TESTIMONY OF REAR ADMIRAL ERNEST R. RIUTTA, USCG Drug Interdiction and other matters relating to the National Drug Control Policy

1998 Congressional Hearings
Intelligence and Security








JUNE 10, 1998

Good morning, Mr. Chairman. It is a pleasure to appear before this distinguished subcommittee today on behalf of the Commandant to discuss Coast Guard drug interdiction. As Assistant Commandant for Operations, I have some first hand insight into the increasingly sophisticated and innovative tactics and capabilities of international drug cartels which are making our interdiction task in the Transit Zone ever more compelling.

Before I address the Coast Guard’s role in drug interdiction and our National Drug Control Strategy, I would like to briefly address the context in which we conduct these operations. The Coast Guard shields America’s sea frontiers from a broad spectrum of threats and challenges, with the scourge of drugs being perhaps the most visible right now. The need for effective control of America’s seaward borders, territorial seas, and exclusive economic zones extends well beyond the drug threat and will become even more essential in the first decades of the 21st century . . . a need that is well recognized by The National Security Strategy and our just-issued strategic vision publication, COAST GUARD 2020.

Future threats to U.S. security interests will be even more varied than they are today. The dangers we face are unprecedented in their complexity. Terrorism, drugs, illegal migrants, organized crime, and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are global concerns that transcend national borders; and environmental damage and rapid population growth undermine economic prosperity and political stability in many countries.

Since these challenges to America’s maritime security are not strictly military in nature, they underscore the importance, relevance, and vitality of the Coast Guard’s law enforcement role – a core competency developed during more than 200 years of service to America – and a core competency that addresses more than drug interdiction.

However, the threat of illegal drugs to America will remain with us and become more difficult to counter as advanced equipment and technology are increasingly employed by global and regional drug cartels. By using relatively small fast evasive boats, aircraft and sophisticated counter-information technologies, drug cartels will continue to challenge law enforcement organizations with greater daring and boldness. These challenges and those in the future that we can only dimly perceive today will continue to increase demands for expanded Coast Guard interdiction operations along U.S. maritime borders.

Drug trafficking produces a wide array of negative impacts on our way of life. Drug trafficking yields:

Increased crime in our cities, through assault and property crimes by addicts desperate to support a habit, as well as violence related to drug trafficking organizations protecting their operations and sources of cash flow.

Substantial economic costs due to lessened productivity of drug users and increased medical expenses related to drug abuse, not only for drug users but also tragically for infants born to addicted mothers. Increased costs for law enforcement, courts, prisons, jails and rehabilitation are enormous at the federal, state and local levels.

Substantial social costs related to destruction of family units impacted by drug abuse, as well as the creation and support of cultures of drug trafficking organizations that live entirely outside the bounds of the law.

On an international level, drug trafficking has all of the above impacts in virtually all countries. Often these problems and costs are exported to the United States through illegal immigration, leaving American taxpayers to foot the bill. In addition, drug trafficking has an enormous destabilizing impact on the culture, society and government of foreign cities and countries, as evidenced by widespread poverty and frequent murder of judicial and governmental officials. Collectively the impact of drug trafficking is a direct and substantial threat to the national security of the United States.

The security of our maritime borders is an essential component of the National Drug Control Strategy, and I can personally assure you the Coast Guard has the will to defeat drug smugglers at sea. My objective in testifying before you this morning is to offer five observations concerning Coast Guard interdiction:

Interdiction is a vital component of our balanced National Drug Control Strategy.

Coast Guard has a proven strategy for results.

Interdiction reduces drug flow, drug use, crime and other consequences of illicit drugs.

Interdiction is an effective pillar of international engagement and enlargement under the National Security Strategy. It enhances foreign engagement and cooperation.

Coast Guard interdiction assets must be strengthened and enhanced.

In his letter transmitting the 1998 National Drug Control Strategy to Congress, President Clinton affirmed, "we must close the door on drugs at our borders." Goals 4 and 5 of the National Strategy demand "in depth" interdiction operations to "Shield Air, Land, and Sea Frontiers" and "Break Foreign and Domestic Sources of Supply." The Coast Guard is the lead agency for maritime interdiction and shares lead agency responsibilities for air interdiction in the Transit Zone with the U.S. Customs Service. As such, the Coast Guard has a clear mandate to shut down and dominate the easy routes of access and to increase the effectiveness of maritime interdiction and improve results against this scourge to humanity.

