Far from home, Coast Guard on prowl against drugs

Written by
Jeanette Steele
noon, Feb. 26, 2012

It was night on the Eastern Pacific, about 230 miles off the coast of Ecuador.

A U.S. Coast Guard cutter, far from its San Diego home, lurked out of sight of a suspicious fishing trawler.

Quietly, the crew of the cutter Boutwell put two small boats into the water. They sneaked over the horizon toward the trawler, video cameras on. Close. Closer.

Pay dirt. Square packages were visible on the deck of the trawler. And those packages didn’t contain fish.

This late November raid netted 2,200 pounds of uncut cocaine bound by water for Mexico. From there, it would have traveled overland to the streets of Southern California.

Far from the U.S. border, a week’s sail from Point Loma, two San Diego-based Coast Guard cutters regularly work off the western coast of South America to play a part in the long-running war against drugs.

The 165-person Boutwell returned in mid-December from a 60-day deployment near the equator. It’s a job that the Coast Guard, despite a fleet of mostly aging long-distance cutters, continues to fill while the post-9/11 wars have drawn U.S. military resources elsewhere.

The two large San Diego cutters, Boutwell and Sherman, each deploy to the region twice or three times a year for patrols that last 30 to 60 days. Three more from Alameda do the same work, in addition to cutters from elsewhere in the Pacific and even the East Coast.

San Diego’s Navy also contributes to this little-discussed law enforcement mission. In early January, the frigate McClusky departed for a tour to the Eastern Pacific. Last February, the frigate Jarrett came back from one. They take small Coast Guard contingents for when it comes time for arrests and other policing work.

It’s not a cheap effort. The Boutwell costs $6,000 an hour to operate, considering fuel, maintenance and crew pay. The Coast Guard’s proposed 2013 budget for drug interdiction is $1.1 billion, the third-highest line item after protecting the coastline and providing navigation aids.

The western shore of Ecuador is a long way from U.S. borders. Yet Coast Guard officials and others say the white-and-orange cutters do some of the most important anti-drug work there, where the cocaine moves in 60-pound bundles and a big bust does damage.

“It is much better, easier, cost effective to catch the drugs in large quantities as close to the source as possible, as opposed to trying to catch the drugs when they enter the U.S. at a land or sea border,” said Peter Nunez, a former U.S. attorney for San Diego.

Capt. Matthew Gimple, the Boutwell’s skipper, has conducted seven anti-drug patrols to the Eastern Pacific in his career, on four different vessels.

“The concept is we’re pushing that maritime boundary out there as far as we can, away from our shores,” Gimple said. “It is an exciting mission. You get to go down there and do some things that many people in the country don’t realize the Coast Guard gets to do.”

Critics of American policy say the effort to halt the narcotics flow into the United States will always be somewhat futile as long as Americans still want to buy drugs.

“It’s quite evident that supply interdiction is not working. The drug trade has not shrunk; the profits have not gone away,” said Peter Chalk, a senior RAND Corp. researcher who authored a 2011 report on the Latin America drug trade. “If anything, the number of players and the number of trafficking routes have expanded.”

The U.S. effort to halt the flow of cocaine from the fields of Colombia has changed locales over the years, according to experts, including a history of the fight by National Defense University.

Most experts say the modern war on drugs started in the 1980s in Miami, when Colombian cartels swamped the city with drugs and violence. By 1982, roughly 70 percent of the marijuana and cocaine that entered the United States came through South Florida.

Law enforcement officials decided they needed sophisticated hardware to fight back. They looked to the ships and aircraft operated by American military. In 1981, U.S. law was changed to allow the Defense Department to assist civilian agencies and the Coast Guard.

By 1986, drug-trafficking was declared a national security threat, and in 1989 the U.S. established military-led joint task forces to watch sections of the border.

The clampdown in the Caribbean worked so well that drug runners switched coasts. In the late 1990s, 30 percent of narcotics went through the eastern Pacific. By 2003, it was 60 percent.

Until 2006, deepwater fishing boats were the favored vessels. They had good navigation equipment and lots of room. But successful policing by U.S.-led law enforcement compelled smugglers to break up their shipments, according to the RAND report.

What the Boutwell saw on its recent tour was typical.

Fishing trawlers serve as “mother ships” for small boats souped-up with multiple outboard engines and top speeds of 70 mph. These “go-fast” boats operate hundreds of miles off the western coast of South America to avoid detection. They skip between mother ships, where they pick up fuel.

To avoid detection, clever drug runners have also turned to submarine-like vessels that move several yards below the water surface. Only their towers show.

Despite successes, the U.S. multiagency drug interdiction effort isn’t meeting benchmarks.

By 2015, national drug policy calls for disruption of 40 percent of Latin American cocaine moving to the United States. Efforts have fallen slightly short of expected targets each year since 2007, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy cited aging equipment — including Coast Guard vessels — the redirection of military efforts to the post-9/11 wars and budget constraints.

The Boutwell, a 44-year-old cutter, saw its own limitations this winter.

On Nov. 3, it intercepted an Ecuadorean fishing boat near the Galapagos Islands. The scene looked suspicious. Upon approach, the Coast Guard boarding team saw the “fishermen” throwing bundles overboard.

The Boutwell calculates that 1,300 pounds of drugs splashed into the water. But without that proof, they had to let the fishing boat go.

The cutter lurked nearby until the next day, when its small boats ran off a go-fast boat trying to rendezvous with that same fishing vessel.

But the Boutwell was running out of gas. The cutter was forced to leave the scene to refuel. It was frustrating for the crew, who wanted to catch the smugglers in the act.

“But, in the end, you know that’s X kilograms of drugs that aren’t going to get to the United States,” Gimple said. “And whatever we did, we just made their day worse than the day we had.”

Coast Guard Commandant Bob Papp is pushing for construction of more National Security Cutters, the new class of ship that will replace the Boutwell and Sherman and the remaining vintage cutters built in the Vietnam War era. The new ships are faster, more fuel efficient, which means they can stay out on patrol longer, and can carry two aircraft instead of one.

“Coast Guardsmen require modern ships capable of independently operating on the high seas to perform missions like drug interdiction,” Papp said Thursday, in his State of the Coast Guard address. “These cutters enable us to stop multi-ton loads of pure cocaine before they reach our shores.”

In the 2013 budget, there’s $658 million to build the sixth National Security Cutter. (The first three are stationed in Alameda. They occasionally stop at San Diego’s 10th Avenue Marine Terminal for refueling and to do training.)

But after No. 6, there will be a “pause” before possible construction of the final two of the eight-ship class, according Defense Daily. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano cited budget constraints as well as the need to examine how these cutters fit with the Navy’s shipbuilding plans.

The Coast Guard decommissioned two veteran San Diego cutters last year, the Chase and the Hamilton, selling one to the Philippines and the other to Nigeria. There’s no retirement date in sight for Boutwell.

The skipper says he’ll continue to try to balance the need to maintain the ship with time necessary to keep his crew trained.

The cutter’s last trip to South American was cut a week short because of mechanical problems.

Far from home, Coast Guard on prowl against drugs | UTSanDiego.com