[Corrected drug submersible range] WASHINGTON: The automatic, across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration will reduce the Coast Guard and Navy forces available to intercept South American cocaine to record lows, said Rear Adm. Charles Michel, the Coast Guard two-star who commands Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF-South). The result? “The sequestration cuts in aircraft and ships that are given to me will result in 38 metric tons additional of cocaine [entering the US],” Michel estimated.
For comparison, JIATF-South seized 152 tons in all of 2012, so losing 38 tons would be a 25 percent reduction in seizures. At current street prices, he added, “It’s over a billion dollars in trafficker profits.”
Those missing 38 tons don’t just mean strung-out Americans: “All that’s going to get dumped into Mexico and Central America on the way to the United States,” he added, further destabilizing countries with sky-high murder rates.
The fundamental problem predates the sequester. US Coast Guard and Navy resources dedicated to drug interdiction have been declining for “the last couple of decades,” ever since their “War on Drugs” peak, Michel told reporters at Defense Writers’ Group breakfast. During those decades there’s been progress, especially in Colombia, which produces an estimated up to 97 percent of all cocaine sold in the United States. But the narcotraficantes who survived have become much more sophisticated, advancing from the “go-fast” speedboats of the Miami Vice era, to “semi-submersible” craft barely visible above the surface of the water, to fully submersible submarines. As a result, even before the sequester hit, the rate at which the US and its foreign partners in JIATF-South intercept drug shipments has been on a long-term downward slope.
When the then-chief of US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), Air Force Gen. Doug Fraser, spoke to the Defense Writers’ Group last year, he estimated that his subordinates in JIATF-South were only able to intercept about 33 percent of the drug shipments they knew about and were able to track. But that was through the end of 2011. “Last year  we were somewhere around the upper 20 percent,” said Rear Adm. Michel this morning. “This year , it’s probably more likely to be between 20 and 25 percent of the known cocaine flows into the United States, so the number’s actually going down… although the final statistics are not in.”
“The primary reason is the lack of surface vessels,” Michel said. “There’s actually more intelligence out there on the movement of cocaine than there are surface vessels to go interdict.” (Someone once told him this obviously means JIATF-South has too many intelligence assets and should give some up: “Give me a break,” Michel groaned). “Last year we had an average of eight [Navy and Coast Guard] surface vessels,” he said. By the end of this year, with the sequestration cuts, he said, “we’re going to see less than half that”: several Coast Guard cutters and, at most, a single Navy frigate.
“It breaks my heart when we see multi-metric ton loads of cocaine go by and I don’t have the ships to target it,” Michel said. “Once it gets on the land it becomes almost imposible to police up.” While JIATF-South seized 152 tons of cocaine last year, law enforcement on the borders only seized 26, and all law enforcement within the US seized 36.
“The beauty of getting out on the water is you get much closer to the head of the snake,” Michel said. “It’s much more efficient,” because it intercepts drugs at the wholesale stage of the business.
The geostrategic pecularities of cocaine actually favor the United States. All production in the world comes from three countries, Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia, from which there is no way to easily ship drugs, or any product for that matter, to the US by land. The Pan-American highway actually has a gap in southern Panama amidst the nigh-impenetrable jungles of the legendary Darien. That forces drug traffickers to concentrate their product in large, multi-ton loads and move them by air or sea — which exposes them to sophisticated US sensors.
The problem is the smugglers have gone, not underground, but underwater. “It requires specific DoD [Defense Department] high-end capabilites to do the work against the semi-submersibles,” Michel said, let alone the true submarines. One drug sub seized in Ecuador was deemed capable of making a 6,800 nautical mile journey without ever surfacing, he said: “You’re not going to get that unless you have very sophisticated ASW [anti-submarine warfare] capabilities.” (Navy sub-hunting skills have actually been eroding since 9/11 over more than a decade of land wars).
Sub-hunters are not something US law enforcement agencies can provide, Michel said — nor most non-US militaries, for that matter. Latin American nations have the boats to intercept smugglers on the surface if someone tells them where to look, Michel said, but they mostly lack US-style reconnaissance aircraft, surveillance satellites, and signals interception capabilities. Without US help, he said, “most of the Central American countries are virtually blind.”
Stopping the trade on land is hard. US intelligence has dissected captured submarines trying to figure out some key component whose supply could be cut off, but in fact, “they can build it all from common parts, anything that’s available from the Colombian and Ecuadorian equivalent of Home Depot [and] down at the marina… wood and kevlar and fiberglass,” Michel said. “It isn’t constructed from a factory, [it doesn't] leave from a port.”
So how do you stop a drug-smuggling submarine, I asked the admiral after the breakfast broke up. As long as the so-called “war on drugs” is actually run under law enforcement rules, you can’t simply drop a depth charge on a sonar contact and sail away — but you can’t exactly put flashing lights on a nuclear attack submarine and have it order the drug sub to pull over, either. Michel didn’t want to give away any operational details, but from what he did divulge, it didn’t sound like there were many tricks of the trade to give away.
“I don’t want to go too much into the tactics,” Michel told me, “but we’re working on trying to figure out a non-deadly-force method of communicating with the submarine, and then getting it to surface, and arresting the individuals and collecting evidence.”
That sure makes it sound like no one has yet figured out a way of forcing a sub to surface without dropping a depth charge on it, which is illegal. Presumably any fully submersible vessels that have been captured must have been taken before or after they submerged, at the very beginning or end of their journeys. That, in turn, requires keep track of them en route.
Ultimately, however, Michel sees JIATF-South evolving from “taking down bad guys on the water” to the more comprehensive and sophisticated “network identification and attack” techniques that US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan developed to go after the makers and financiers of roadside bombs, rather than just sweeping up low-level bomb-emplacers and triggermen. Half of Michel’s staff is military, and “a lot of those military guys are coming back from the warzone,” he told reporters. “This is the same type of asymmetric warfare… directly convertible.”
Drug organizations have started seeding their cocoa fields with explosive booby traps — what have been known, since 2003, as IEDS, improvised explosive devices — to kill or maim anyone trying to clear fields by hand. And the US Drug Enforcement Agency recently broke up a plot by both retired and current senior officers of the military of Guinea-Bissau — “a true narco-state,” Michel said — to sell shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to Colombia’s FARC, a drug-funded insurgency.
International law and national strategy never anticipated that weapons like MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) and diesel submarines “would reside in anything other than a state,” Michel told me after the breakfast. “So we’re in a kind of brave new world, but that’s what you’ve got with transnational criminal organizations, you’ve got attributes of nation-states” because they’re so well-funded. (The military theory term for this lethal blend, where an elusive non-state network gets state-calibre weaponry, is “hybrid threats,” and they’re a subject of increasing high-level concern.)
If it can make it through the current budget crisis, JIATF-South intends to start using human intelligence, signals intercepts, radar, and new cyber capabilities — which Michel would only hint at, although he did say the US was “on the edge of something big” — to unravel drug networks all the way back to the kingpins. But, he said, the enemy is evolving too.
“They step their game up every time we step our game up,” Rear Adm. Michel said. “They are as innovative, creative, and ruthless as anyone I’ve ever seen…. They’re brilliant, evil people.”
Updated 6:20 pm to correct drug submersible range.