Americans spend about $65 billion a year on illegal drugs. Three out of every 50 Americans from 18 to 25 used cocaine last year, according to the Justice Department.
“Are we frustrated that it’s not stopping? Of course,” said Capt. Michael Parks, commanding officer of the Gallatin. “But we’re limited to the resources that we have available.”
Capt. Parks, who was at the helm of the Gallatin last year when crew members seized more than 30,000 pounds of cocaine, uses humor to cope with the frustration about the condition of the 378-foot ship.
After pointing out that the ceiling in his own living quarters, just below the ship’s main bridge, is leaking water onto a pile of papers on his desk, he remarks, “Imagine what we could do with a brand new ship.”
The Gallatin is among the oldest cutters in operation. It was built in 1969, nearly 20 years before the youngest of its 162 crew members was born.
The Coast Guard, along with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), was shifted into the Department of Homeland Security after the September 11 attacks. The change has meant more coordination with other agencies and more funding — this year’s Coast Guard budget is about $7.5 billion, up from $7 billion in 2004. Next year’s budget tops $8 billion.
But counternarcotics operations take a back seat to terror threats, and senior Coast Guard officials in Miami recently said they do not have enough assets to act upon the drug intelligence they receive.
When this story was reported in late May, there were only two counternarcotics Coast Guard cutters operating in the entire eastern Caribbean portion of the transit zone.
Citing “intelligence sources,” the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates that at least 500 metric tons — equal to about 1.1 million pounds — of cocaine are smuggled across the transit zone annually. But even officials on the front line concede that it’s impossible to know for sure.
The technique smugglers use is basic: Pack tons of cocaine onto speedboats and make a mad dash to Mexico.
“It’s relatively simple to get the drugs into Mexico,” said Robert J. Joura, associate special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Miami office. The Caribbean has been “smuggling central since the days of pirates,” he said, adding that about 60 percent of cocaine leaving Colombia moves by boat to Mexico, where it is loaded onto trucks and driven across the porous U.S. border.
Along the way, smugglers have ample hiding places. For instance, the Kuna islands — an autonomous region governed by native Indians — east of Panama and just north of Colombia don’t allow counternarcotics ships to patrol their waters.
Smuggling profits from drugs sold in U.S. and European markets is more complicated. An ICE affidavit against Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela, the founders of Colombia’s Cali cartel, outlined a scheme in the late 1990s in which “loads of cash [was flown] from New York to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Venezuela, from where the cash was smuggled across the Colombian border.”
The Gallatin’s crew has received intelligence reports suggesting that at least two speedboats are preparing to make a run in the vicinity. But as the sunset colors the sky, crew members see no activity on the horizon.
Conditions soon will be perfect for smuggling — late rising moon, waves just choppy enough for a speedboat to hurtle along undetected from a distance.
“They won’t tarp tonight,” predicts Cmdr. Matt Sibley, the Gallatin’s executive officer.
Officials insist that the backbone of any cocaine seizure is solid human intelligence about specific smuggling runs. The intelligence comes from various sources, said Mr. Joura, who said undercover agents sometimes recruit boatyard workers in ports where cocaine is known to flow.
Agents will pay cash for accurate tips or cut deals with speedboat drivers caught in the act of smuggling.
In one case, Mr. Joura said owners of a boat-repair facility became angry because they were never paid for a series of suspicious modifications they made to a speedboat, including the installation of a large smuggling compartment. In turn, they tipped investigators to keep an eye on the boat.
When reliable intelligence surfaces, it starts a chain reaction through the web of agencies involved in the drug war.
The information first goes through the Key West, Fla., headquarters of the Defense Department’s Joint Inter-Agency Task Force-South (JIATF-South), which coordinates more than 10 U.S. elements, including the Coast Guard, ICE, the Defense Intelligence and National Security agencies, and multiple foreign militaries with ships posted in the region.
JIATF-South advises the ships — including ones from Colombia, Britain, France and the Netherlands — where to position themselves for an interception. It also analyzes observations of military and ICE spy planes crisscrossing the area on the lookout for suspicious boats.
The Coast Guard helicopter soaring overhead makes an athletic turn as a machine gun hanging out its window points at the speedboat bouncing over the waves. The gun jumps to life, methodically pumping bullets into the surf in front of the boat.
The smugglers swerve to avoid the bullets and a team of Coast Guardsmen, who have been watching from the Gallatin a few hundred yards away, quickly approach in a speedboat of their own.
“Doing these cases is a lot like surgery, especially when we start shooting,” said Lt. Cmdr. Chase Landon, a helicopter pilot on the Gallatin. “It’s pretty high-tech.”
