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.

Then-Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican and chairman of the Select Committee on Homeland Security, spearheaded the move. He noted at the time that ICE, CBP, the Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration all had air and marine divisions and suggested that Homeland Security consider ways to consolidate efforts where missions and needs overlapped.

“An integrated modernization program could result in cost savings to the government as well as sharper focus on the security mission,” Mr. Cox said at a May 2004 hearing. “It is imperative, in the event of an attack, that there be seamless coordination of efforts among these agencies.”

CBP’s Air and Marine Division, headed by Assistant Commissioner Michael C. Kostelnik, a retired U.S. Air Force major general, consists of more than 700 pilots; 270 aircraft, including fixed wing, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles; and 130 mariners, with 200 boats, including high-speed interdiction vessels.

CBP air and marine agents last year seized more that 87,000 pounds of cocaine, 307,000 pounds of marijuana and made 1,200 arrests.

Not without risks

The job is not without its risks and, sometimes, severe consequences.

Since April 2007, three air and marine interdiction pilots — Clinton B. Thrasher, 32; Robert Smith, 46; and Julio E. Baray, 39 — have been killed in the line of duty, all along the Southwest border and all as the result of air crashes. They left behind three widows and six young children.

Marine Enforcement Agent Brandon Snader, who joined CBP six years ago after an eight-year career in the Coast Guard, said the dangers of the job are mitigated through the training each agent is required to complete.

But each day, he said, he never knows what is going to happen in the line of duty, and that keeps him motivated. The high-intensity nature of the job is itself a major factor in overcoming the dangers the agents are likely to face, he said.

“When you are in a chase, it’s like you are on autopilot. It all becomes second nature. There is not a lot going through my mind, but I am hyper-aware of the circumstances,” he said. “I’ve never thought about being scared during the actual chase. Afterwards, I think about the danger of it all, but I don’t feel fear at the time; it’s a normal biological reaction.

Said Mr. Snader: “There is no greater job on the planet. We are making a difference.”

The CBP marine agents like Mr. Snader man a variety of boats on the open sea and along the nation’s coastline, including the most powerful boat in the CBP’s air and marine fleet and the fastest law-enforcement vessel in the world: the Interceptor Class 39-foot Midnight Express, which can travel at speeds in excess of 70 mph.

The agents often are face to face with suspected criminals smuggling both drugs and people into the U.S., although Marine Interdiction Agent Thomas Molloy said he has never been fired on nor does he know of any fellow agent who has. On the job for the past 6 1/2 years, he said crashes during high-speed chases are more common.

It’s 5:20 p.m.

Air Enforcement Agent Andrew Bruner, operating a radar aboard the Dash 8 aircraft that took off 20 minutes earlier from Homestead, spots a small boat with some of the characteristics of the smuggling craft for which the agents are searching.

Over his headset, Mr. Bruner gives directions and calls out coordinates to the pilots so they can make adjustments to use a camera to look more carefully at the vessel. There is a constant back-and-forth between the pilots and radar operators about where to go and which boat to watch.

From 14 miles away, the radar operators zoom the camera in on the boat. The Dash 8 is at an altitude high enough that the boaters do not realize a plane is above them or that it is targeting them.

What are the agents looking for? Anything that might be suspicious — a large number of fuel cans, a lack of fishing gear aboard a fishing boat, tarps that could be used to conceal drugs or people. Sometimes, the agents said, the smugglers don’t even cover up the drugs.

But this boat, bouncing as it speeds over the waves, doesn’t appear to be heavily weighted, so the agents let it go.

During the four hours of patrol, other boats pique the interest of the radar operators. Each is sorted, identified and cleared. “No bad guys tonight,” Mr. Bruner said softly over the headset as the pilots turn the Dash 8 back toward the base.

Twilight begins to settle, and the sky quickly turns dark. The pilots had flown the aircraft east and south, and the radar operators had searched widely over the waters near the Bahamas and the eastern and southern coasts of Florida.

Nights like this, when no one is caught or spotted, are not uncommon.

When an agent spots a boat that meets the criteria or looks suspicious, an entire layered process begins for interdiction. One of the pilots calls the command center, which dispatches interdiction boats. Communications between the aircraft and the boats begin immediately and, according to Mr. Bruner, the interdiction boats start to track and follow the targeted vessel.

Once a chase begins, the radar operators track every boat in the area for safety reasons and make sure the aircraft’s camera records everything that happens.

