For the last 227 years, the U.S. Coast Guard has remained always ready to defend and secure our nation's coastlines. For the last couple decades, however, the Coast Guard has pushed its boundaries out further, taking more aggressive stabs at the flow of South American drugs that, eventually, make their way into the U.S.
The fact is that narcotics will make their way to wherever people will buy them and, in the case of cocaine, the U.S. is happy to spend. According to The Washington Post, just shy of a million people tried cocaine for the first time in 2015.
Couple that stat with the fact that 90% of cocaine used in the U.S. comes from Colombia, and you've got yourself a bustling drug railroad.
The problem is that international borders are tricky for smugglers and there are quite a few between Colombia and the U.S. So, cartels often opt to take the path of least resistance, which extends out into the Pacific Ocean.
A Coast Guard Cutter Stratton boarding team seizes cocaine bales from a self-propelled semi-submersible. (Coast Guard photo courtesy of Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone.)
Cartels moving product north go to sea, trying to sail under the radar of the U.S. Coast Guard—and the odds of getting through aren't so bad. Despite the fact that the Coast Guard has seized almost 500,000lbs of cocaine over the past year, it's logistically impossible to keep all 6 million square miles of patrolled sea clean.
"I simply sit and watch it go by," lamented Gen. John Kelly in 2014, then head of the Southern Command. Despite the fact that the U.S. Coast Guard seizes hundreds of millions of dollars worth of the drug, Gen. Kelly estimated that, because of resource limitations, the USCG stops just a quarter of trafficking.
Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 12, 2015. (DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Hinton)
So, who's moving these mountains of coke? In many cases, they're men from small fishing villages looking to support their families when times are tough. In their regular lives, they have little to do with drugs, but moving product makes a lot more money than selling the day's catch. These fisherman are approached by cartel representatives and asked to do a week's worth of work to pull in three or four times their normal annual salary—high risk, high reward.
Unfortunately for these men, the U.S. Coast Guard has played a huge role in the ongoing war on drugs. In 1986, the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act was passed, which defined smuggling drugs through international waters as a crime against the United States. This enabled the Coast Guard, the only branch of the US military that doubles as a law enforcement agency, to take the battle into foreign waters—and it's been a winning strategy.
In the 1990s, the USCG detained roughly 200 men per year in waters beyond the U.S. Between Sept. 2016 and Sept. 2017, the USCG detained more than 700.
The Coast Guard Cutter Stratton crew is shown with cocaine bales seized from a self-propelled semi-submersible interdicted in international waters off the coast of Central America, July 19, 2015. The Coast Guard recovered more than 6 tons of cocaine from the 40-foot vessel. (Coast Guard photo courtesy of Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone)
Drug cartels are notoriously elusive, so every fragment of intel against them is important. This means that every trafficker is to be charged, sentenced, and questioned on U.S. soil, no matter how small their involvement.
A New York Times Magazine story found that those detained at sea might find themselves aboard various Coast Guard cutters for upwards of ninety days, shackled and fed meager amounts, until transport can be arranged to get them to, in most cases, Florida.
For these captives, due process doesn't start until they're formally arrested, which doesn't happen until the ship makes port. Some challenge these practices, citing violation of human rights, but the U.S. Coast Guard stands firm in their belief that anyone detained is being adequately fed and sheltered during their lengthy transfers.
Fighting the war on drugs can be an ugly business and, sometimes, those caught in the crossfire are just looking to make a buck for their families. But, as Gen. Kelly said, "we are a nation under attack" from these cartels and defending our coasts is exactly what the Coast Guard does best.