CBP marine interdiction agents patrol the waters off of the coast of Ponce, Puerto Rico. Photo by Glenn Fawcett
Out on the horizon, the tiny speck of what could be either a legal fishing boat or one carrying narcotics or illegal aliens appears off the coast of Puerto Rico. Moments later, a voice from a law enforcement partner in the air crackles over the radio on a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations Coastal Interceptor Vessel telling the interceptor’s crew members something’s not quite right about that boat. The vessel commander pushes his boat to full throttle, and the excitement builds as those on the interceptor don’t know what they will encounter. But they race across the waters, ready for whatever might await them on the other end.
“In the heat of the moment, you don’t think about it,” said Marine Interdiction Agent Osvaldo Crespo, who as a vessel commander, made many similar runs over the five years the 14-year veteran of CBP has been on the job in Puerto Rico. “Afterward, you might think about it, but when things are happening, it’s like coming off the sideline and into a football game,” running on training and muscle memory.
Agents like Crespo get some help from above: air assets in the form of helicopters and airplanes, such as the DHC-8 – more commonly known in Air and Marine Operations circles as the “Dash-8.”
“We’re trying to detect any small vessels coming with narcotics or aliens,” said Aviation Enforcement Agent Jose Hernandez, while patrolling in one of the Dash-8s. He monitors a radar screen and the window at his side to keep an eye out for anything out of the ordinary. When Hernandez is not in the airplane, he works the same position in a Black Hawk helicopter without the aid of a radar screen, keeping his eyes peeled. “It’s challenging. In the middle of the open ocean, it’s kind of like looking at an ink blob. We do what we can.”
An aviation enforcement agent onboard a DHC-8 aircraft alerts marine interdiction agents as he monitors a small boat carrying roughly 10 illegal immigrants between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Photo by Glenn Fawcett
Other supporting assets include a Coast Guard cutter, providing firepower and support to Air and Marine Operations boat crews. The Coast Guard’s larger vessels can more easily fight 6- to 8-foot Caribbean Sea swells to intercept suspected drug smugglers, which bring their deadly cargo either directly from South American shores or from a “mother ship” anchored miles away. In addition, the Coast Guard cutters can operate hundreds of miles from Puerto Rico in the rougher open sea, far exceeding the range of Air and Marine Operations’ watercraft, which are intended to operate within a dozen miles or so of land. While the Coast Guard operates further out, Air and Marine Operations vessels can more easily navigate the shallow waters when smugglers and traffickers get too close to shore for the larger cutters to operate. In addition, Air and Marine Operations’ more agile boats are better suited for many of the close quarters boarding operations necessary along Puerto Rico’s coast. Coast Guard Lt. Katherine Ustler, who was the commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Donald Horsley and has since moved on to another assignment, had her crew ready to back up her CBP brethren, as the Air and Marine Operations crews were ready to help their law enforcement partners.
“I love it when the P-3s are flying,” Ustler said, referring to the Air and Marine Operations aircraft that provide long-range radar capabilities to all enforcement assets on the water. “They extend our eyes way farther out than the cutter can see. And when [the P-3s] fly south and find something, we coordinate with them directly or through our command center and start positioning the cutters on an intercept to the targets the aircraft spotted.”
On the sea, in the air, and backed up by law enforcement partners from the federal and local governments, CBP’s Air and Marine Operations in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands is one of the first lines of defenses against illegal drugs and immigration trying to make it to America’s shores.
A Two-Front, Two-Enemy War
Air and Marine Operations in the Caribbean fight two different enemies on two different fronts. On the western side of Puerto Rico, it is intercepting illegal immigration – for the most part, citizens of the Dominican Republic trying to sneak in. While the numbers are not what their CBP brethren along the southern border with Mexico face, they have to remain vigilant. On the south side of Puerto Rico, as well as the east and into the U.S. Virgin Islands, the main concern is illicit drug trafficking and currency seizures, many times from drug lords trying to launder their ill-gotten money through this portal – what is known as source and transit zones in Air and Marine speak – into the continental United States. Being able to protect America’s far southeastern edge in the Western Hemisphere is a daunting task.
“We’re able to extend America’s borders further out into the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean,” said Johnny Morales, the director of Air and Marine Operations for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. They are also the only federal law enforcement entity – along with the Coast Guard – to cover the vast area of water that extends for hundreds of miles all around. “We target all threats, 360 degrees around the island. We have to cover a lot more area [than some of their CBP counterparts, such as those along the border with Mexico], so we have to be able to patrol the vast ocean to detect, monitor and interdict drug and human smugglers. Since it’s a 360 degree threat, it’s a little bit different than flying [over] a border fence.”
More than $10.5 million in currency seizures occur in a typical year, nearly as much as the money intercepted along the border in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona combined. Annually, in the area, the operation intercepts 10,000-14,000 pounds of cocaine, a dramatic spike from just 200-300 kilograms annually less than five years ago. It also makes Air and Marine Operations in Puerto Rico the second biggest interceptor of cocaine in CBP (only behind CBP’s mission in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America). This part of the Caribbean and Atlantic is a target-rich environment.
“You take off out of the airport and make a left turn, and right over the water, you can come up with something,” Morales said.