The chopper is equipped with an M-240 machine gun and a 50-caliber precision rifle — key for shooting out speedboat engines — as well as night-vision goggles for tracking the boats in the dark.
“A lot of things have to fall into place to be able to achieve a successful endgame, including intelligence, surveillance flights, weather and proper surface-to-air assets,” Capt. Parks said.
The U.S. military has been involved in Colombia since the late 1950s, when troops were sent to prevent the spread of communism in Latin America.
The phrase “war on drugs” later was coined by President Nixon. By the 1970s, when cocaine become a fixture in the American counterculture, the term was used to describe the ongoing U.S. presence in the region.
Since 1993, when Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar was killed, the war’s goals have shifted away from people and toward taking down the organizations that are battling for control in Escobar’s wake.
“We’re getting more sophisticated,” said Richard Kolbusz, assistant special agent in charge of ICE’s Miami field office. “We’re better at attacking organizations, as opposed to seizure-oriented investigations.”
Adm. Mauricio Soto Gomez, commandant of the Colombian navy, said the smaller cartels that control the cocaine movement are easier to penetrate “because they are not so powerful as in the old times.”
The shift in goals also is a result of intelligence gleaned from drug traffickers arrested and extradited to the United States for trial.
Officials are trying to extradite bosses of the North Valley Cartel, which they say was born out of a group of farmers once sponsored as hitmen by the Cali cartel. Named for roots in the Norte Valle del Cauca region near Colombia’s western coast, ICE says the cartel controls about 40 percent of the cocaine smuggled out of Colombia.
Some officials say the rise in drug seizures has little to do with extraditions or advanced interdiction efforts. The reason, according to one undercover narcotics agent, is that the North Valley Cartel is “sloppy” in its smuggling techniques, compared with its more sophisticated predecessors.
“If you think it’s because of the government, no way. It’s because they’re less educated and less organized,” said the agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said the cartels have become “all fractionalized,” with multiple groups vying for control.
Drugs and detainees
Colombian officials in May seized nearly 15 tons of pure cocaine, their largest single seizure in history. Brick after brick was found in a wood-lined underground chamber near a beach on the Pacific coast, where officials also found eight speedboats, apparently waiting to be loaded with the $400 million worth of drugs.
About a week later, the Gallatin chased down a speedboat in the Caribbean, detaining four smugglers and tagging 60 plastic-wrapped bales of cocaine packed in the hull of their 45-foot-long speedboat.
The four men between 20 and 50 years old surrendered without incident.
“The first thing out of their mouths was ‘We’re guilty. We don’t want no problems,’ ” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Gavino Ortiz, head of the team that handcuffed the smugglers.
Ground rules prevented The Washington Times from interviewing the men, who were classified as “detainees.” The Coast Guard does not arrest them, but handcuffs them to the deck of the ship until they can be transferred to the DEA or ICE and officially charged.
The “chain of custody” switch typically occurs at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the Gallatin stops for fuel and repairs. Officials insist that unlike terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo, the drug smugglers spend as little time as possible there and are usually flown to Tampa, Fla., within hours for criminal proceedings.
After sinking the speedboat, Gallatin crew members load the drugs into a large, air-conditioned ammunition hold, which fills quickly with a rich, sweet odor of pure cocaine. It will remain there until being handed over to the DEA and then burned in Miami.
These smugglers were captured in possession of 4,000 pounds of cocaine, with an estimated street value of more than $50 million.
The detainees’ clothes are tossed overboard, their wallets and cell phones bagged as evidence. Coast Guard officials find 11,000 Colombian pesos and one Colombian passport on the men. One of the men is carrying no identification.
A leather-bound Bible with a child’s drawings on some pages also is placed in a bag.
“They carry a lot of personal effects — clothes, Bibles, toothbrush, toothpaste,” said Lt. Anton Chapman, the Gallatin’s weapons officer. “One guy has high blood pressure and had medicine for it. We took it away, but we’re giving it to him now.”
Wearing plastic pants and flip-flops issued by the Coast Guard, the men carry defeat on their faces as they are moved around the deck to keep them out of the sun and occasional rain.
Five days after the smugglers’ capture, the Gallatin makes a rendezvous with another Coast Guard cutter, which is heading to Guantanamo for repairs. The ships pull up next to each other so the cocaine and detainees can be transferred.
A smile cracks on the face of Coast Guardsman John Smith as bales of cocaine are loaded from the Gallatin to the other ship.
“I think it’s funny,” said the 20-year-old from Gulfport, Miss. “You ever watch the TV show ‘Cops’? They get all excited when they get that little bit of cocaine, and we get all these bales.”