Firing on Drug Boats

Despite New Resolve, U.S. Lacks Firepower In Drug War

By David Abel  |  Defense Week  |  9/20/1999

WASHINGTON -- On a bright August day somewhere in the Caribbean, the pilot of a Coast Guard Falcon eyed the telltale mark of what now accounts for about 85 percent of drug runners' means of ferrying their cargo by sea to the United States: a sleek, ocean-going speedboat carving a swath of white in the great glassy blue.

Two Coast Guard helicopters were dispatched from a nearby cutter and quickly confirmed other obvious signs of smuggling on the boat's open deck: barrels of fuel, apparent bales of marijuana and no national flags. When Spanish-speaking agents hailed the men on the boat, the suspects increased their speed.

So the agents employed newly approved measures that the Coast Guard has not used since the days of Prohibition: firing on boats from aircraft.

First, they tried to stall the engine with a motor-entangling contraption. Then they dropped a rubber-bullet grenade. Still not stopping the suspects, the agents fired about 100 rounds from an M240 machine gun, warning shots over the bow. Even that wouldn't halt the boat.

So a sharpshooter aboard one of the helicopters, with approval from the Coast Guard commandant, fired four shots from a .50-caliber rifle and destroyed the speedboat's two Yamaha outboard engines. The result: three arrests, 2,200 pounds of marijuana and 5 gallons of hashish oil confiscated.

Despite the Coast Guard's new policy, which has been in effect since the spring, the August seizure was one of only four successful interdiction missions the United States has launched against increasingly crafty traffickers using "go-fast" boats.

Drug runners in the hard-to-detect speedboats now make about 400 trips per year from South America to the United States, according to Coast Guard estimates. But between July 1998 and July 1999, U.S. law-enforcement officers only boarded 16 of the powerful boats.

"They're very difficult to detect," said Cmdr. Michael Emerson, the chief of the Coast Guard's anti-drug division. "And part of the problem is that we can't even respond to everything we do detect."

Because of a limit on the number of ships and aircraft, Coast Guard and Navy boats were able to pursue only about 50 of 66 suspect speedboats detected between July 1998 and July 1999, according to the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy. Furthermore, because of the speedboats low visual signature and radar-foiling tactics, U.S. anti-drug forces can detect only a fraction of the boats dashing to the United States.

Although the Coast Guard bemoans its $500 million anti-drug budget, which is padded by support from the military and other federal agencies, Congress awarded the service an additional $270 million in fiscal 1999 to improve radar, aircraft and increase coverage of transit zones. And while the Coast Guard says that's still insufficient to really clamp down on maritime drug traffic, critics say the nation is wasting its time and resources trying to halt the artful smugglers.

"Putting too much effort trying to interdict at our borders is a losing battle in itself," said Whitney Taylor, an analyst at The Drug Policy Foundation, a nonprofit group in Washington opposed to current drug policy. "There's no way to keep the drugs out of this country unless there's people standing shoulder to shoulder. We can't even keep drugs out of our prisons."

And as far as escalating the war on drugs by shooting suspect speedboats from helicopters, Taylor and other analysts say it's a risky policy that could leave unintended victims or invite a response from miffed traffickers.

"Where does it stop?" Taylor said. "Border patrols could get caught shooting civilians. How long will it be for the drug smugglers until they start shooting back? You're just asking the drug smugglers to arm themselves even more."

For their part, Coast Guard officials say they have very strict protocol over when a gunner is authorized to shoot. They say they only fire while pursuing fleeing drug runners who otherwise won't stop, and they take precautions to protect against return fire.

Furthermore, they argue the new policy is merely a common-sense measure to deter the growing glut of go-fasts, which have doubled in number since 1996, according to the White House's anti-drug office.

"Up to this point go-fasts have basically operated with impunity," said Capt. Gary Palmer, a Coast Guard liaison officer to the White House. "Smugglers will exploit whatever weaknesses we have. But in this area we have made a conscious decision not to be ineffective anymore."

While overall drug use in the United States is down, demand has increased for drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine and has remained consistent for cocaine.

Moreover, supply to the United States is increasing. In 1998, U.S. intelligence agencies detected 541 metric tons of cocaine shipped to the United States from South America, an increase by 110 metric tons from 1997, according to the White House anti-drug office.

Although the new measures may only make a dent in the incoming supply-only about 30 percent of all drug traffic to the United States passes through the Caribbean-Coast Guard officials tout their new get-tough strategy, which has so far netted 13 arrests and 2,600 pounds of drugs.

The go-fast boats, which travel at speeds of up to 70 miles an hour and cross the Caribbean in about 40 hours, represent an increasing threat that all too easily slips past U.S. defenses. And anti-drug officials say while efforts remain focused on defending other regions and further blunting demand for drugs, it's time to send go-fast runners a message.

"The priority remains reducing demand," said an aide to retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the director of the White House's anti-drug office. "But you can't ignore the supply side. It catches up with you after a while. That's why it's important to stop the go-fasts."

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