Spending Cuts Devastate Cocaine Interdiction


WASHINGTON – Sequestration spending cuts are letting 38 more metric tons of cocaine into the United States, the director of the Joint Interagency Task Force South said May 22.

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Charles D. Michel told the Defense Writers Group that sequestration is devastating his cocaine interdiction effort.

Michel’s task force targets cocaine -- an $85 billion-a-year malevolent industry. The drug is made in only three countries -- Colombia, Peru and Bolivia -- and the United States is its biggest market. The three countries produce about 1,200 metric tons of cocaine a year, with roughly 500 metric tons going to the United States.

Last year, the command interdicted or disrupted about a third of cocaine shipments to the United States. This year, Michel said, he expects cocaine interdictions to drop between 20 and 25 percent.

The primary reason for the decreased interdiction is a lack of capabilities, the admiral said.

“It breaks my heart to see multi-metric-ton cocaine shipments go by that we know are there and we don’t have a ship to target it,” he said. “Once it gets on land, it becomes almost impossible to police up.”

The task force looks to U.S. Southern Command for support, and that has “always been an economy-of-force theater,” Michel noted. Still, he said, ships and aircraft were devoted to the mission in the past.

“With sequestration, as well as other Department of Defense cuts, those resources become scarcer,” he said. At his interagency group based in Key West, Fla., resources have been on a “multi-, multiyear downward trend,” Michel said -- doubling the prefix to illustrate the length of the trend -- “particularly for aircraft and vessels.”

On the U.S. side, aircraft come from the Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection. Vessels come from the Coast Guard and the Navy. International partners -- Brazil, Canada, Mexico, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and others -- provide vessels to work with the task force.

“There is more intelligence out there on the movement of cocaine than there are surface vessels to interdict this product,” Michel said.

The scope of the area and mission are daunting. The area goes across five combatant commands’ geographic areas and is 12 times the size of the continental United States.

“Right now … on any given day, I’d estimate that for U.S. capital ships I have about three or four,” he said. The same is true of major aircraft assets such as P-3 Orions.

“Go back 20 years and we would have multiple times the number of ships and aircraft,” he said, though he noted that ships and planes were far less capable then.

“It is difficult to resource this mission set, and sequestration has been devastating to it,” he said. “At one point, it looked like the mission would receive no Navy ships.”

Law enforcement agencies cannot duplicate the Defense Department’s capabilities, the admiral said. They don’t have anti-submarine warfare capability, they have little capability to board a semi-submersible vessel or radar systems to detect aircraft, he added.

The drug networks have all of these capabilities and more, he said.

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