On the Sea
Surrounded by water, CBP operations around Puerto Rico obviously involve a lot of time on the seas. East of the island territory where the warm waters of the Caribbean mix with the massive Atlantic Ocean, lie the U.S. Virgin Islands. This archipelago provides its own challenges with several large, main islands and smaller islands dotted in between the blue waters of the region, giving drug smugglers nooks and crannies where they try to hide – “try” being the operative word. Patrols constantly on the water, helped by the “eyes in the skies” of CBP aircraft, maintain constant vigilance. Running is another area where CBP has an advantage over some smugglers.
“Our new Coastal Interceptor Vessels are beast masters,” said Supervisory Marine Interdiction Agent Cleon Arrington, who works as a vessel commander out of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Running at speeds of up to 66 miles an hour, he added his boats are better suited to take the pounding of the all-too-common high seas of the area than some of the dilapidated boats the smugglers use.
“We’re in much better shape than those guys; sometimes, I think they’re almost glad we showed up,” he mused.
Planning is a key element for the maritime operators, checking the intelligence before heading out on the water. But Arrington said they have “hot spots” they check regularly.
“You go to where the intel leads you,” but after that, it’s good old-fashioned police work that gets the job of interdicting drug smuggling done. “There’s a lot going on down here in paradise.”
In the Air
Helping cover the thousands of square miles of open ocean are the planes and helicopters in Air and Marine Operations’ inventory in the region. The Dash-8, along with the Black Hawk and A-Star helicopters, make sure no one can hide just beyond the horizon view of the mariners down at sea level.
“We have to be in a defensive mode for 360 degrees,” said Aviation Enforcement Agent Adalberto Mercado, the operations officer for the Caribbean Air and Marine Branch in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. “Because we’re getting human and drug smugglers from the Dominican Republic, narcotics from Venezuela, Colombia, through the Virgin Islands channels sometimes. We get hit from everywhere here.”
Like their counterparts on the water, pilots gather intelligence before they head out but then rely on their own detective work to make sure all bases are covered, ready to shift as the bad guys try to outsmart them.
“Smugglers change tactics, and guess what? We do the same,” Mercado said. “They are creative in the ways they bring in the drugs and the way they smuggle money out. We have to be proactive.”
Once the crew detected a suspicious vessel, they will keep eyes on it until they can vector – in Air and Marine Operations language – the law enforcement assets on the water, as well as documenting the bust with video for future trials. All of this is done with safety in the forefront of everyone’s minds.
“I’m happy if the job gets done safely, because everybody wants to go home,” Mercado said.
An air interdiction agent inspects a DHC-8 aircraft prior to flight operations at the Caribbean Air and Marine Branch in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. Photo by Glenn Fawcett
In Partnership with Other Law Enforcement Agencies
The Caribbean Air and Marine Operations Center, in Levittown, Puerto Rico, coordinates its massive efforts within CBP. Furthermore, the Caribbean Border Interagency Group brings assets from other law enforcement partners, such as the U.S. Coast Guard, Department of Justice, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Drug Enforcement Administration and the local law enforcement group Puerto Rico United Forces of Rapid Action – better known by its Spanish acronym “FURA.” In addition to its own full complement of boats, planes and helicopters, Air and Marine Operations in the area relies on the assets the other law enforcement partners bring.
Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Lance Wiser is the officer in charge at Coast Guard Station San Juan, Puerto Rico, and has worked for 18 years on cutters and small boats. He said working with CBP comes naturally for his branch of the service.
“We share a lot of the same goals and missions: counter-drug and illegal [entrant] interdictions,” he said. “We work with [CBP] on a regular basis. Our tactics are very similar in enforcing the laws.”
Wiser said it’s common to see Coast Guard law enforcement teams on Air and Marine Operations boats, and Air and Marine Operations agents on Coast Guard vessels, as well as joint patrols with CBP and Coast Guard vessels, complementing each other to enforce the laws.
“We are utilizing each other’s resources and assets as effective force multipliers, which allows for increased coverage and more effective and efficient operations,” Wiser said.
One example of the great teamwork between the agencies was when a boat from the Coast Guard Station in San Juan was vectored into a target of interest at night by Air and Marine Operations aircraft. The Coast Guard crew did not have a visual of the smugglers until they were within 100 yards. CBP eyes in the sky were able to put them right on target and stopped the shipment of 40 kilograms of cocaine.
“The intelligence is better, and we now try to tackle the intel with all of the resources, not only from Air and Marine Operations, but from Coast Guard and anybody else,” Morales said. “That’s why that coordination effort has been a lot better.”
100% When the Call Comes
Morales said the presence on the seas and in the skies in this part of the Caribbean continues to increase as the drug trade in the region spiked. New facilities, such as the one at the San Juan airport that opened a few years ago, as well more pilots and sensor operators, give his people the tools they need to patrol this important region of the world and keep America safer.
“Our mission, obviously, is to promote the aeronautical and maritime operations further away from the continental United States in support of the CBP mission as a whole,” Morales said.
Back on the Coastal Interceptor Vessel, Crespo said the drone of the powerful idling engines that could lull a person to sleep, roar to life in an instant, pushing the crew to breathtaking speeds above the wavetops and snapping them to attention, the moment that voice comes on the radio, the moment the crew gets the call.
“Everyone goes to 100% in an instant when the call comes,” he said. “That’s what we train for. That’s what we do.”