Drug trafficking and violence, according to the Strategy, go hand in hand. Drug imports are associated with high crime, and uncontrolled exports of national revenue. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the illicit drug trade drains our economy of approximately 67 billion dollars each year. In a 1996 Gallup Poll "Consult with America: A Look at How Americans View the Country’s Drug Problem," Americans emphatically stated that the drug problem is a high priority for their tax dollars. In that survey, over 80 percent of Americans identified violent crime (84 percent) and drugs (82 percent) as the two most pressing problems in our society. In an October 1997 Washington Post – ABC News poll, 87 percent of the respondents said that a major goal of the government should be to increase efforts to fight crime and drugs.

The Transit Zone for drug traffic from South America is a 6 million square mile area, roughly equivalent to the size of the continental United States. The Transit Zone includes the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Eastern Pacific. The sheer size of this Zone presents a formidable challenge that must be overcome in order to achieve our objectives. The task of maintaining a comprehensive overview of activity and sorting targets of interest from legitimate air and surface traffic is daunting. Equally difficult is the logistical challenge of supporting our forces in such an expansive theater of operations, particularly in the Eastern Pacific. In short, we need a comprehensive "maritime hemisphere awareness" and the capability to detect, control and engage drug smugglers on and above the sea.

In 1997, an estimated 430 metric tons of cocaine, thirteen metric tons of heroin, significant quantities of marijuana, and smaller amounts of other illicit substances passed through the Transit Zone. An estimated 57 percent of all cocaine enters the U.S. by crossing the Southwest Border from Mexico, but much of that travels through the Caribbean to get to Mexico. Most of the remainder enters directly through the Caribbean Corridor. Noncommercial maritime traffic, in the form of small coastal freighters, fishing vessels, and "go-fast" boats, currently accounts for 60-70 percent of the total flow. This represents an increasing trend toward noncommercial maritime trafficking means.

The availability of illegal drugs in America will become more difficult to counter as advanced equipment and technology are increasingly employed by global and regional drug cartels. Such capabilities as radar-evading boats and aircraft, high endurance "go-fast" boats, and sophisticated counterinformation technologies will enable drug cartels to challenge current law enforcement capabilities.

The evasiveness of "go-fast" traffickers is a case in point. The Commandant has authorized the use of force including warning shots and disabling fire to stop these boats at a significantly higher rate this year than ever before. Coast Guard and foreign assets have actually fired at "go-fast" suspects on five occasions this year, managing to successfully stop and seize two of them. The sophistication and daring of smuggling organizations demands a vital role for the Coast Guard in the International Crime Control Strategy. Unless the Coast Guard maintains a robust, proactive Transit Zone interdiction effort, the U.S. will see an even greater flood of cocaine on our streets and in our schools.

Joint Interagency Task Force East (JIATF East) has recently analyzed drug smuggling events in the eastern Pacific that highlight missed interdiction opportunities and the need for response capability. Of sixteen known events that occurred in 1997, there were three successful interdictions that resulted in the seizure of approximately 22 metric tons of cocaine. However, JIATF East had prior intelligence on five other events that were not interdicted and resulted in the successful delivery of an estimated 37 metric tons of cocaine.

Interdiction in the transit and arrival zones disrupts drug flow, increases risks to traffickers, drives them to less efficient routes and methods, and prevents significant amounts of drugs from reaching the United States. The long-term denial of maritime trafficking routes is part of the balanced national strategy to reduce availability of illicit drugs, and sustain a favorable environment for successful demand reduction efforts.

In addition to seizing drugs and arresting traffickers, Coast Guard drug interdiction efforts yield substantial intelligence and information which allows the pursuit and targeting of larger drug trafficking organizations, both foreign and domestic. Our thorough program of post-seizure analysis yields information and intelligence that is of substantial law enforcement interest outside the strict realm of interdiction. This information is shared with other state, local, federal and international agencies with a law enforcement interest and need to know. This process makes the Coast Guard a critical link in meeting the goals of our National Drug Control Strategy.

The National Drug Control Strategy specifically tasks the Coast Guard to conduct flexible operations to detect, disrupt, deter, and seize illegal drugs in transit to the United States and at U.S. borders. The Strategy’s mid-term objective is to reduce the rate at which illegal drugs entering the transit and arrival zones successfully enter the United States by ten percent by the year 2002. The long-term objective is a twenty percent reduction in this rate by the year 2007. The Coast Guard is further obligated to improve coordination and effectiveness of law enforcement, improve bilateral and regional cooperation, and support and highlight research and technology.

