COCAINE SEIZURES SET RECORD
MIAMI -- Senior officials with the U.S. Coast Guard, which last year seized more cocaine in waters south of here than any other year in the agency's history, say they receive more intelligence on drug smuggling than they can act on.
"We have a certain finite amount of resources," said Rear Adm. D. Brian Peterman, commander of the Coast Guard's 7th District, which oversees the agency's operations in what officials call the drug "transit zone" of the Caribbean and waters off the coasts of Colombia.
With a higher level of importance placed on terrorism threats since being shifted to the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, the Coast Guard has fewer resources to investigate intelligence generated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and others.
Officials say the bulk of the intelligence comes from Operation Panama Express, a joint investigative effort by the DEA, FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and others based in Tampa, Fla. The effort involves analyzing tips and feeding them to U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships.
Operation Panama Express also has led to key evidence for prosecuting major Colombian drug cartel bosses extradited to the United States for trial in recent years. Since the operation grew out of an ICE investigation of the cartels five years ago, it has produced many informants leading to the increased smuggling intelligence.
U.S. officials say the result has been a steady rise in cocaine intercepted from speedboats. According to the most recent statistics of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, more than 157 metric tons were seized in the transit zone in 2003 compared with a 113 metric-ton annual average between 1998 and 2002.
DEA and Coast Guard statistics show seizure numbers are on the rise again this year. Additionally, Colombian officials, who confiscated 13.8 tons -- upward of $230 million worth -- of pure cocaine in a record-setting single seizure this month, are showing signs of an increase.
But U.S. officials are split on why.
While the official line from the DEA, ICE and the Coast Guard is that the increase is a result of their doing a better job through improved coordination and intelligence gathering, several senior counternarcotics officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the explanation is
simpler: The drug smugglers have gotten careless.
"They're just wicked sloppy now, that's all it is," said one official, adding that Colombian drug cartels have in recent years been taken over by younger, more flagrant, bosses, compared with their predecessors in the 1980s.
The Coast Guard has emerged as a leader for capturing drug-smuggling speedboats because of its versatile patrol ships and helicopters. The agency, which is not bound by the same law-enforcement rules as the Defense Department, also puts small, tactical law-enforcement teams aboard foreign and U.S. Navy ships to conduct drug seizures.
Like other agencies under the Homeland Security umbrella, the Coast Guard is receiving more funding -- this year's budget for the agency is about
$7.5 billion, up from $7 billion in 2004. Next year's requested budget tops
But the shift to Homeland Security also means counternarcotics operations take a back seat in the overall mission of protecting borders from terrorist threats. The agency's resources are forced to operate on a "multimission" basis, said Adm. Peterman.
"When you have a go-fast boat going to the United States, you don't know if you've got a [weapon of mass destruction] or drugs," he said.