When the agents encounter the targeted boat, Mr. Bruner said, overwhelming force is key to the interdiction and apprehension. That force would include agents bearing pistols and M-4 assault rifles and a Blackhawk helicopter deployed overhead.

“It would not behoove them to have a gun or to try to use violent tactics against us, and they realize that,” said Mr. Snader. “There is no reason they will win [during an interdiction]. It’s a losing battle.”

In 2002, the use of disabling fire - the firing of bullets into the boat’s engine to stop a fleeing vessel - was approved. Since then, the agents say, the use of disabling fire has been 100 percent successful and, according to CBP Senior Special Agent Zachary Mann, every targeted boat has been stopped and there have been no injuries.

The agents said the interdiction process provides safety for the agents, the public and the smugglers.


CBP interdiction agents said in recent months they have encountered and stopped more smugglers involved in transporting illegal immigrants, mainly Cubans, to the United States than drugs. They called the expanded smuggling venture “an extremely lucrative and recently flourishing business.”

They said smugglers charge up to $10,000 per head for a ride north and the numbers of Cubans migrating are at their highest rates since the 1960s. Air and Marine Division agents said they have seen smugglers crash their boats on beaches during high-speed chases so their cargo of Cuban immigrants would be considered on land and therefore able to stay in the United States.

Under the “wet foot/dry foot” policy in place since 1995, Cubans who reach U.S. land are allowed to stay in the country and pursue permanent residency a year and a day after arrival. Those interdicted and captured at sea are returned to Cuba.

Last year, 2,861 Cubans were intercepted crossing the Straits of Florida between South Florida and the Bahamas, according to Coast Guard figures. Another 4,825 who crossed by boat reached land and applied for residency.

Transit zones

In addition to the aircraft used by CBP’s Miami Air and Marine Division, the agency also has a fleet of P-3 aircraft at its Jacksonville, Fla., operations center and a facility in Corpus Christi, Texas.

They are deployed farther offshore and on longer-range patrols than the Dash 8 in the so-called transit zones smugglers use off the coasts of Central America and South America. The P-3 crews are deployed on six- to nine-day detachments in these areas.

The aircraft include two models, a Lockheed Orion P-3B Airborne Early Warning and a Lockheed Orion P-3 Long Range Tracker, which work in tandem to detect and track would-be smugglers. The AEW’s radar can cover an area of the ocean the size of Pennsylvania, a space whose vastness Ricky G. High, director of the Jacksonville operations center, said makes it very tough to patrol.

Mr. High said one of the biggest problems in tracking smugglers is that they constantly change tactics, using “go-fast boats,” then switching to fishing boats. He said they also have begun to use semi-submersible boats that resemble submarines and are extremely hard to detect.

For the interdiction agents to be successful, he said, it is “all about being reactionary, to be ready to catch them and morph when they do - to figure out how to defeat that.”

Once a target boat is spotted, Mr. High said, the P-3 aircraft will most often work with Coast Guard or Navy ships, but that closer to shore, they work with CBP’s Midnight Express interdiction boats.

Smugglers often will throw their load of drugs overboard once they realize agents are coming in to interdict, he said. Other times, the smugglers set their boats on fire, resulting in a rescue mission they hope will buy more time for their drugs to burn because they know the Coast Guard will first seek to save those in the water.

Still others, he said, have crashed their boats into the Coast Guard vessels hoping to sink themselves and the drugs they are carrying.

Interdiction numbers vary and are extremely unpredictable month to month, so there is no way to count an average number per month. Mr. Mann said there are times when not a single boat is interdicted and other times when two or three are stopped on the same day. It’s “feast or famine,” he said, noting that in the past two months, CBP Marine agents in Miami made six successful interdictions.

So is the United States winning the war on drugs by beating the smugglers?

“I don’t think we’re ever going to stop all of them,” said Mr. Snader. “We’re not beating them. The smugglers’ revenues and resources are never-ending. We help stem and slow the flow.”

John Miller, a Border Patrol agent for 12 years who joined CBP Air and Marine a year ago, said there would be a huge difference in the amount of narcotics coming into the United States if the agency did not patrol the nation’s coastline and waters.

“We are definitely keeping the drug smugglers on their toes,” Mr. Miller said.

Mr. Mann is more optimistic: “We are staying on top of the technology [the smugglers] have - they don’t know where we are or that we are watching them. We are on the winning side of the long-term battle.”

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