STEEL WEB is the Coast Guard’s multiyear campaign plan to position the requisite interdiction forces where they best counter the ever evolving narco-trafficking threats. The strategic concept is to deny drug smugglers access to maritime routes by a sequence of operations in which interdiction forces are concentrated in high threat areas of the Caribbean and eastern Pacific to significantly disrupt drug traffic. Coast Guard operations in these high threat areas complement and support JIATF East and JIATF West operations. Once a credible law enforcement presence is established, interdiction forces will be redeployed to other high threat areas, leaving an enhanced presence to deter and interdict subsequent smuggling. Ultimately, successful pulses in each high threat area will systematically reduce drug flow through the transit zone. This concept was successfully demonstrated very recently by the Coast Guard’s Operation FRONTIER SHIELD and FRONTIER LANCE. We can only continue this strategy if the President’s request for fiscal year 1999 is fully supported.

Operation FRONTIER SHIELD was introduced in fiscal year 1997 to test this concept in the maritime approaches to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. This region was identified as the second largest gateway, behind the Southwest Border, for drugs entering the United States and provided an emergent opportunity to create an immediate and measurable impact. The success of FRONTIER SHIELD is directly attributable to the synergy of effort from the coalition of interagency and international law enforcement agencies involved in the operation. The results and lessons learned serve as a case study for the genuine value of interdiction.

During fiscal year 1997, FRONTIER SHIELD forces seized 23 vessels transporting 31,127 pounds of cocaine, arrested more than 100 suspects, and disrupted 17 additional deliveries of an estimated 37,400 pounds of cocaine. In sum, interdiction forces have cut smuggler success rates through the Eastern Caribbean in half during the last year and prevented more than 310 million doses of cocaine from crossing our maritime borders. The combined street value of FRONTIER SHIELD seizures and disruptions exceeds $2.4 billion.

By interagency estimates, FRONTIER SHIELD forces reduced direct flow of cocaine to Puerto Rico by 46 percent. Smugglers have abandoned these maritime routes in favor of new routes to the west. In 1997, Coast Guard interdiction rates and seizure rates were at record levels, roughly 3 times higher than levels in 1996. In addition, Coast Guard multimission assets interdicted 2,400 illegal migrants and turned away an additional 545 migrants.

Operation FRONTIER SHIELD demonstrates the tangible positive impacts of interdiction in Puerto Rico. In 1997, drug related crime was down 37 percent from the year before and the Governor no longer needed the Puerto Rico National Guard to maintain order in the housing areas. On the streets of San Juan cocaine purity went down and street prices rose nearly 36 `percent throughout 1997.

This year we conducted Operation FRONTIER LANCE – a limited pulse operation along the southern coast of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. These countries have emerged as a high threat area for "go-fast" smuggling because of the proximity to Colombia (1 day transit), the number of remote offload sites and the success we have had in Operation FRONTIER SHIELD to the east of Hispaniola. Currently, estimates indicate 15 percent of the cocaine bound for the U.S. flows through this region. We also estimate the south coast receives more than forty "go-fast" deliveries a year, each carrying 600-700 kilograms of cocaine.

FRONTIER LANCE was a proof-of-concept operation designed to demonstrate our ability to stage an interagency operation from foreign soil, as well as test various interdiction assets. Early intelligence assessments have confirmed a dramatic decrease in direct movement of cocaine to Haiti and Dominican Republic since January 1998, after seven continuous quarters of increasing flow. The Defense Intelligence Agency attributes the decline to the presence of FRONTIER LANCE forces around Haiti.

To broaden the impact of our STEEL WEB efforts, the Coast Guard is actively involved in numerous joint operations with other agencies. With oversight from the United States Interdiction Coordinator (USIC), the U.S. Customs Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, and other law enforcement agencies work in concert with the support of the DOD . These efforts are coordinated by the Joint Interagency Task Forces (JIATF) East and West, as well as the Domestic Air Interdiction Coordination Center (DAICC). The most notable interagency cooperative effort involves the deployment of Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments aboard U.S. Navy ships to provide end-game law enforcement authority.

Our long-standing relationship with many Caribbean countries is equally important to the sustained success of supply reduction efforts. The Coast Guard conducts frequent combined operations with military and law enforcement organizations of many of these nations. In addition, Coast Guard law enforcement detachments also deploy aboard British and Dutch warships involved in counterdrug operations. These deployments of Coast Guard personnel promote cooperation with our international partners in the effort to control the flow of drugs.

Coast Guard officers are also pivotal members of Department of State led interagency teams which are negotiating a series of bilateral maritime counternarcotics agreements with foreign governments to enable interdiction forces to work more effectively and efficiently with them. A tribute to the success of these efforts is the recent signing of bilateral maritime counterdrug agreements with the governments of Barbados, Haiti, and Jamaica. Over the past several years, the U.S. has also signed agreements with sixteen other Transit Zone nations. These agreements help maximize the effectiveness of our cutters by reducing the time they spend waiting for authorization to either board suspect vessels or enter the territorial seas of signatory nations in pursuit of suspect vessels. Our multilateral efforts have made progress toward effective cooperation with our Caribbean neighbors who are working with us to deny safe havens to drug smugglers who routinely violate the national sovereignty of these nations.

