Tons of cocaine entering U.S. due to sequestration cuts, rear admiral says

Thursday - 6/6/2013, 11:38am EDT

Rear Admiral Charles Michel, director, Joint Interagency Task Force South

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The Coast Guard is most visible when it performs daring sea rescues. Less visible is the work it does to stop cocaine and other illegal drugs from coming into the United States.

But sequestration might be harming that mission, according to Coast Guard Rear Adm. Charles Michel, director of the Joint Interagency Task Force South. He estimated a lack of resources due to sequestration cuts would let an additional 38 metric tons of cocaine into the U.S.

"That's our projected estimate if we don't get the re-establishment of surface vessels from the Navy and the Coast Guard," he told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp recently.

He says that 38 tons means an additional $1 billion in profits for drug dealers.

"The amount of cocaine ... is more than all the cocaine than was seized last year within the borders of the United States by all the law enforcement agencies — federal, state, local and tribal — just that increment, 38 metric tons, from sequestration cuts," Michel said.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Charles Michel, director, Joint Interagency Task Force South

Sequestration cuts are affecting the operating costs of ships in both the Navy and the Coast Guard.

"Each ship that is assigned to me from the Navy or the Coast Guard for a year averages about 20 metric tons of cocaine," Michel said. "So, with the reduction of ships provided to me from the Navy and the Coast Guard, even if I know that the drug shipments are out there and even if they're multi-ton in nature, there's nothing I can do about it if I'm not able to get boarding officers over onto those vessels."

Michel said that on almost a daily basis the task force is aware of drug shipments that it is unable to intercept due to a lack of vessels.

"It breaks my heart to watch these multi-metric-ton loads of cocaine go by," Michel said. "But, if I don't have a ship out there, I can't get it. The heartbreaking part is once those vessels land on land, typically in Central America, the cocaine is broken down into very small packages and becomes almost impossible to police up. So, our one best shot at getting these is to get them while they're out on the water. And to do that, we have to have ships."

Michel said the sequestration cuts are impacting the task force's efforts in other ways as well.

"It's hitting our law enforcement partners who work here at the task force — FBI, DEA, Homeland Security investigations, ICE," he said. "All the law enforcement partners are also being hit, which deals with our intelligence capabilities and the way that we're able to actually find these vessels at sea. So it's across-the-board for us."

The task force's signature operation is called Operation Martio, which is the first whole-of-region effort drawing on air, land, maritime and cyber resources on a persistent basis. The task force works with nearly every country in the western hemisphere.

"The international cooperation has never been better than what we've had down here," Michel said. "But our adversary, on the other side, has never been better. They actually have the ability now to operate diesel-electric submarines that go from Ecuador to Los Angeles unfueled, carrying 7 to 10 metric tons of anything that you want. So, while we get better, our adversary gets better as well."

Cocaine is grown in just three countries — Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.

"Unlike other drugs, that's the only place that it comes from," Michel said. "So, what ends up happening is they have to ship it by maritime or air means at some point during its journey because of the geography of getting things from South America up to its number one market, which is the United States. Once those vessels and aircraft take to the skies or on the water, they expose themselves to our sensors so that we can actually track those things. But, unfortunately, if you don't have ships to be able to board the vessels out there, they go right on by."

Because of the sequestration cuts, the task force has to compete with the Navy and Coast Guard's other missions for limited resources.

"It's a question of resources that are necessary to do these problems," he said. "Sequestration does not help by eliminating the operating resources for vessels that might otherwise be available for use down here."