The Coast Guard broke records last year with its interceptions of cocaine shipments, Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft confirmed to Congress on Wednesday, amounting to 10 times the amount of the drug seized via land smuggling.
Testifying before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, Zukunft noted among recent USCG accomplishments the seizure of more than 450,000 pounds of cocaine worth over $6 billion wholesale.
“These efforts often go unsung and we do not want that — we want the Coast Guard to be known for the valor of their servicemembers because we know they take risks every day in defense of this nation,” he added.
U.S. Virgin Islands Del. Stacey Plaskett (D), noting “the majority of the illegal contraband … is being interdicted in the eastern Pacific,” asked the commandant about the “significant drug smuggling” reaching the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico from South America.
“How will the additional national security cutters and the future offshore patrol cutters defend against this threat and do you believe that it’s the sufficient amount and the appropriate number?” she asked. “Would you want more vessels to be able to take on this threat in that area?”
“Numbers do matter and the national security cutter has clearly been a game-changer,” Zukunft replied. “We’re seizing nearly a ton of cocaine a day and that is between the Caribbean, the eastern Caribbean and in the eastern Pacific, today. What has changed in the last year is we’ve seen a significant decrease in the number of Cuban migrants attempting to cross the Florida Straits.”
“We have a fleet of offshore fast-response cutters homeported in San Juan, and we’ve been able repurpose those ships and apply a lot more pressure on the approaches to Puerto Rico, to the Dominican Republic and to the U.S. Virgin Islands for shipments that are leaving the Guijira Peninsula on a direct run,” he added.
The “flow rate” of drugs coming into Puerto Rico has “grown over 30 percent over the last two years,” Zukunft said.
“It’s not staying in Puerto Rico; it’s being transshipped elsewhere to include the U.S. Virgin Islands and to include the continental United States as well. So we are repurposing resources. All this based on intelligence.”
Plaskett asked if the USCG resources are “sufficient” to “address this increasing threat in the area.”
“The U.S. will never get in front of this problem by itself, which is why we need allies… and as many ships as we put out there, what we soon run out of is surveillance aircraft, which is why we’re looking and experimenting with land-based UAS,” Zukunft replied. “We’ve done a couple prototypes out of Puerto Rico as well. We need to look at state-of-the-art sensors to put into these on-demand aerial systems, but the intelligence is good. We do not have enough ships or aircraft to be fully effective in this mission.”
Another lawmaker noted to Zukunft that the Coast Guard’s haul was about 10 times the rate of cocaine smuggling seizures across U.S. land borders.
“Yeah, where it’s most vulnerable is where it moves in bulk, and that moves predominantly in the maritime domain, way beyond our border,” the commandant said.