The Coast Guard also supports South American initiatives aimed at stopping the flow of drugs at the source. We deploy air interdiction aircraft to support the U.S. Southern Command’s Operation LASER STRIKE, and provide personnel from the Coast Guard International Training Division to perform assessments and conduct riverine law enforcement training in key Source Countries. As Source Country initiatives further disrupt the activities of the trafficking organizations, our interdiction efforts in the Transit Zone will have even more impact on the flow of drugs into the United States.

The multimission Coast Guard has traditionally provided a high rate of return to the public. In fiscal year 1997, overall interdiction efforts resulted in a record year for Coast Guard drug seizures. The Coast Guard seized (or assisted in the seizure of) 103,617 pounds of cocaine and 102,538 pounds of marijuana products. Cocaine seizures easily surpassed the previous record set in 1991 -- 90,335 pounds.

Through effective interdiction efforts last year, the Coast Guard kept more than 468 million cocaine "hits" and 100 million marijuana "joints" off of our streets, preventing those drugs from poisoning schools and destroying homes. The estimated street value of these seizures is more than $4.2 billion -- $1 billion more than the Coast Guard’s entire 1997 discretionary budget.

In order to meet its obligations under the National Drug Control Strategy, the Coast Guard will need the full support of Congress for its budget requests. The Coast Guard must be responsive to the established policy priorities of the President, the well-articulated will of Congress and the demands of the American people. Campaign STEEL WEB identifies the Coast Guard’s resource requirements to comply with its legal mandates, and to be responsive to Presidential policy under the National Drug Control Strategy.

The Coast Guard received a $34.3 million increase in budget authority for fiscal year 1998; an investment in the long term campaign to satisfy obligations under the National Drug Control Strategy. Fiscal year 1998 drug funding has allowed the Coast Guard to institutionalize FRONTIER SHIELD, which supports ONDCP’s Port & Border Security and Caribbean Violent Crime Initiatives. Other ongoing operations, GULF SHIELD and BORDER SHIELD, logically extend U.S. interdiction efforts along the land border with Mexico into the maritime region.

The fiscal year 1999 budget request includes operating expenses and capital investments necessary to maintain the current law enforcement presence. The request also seeks funding for increased sensor capabilities to improve the effectiveness of existing assets. Finally, the fiscal year 1999 request includes funding for operation of a Caribbean Support Tender to further engage our Caribbean partners and enhance the abilities of their maritime forces.

Coast Guard drug law enforcement performance goals include seizure rates to satisfy the National Strategy, in addition to a secondary target to capture the impact of deterrence that law enforcement activity has on smuggler behavior. As long as more than 400 metric tons of cocaine are moving through the Transit Zone, the value and necessity for agile interdiction forces are undeniable.

We must employ new tools to weave a seamless STEEL WEB of enforcement. Appropriate Coast Guard resources to detect and deter drug smugglers will enhance our maritime interdiction capability in the Transit Zone. The fiscal year 1999 budget request and the five-year plan mandated by the National Drug Control Strategy will seek funding for the tools to meet our responsibilities under the Strategy by strengthening our drug interdiction program. The Coast Guard has a unique role and a sizable area of responsibility. The funding and resources requested for the STEEL WEB campaign will allow the Coast Guard to effectively shield America’s maritime. By closing the door on drugs at our borders, in the words of General Barry McCaffrey, we increase the security of all Americans. America’s Coast Guard is responsible for protecting our national interests and border sovereignty, not only against drugs but also against a broad spectrum of threats.

But, as we approach the 21st century, many of our existing assets are nearing the end of their service lives. Loss of capability and increased operational costs concern us greatly, as the threats we must counter are becoming increasingly more sophisticated and capable. In short, our ability to remain Semper Paratus - Always Ready – to carry out our sovereignty missions is a major Coast Guard concern. We must be ready to meet tomorrow’s challenges.

In closing, I would also like to recognize your guidance and commitment to the national counterdrug effort. As America moves into the next century, the Coast Guard stands ready to meet our responsibilities in this important effort. With your continued support, we can achieve the objectives of the National Drug Control Strategy, and protect the safety, security, and well-being of all Americans. Thank you and the Members of the Subcommittee for the opportunity to discuss drug trafficking and the Coast Guard’s role in the Transit Zone. I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.