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In war with drug traffickers, Coast Guard stretched thin

October 18, 2014 (Photo Credit: MCPO Sean C. Benton/Coast Guard)

While the world focuses on conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the Coast Guard and its U.S. Southern Command partners are looking west.

Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft addressed an audience Oct. 7 at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., along with SOUTHCOM boss Gen. John Kelly, discussing his service's recently released Western Hemisphere Strategy and the joint effort needed to combat illegal trafficking and other threats on this side of the world.

America's government has its attention on Afghanistan, the Islamic State group, tensions in the East and South China Seas, the Ebola epidemic and Russian President Vladimir Putin's aggression, Zukunft said, but "what you don't pay attention to is what we're looking at right now in the Western Hemisphere."

The strategy focuses on three key areas: combating networks, securing borders and safeguarding commerce over the next 10 years. In colloquial terms, the Coast Guard describes them as offense, defense and special teams strategies.

The networks are mostly drug- and human-trafficking related, Zukunft said, adding they could begin to collude with terrorist groups, as organizations like al-Qaida use the money from drug sales to fund their activities.

And, he added, terrorist tactics close to home are more common than you might think.

"Quite honestly — as brutal as beheadings are, as we've seen what ISIL has been doing — this is a tried and true tactic for over a decade now in this very same hemisphere," he said. "Some of what we've seen, which is very much an away game in the Middle East, I see as a home game here."

In order to combat these threats, Kelly said, it's going to take a joint effort from the Coast Guard, SOUTHCOM, the State Department, Homeland Security Department and allied countries.

Fighting the networks

Though much of the Coast Guard's work involves reacting to events, when it comes to drug trafficking, they're on the offense.

Some 400 metric tons of cocaine cross U.S. borders every year — a drug trade valued at tens of billions of dollars, Zukunft said. Once upon a time, Coast Guard cutters would post a watch and wait for drug boats to get close, but now, there's enough technology to detect them as they approach.

The only problem: There aren't enough ships and airplanes to catch them all.

"We have an awareness of 80 percent, but we can only target 20 percent," Zukunft said. "We're giving 60 percent of what we know, literally, a free pass."

Unfortunately, he added, despite efforts from the drug-manufacturing countries and public health awareness in the U.S., governments aren't able to stop the flow of drugs from places like Peru, Colombia and Bolivia, and Americans aren't slowing the drug use that fuels this illicit trade.

"That drug demand feeds this problem," he said. "They're not really consumer nations. It just passes through them."

However, by cooperating with those countries' governments, the Coast Guard and SOUTHCOM are working to keep the drugs from leaving their countries of origin.

"It takes a network to defeat a network," according to the strategy.

Places like Brazil, the hemisphere's second largest cocaine market, have signed agreements with the U.S. and their drug-producing neighbor countries to share law enforcement information and responsibilities.

"I would offer to you that in the two years I've been in the job I have found — with the exception of a few countries — every country wants to have a relationship with the United States military and certainly the United States Coast Guard," Kelly said.

Once the boats are launched, Zukunft added, the Coast Guard is still in a good position to interdict them.

"Most of this commodity is moved by boat, at sea, and it gets very lonely," he said. "They have very few allies at sea, and that's where we do have the upper hand."

The Western Hemisphere Strategy is not an implementation plan, however, but a series of goals the Coast Guard will pursue with its southern allies.

"We know where you're at, and we're going to come and get you," he said. "Not just to take the drugs, but to prosecute either in the U.S. or in your country of origin."

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