- The Coast Guard is catching increasing amounts of cocaine at sea.
- Most of the cocaine heading to the US is coming through the eastern Pacific Ocean.
- More smuggling routes are swinging deep into the Pacific and around the Galapagos.
FT. LAUDERDALE, Florida – The Coast Guard has been seizing record amounts of cocaine, bringing in more than 458,000 pounds during fiscal year 2018, which ended in September.
That was less than the record-setting 493,000 pounds seized in fiscal year 2017 but more than the 443,000 pounds intercepted in fiscal year 2016, which was the record at the time.
More than 80% of that cocaine travels through the eastern Pacific Ocean as it is smuggled between South America and entry points in Central America and Mexico.
According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, an increasing portion of that smuggling is going around the Galapagos Islands – a cluster of volcanic islands that straddle the equator and are better known for unique wildlife than transnational crime.
Cocaine production in Colombia, the world’s largest producer of the drug, has more than quadrupled since 2012, according to the DEA’s most recent National Drug Threat Assessment. (Peru and Bolivia are the world’s other main cocaine producers, but combined they produce less than Colombia.)
Booming production kept cocaine moving out of South America at “elevated levels” in 2017, the DEA said.
“In 2017, at least 84% of the documented cocaine departing South America transited the eastern Pacific,” the DEA report states.
“Shipments around the Galapagos Islands increased to 17 per cent of overall flow in 2017, up from four per cent in 2016 and one per cent in 2015,” it adds. Of the remaining 16%, the report said, 9% goes through the western Caribbean and 7% through the eastern Caribbean.
The rise from 4% to 17% is likely not a single-year phenomenon, according to Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the DEA.
“The Galapagos has always been a staging area,” Vigil said, especially after traffickers shifted to the eastern Pacific in response to more law-enforcement focus on Caribbean routes.
“I think it was much higher than that,” Vigil said of previous estimates. “I think they miscalculated the amount of cocaine going through the Galapagos,” he added, suggesting the increase to 17% reflected an attempt to compensate for not paying much attention to the area over the past decade.
Usually a large ship like a freighter or a commercial fishing boat, what Vigil called the “mothership,” will approach the Galapagos with a load of drugs or fuel that would be distributed to smaller vessels heading north.
The Galapagos and the surrounding waters are “very safe” for traffickers, Vigil added. “Even if you have surveillance there [by] Coast Guard cutters or whatever, they’re going to pick it up” and can abort smuggling operations.
“There’s no better staging area, because it’s close to South America; they can loiter there,” Vigil said. “It’s a big fishing area. They can always say they’re fishing. They’re in tune with any kind of enforcement shift” around the islands, whether it’s by the US Coast Guard or Colombian authorities.
Most of the cocaine being staged in the Galapagos originates in Peru or Bolivia, Vigil said, but travels over sea or land to Ecuador, of which the Galapagos Islands are a province. From Ecuador, that cocaine mostly leaves through the ports of Esmeraldas or Manta.
US law-enforcement ties with Ecuador withered under former President Rafael Correa. His successor, Lenin Moreno, has been more open to working with the US, agreeing in April to allow the DEA and Customs and Border Protection back into the country.
The US touts at-sea interdictions as a way to undermine cartels
Traffickers “may use a variety of routes, and that’s a tactical calculus … that these transnational criminal organisations make,” Capt. Jeffrey Randall, commander of the Coast Guard cutter James, said on Thursday during a drug offload from the James in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
“Some of them may choose to go that route. Some of them may choose to go a shorter route,” Randall said of trafficking around the Galapagos. “It all depends on how that individual cartel or individual drug-trafficking organisation chooses to move their narcotics.”
“But you can’t do that without some sort of logistics change, so there’s a network at play there,” he said. “Dismantling that network is what’s key to reducing the overall flow.”
The US government has touted at-sea interdictions as a way to undermine trafficking organisations.
The Coast Guard has said its seizures between 2002 and 2011 and information gained from them contributed to the extradition of 75% of Colombian cartel leaders, as well as to the 2014 capture of Sinaloa cartel chief Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
The Coast Guard can stop drug smuggling early in the process and “exploit connections amongst the transnational criminal organisations to not just catch a single bad actor but reach back across the organisation and disrupt the overall flow,” Claire Grady, the Homeland Security Department’s management chief, said aboard the James on Thursday.
“That is probably the best progress that we’ve made,” Grady added, “making every time we encounter a nefarious actor that much more important because of our ability to then penetrate and disrupt the entire organisation.”
Decisions about at-sea interdictions are based on “a time-speed-distance calculation,” Randall said when asked whether the Coast Guard was spending more time around the Galapagos Islands.
“You want to optimise your position to react,” he added, “because the last thing you want to do is be in a tail chase, chasing somebody down and you’re both going the same speed. You’re never going to get there if that happens.”
Nevertheless, Coast Guard commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said, the Coast Guard has the edge deep in the Pacific.
“When those 419-foot national security [cutters] show up with a [Helicopter Interdiction Tactical Squadron] helicopter and very capable boats [and] you’re in a fishing boat [or] you’re in a fast boat,” Schultz said Thursday, “it’s sort of game, set, match when you’re out past the Galapagos.”