Countering Narco-Terrorism: Multilateral Maritime Interdiction Operations

IDGA Editor

The Department of Defense is the lead federal agency involved in efforts to detect and monitor aerial and maritime illegal drug shipments entering the United States.

This role is buttressed by the ratification of the 1988 Vienna Convention, following which the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. State Department embarked upon efforts to develop Maritime Counternarcotics Agreements with supporting governments from the Latin America and the Caribbean community.

Initial standard agreements between the U.S and certain countries located in the southern geographic approaches to homeland contained four specific operational provisions or parts that made interdiction feasible - "shiprider," "shipboarding," "pursuit," and "entry to investigate."

JIATF-South serves as the hub within which U.S. law enforcement agencies take the lead in interdicting drug runners in collaboration with partner nations.

Operating in international waters would customarily entail the deployment of U.S. navy ships and helicopter patrols, which are supported by the Coast Guard Law Enforcement detachments, operating in partnership with law enforcement agencies of supporting nations.

Past Successes

The chain of innovative multinational efforts involving the U.S. and southern supporting nations is worth recalling:

  • "Carib Venture" occurred in the mid-1990s. This exercise focused on the Eastern Caribbean, and was coordinated out of the U.S. Embassy in Bridgetown, Barbados whilst incorporating the ministrations of the U.S. Coast Guard Miami-based Seventh District, the Coast Guard Atlantic Area, U.S. Atlantic Command and the DEA.

The areas of operation and scope of responsibilities of SOUTHCOM have since been altered under the revised unified plan. Illustrative of these changes, effective December 17, 2008, responsibility for parts of the Caribbean Sea including the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands was commissioned to NORTHCOM, and all combatant commanders were given responsibility for planning and conducting military support for stability, security, transition and reconstruction operations, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

  • "Summer Storm" involved the participation of 25 countries including dependent territories. For the advancement of the mission goals, the Caribbean Basin was delineated into three zones (central, western and north eastern); each participating country established its home-based tactical operations center; and the operation was run primarily with deployment indigenous police assets, complemented with support provided by the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and on an informal basis, France.

  • "Operation Blue Skies" which dove tailed Summer Storm was a joint U.S Coast Guard – DEA Operation that utilized deployed helicopters and local police officers. The Dutch government contributed assets, SOUTHCOM rendered helicopter support and JATF-East and the U.S. Coast Guard furnished intelligence support.

Fortified with a rich history of multilateral cooperation, and adopting similar policies and procedures, the U.S. Coast Guard not long ago interdicted roughly 238,000 pounds of cocaine worth $3.5 billion and 124,000 pounds of marijuana worth approximately $112 million during FY/2012, as part of an ongoing stratagem codenamed "Operation Martillo."

Most of the seizures were made either in the Caribbean Basin or the Atlantic Ocean, with at least one major seizure occurring in May 2013. In the course of this exercise, 1,250 pounds of cocaine was intercepted off the Costa Rican coast in the Pacific.

Importance of Information Sharing and Building Relationships

Retired Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff made some very relevant observations on the occasion of the Sixth Annual Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Lecture Series held in Washington in 2011.

He noted that relationships form a foundation that enables nations to work together and overcome challenges, in the absence of which there are likely to be miscalculations or the complete lack of knowledge. The sitting Chair of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin E. Dempsey, in his capacity as principal military advisor to the President, has reinforced the importance of preserving hard-earned relationships among allies.

Need for Innovative Approaches

Contemporary multilateralism builds upon relationships and trust. In the context of maritime multilateral efforts, undertakings as those herein outlined, are yet to attain their full potential, and innovative non-traditional approaches must now be considered.

The upcoming Counternarcotics Conference would undoubtedly provide opportunities for brainstorming. Some of the ideas that have been mulled over in past years in SOUTHCOM forums attended by this writer include a Caribbean International Support Tender which can be furnished with a communications suite, host several regional coast guards and provide command and control.

Alternatively, there could be a "regional ship" commissioned to support multilateral maritime counternarcotics operations, and perhaps complemented by a search and rescue mandate.

At the end of the day, interdependency compels a unified approach.

Many of the issues raised in this article will be discussed at IDGA's Counter Narco-Terrorism and Drug Interdiction next month. For full details go to