“U.S. Coast Guard Informs on ‘The War on Drugs’: Cocaine, Marijuana, and Fentanyl” –by Peter Ong

Illegal Fentanyl pills are manufactured and often appear very “unclean and unevenly colored with unprofessional lettering appearances” unlike pharmaceutical opioids where the pills’ colors, letters, and numbers are even and clearly defined. Note the uneven blue color and the barely legible markings on these illegal Fentanyl pills.   (Photo: Fentanyl Pro) 

Drug interdiction has not gotten any easier as the dollar value per cubic volume of product has increased as smugglers moved from Marijuana to Cocaine and now to easily hidden fentanyl. Guest author Peter Ong, gets some answers about the Coast Guard current interdiction efforts. I did not find the answers encouraging–Chuck                                           

In April 2021, a United States Coast Guard (USCG) spokesperson in Media Relations at the USCG Headquarters, Washington D.C., responded to my questions via email about America’s “War on Drugs,” particularly against opioids and the ever-popular and dangerous illegal opioid, Fentanyl, that appears to arrive smuggled in commercial shipping containers and aboard International aircraft.

In perspective, the USCG’s “War on Drugs” covers vast oceanic geography using the Coast Guard’s white-painted Cutters and aircraft to patrol and pursue from the Gulf of Mexico to the coasts of Central and South America to the INDO-PACOM region.

I asked the U.S. Coast Guard what actions are being taken to curb the smuggling of Fentanyl from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, and China, and if the Coast Guard has any statistics on Fentanyl seizures.  The Coast Guard Headquarters spokesperson replied, “The Coast Guard is the only federal maritime law enforcement agency with both the authority and capability to enforce national and international law, including drug interdiction, on the high seas. The Coast Guard shares the lead for interdiction and enforcement responsibilities with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in U.S. territorial waters.

“While the Coast Guard has conducted little to no maritime enforcement activity involving synthetic opioids (to include Fentanyl), we continue to leverage international and interagency partnerships to maintain a forward-leaning interdiction posture to counter all illicit maritime drug trafficking.

“The Coast Guard removed over 2.2 million pounds of cocaine and apprehended nearly 3,000 suspected smugglers for U.S. and foreign prosecution over the last five years. The massive profits from cocaine trafficking allow transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) to diversify and fund other nefarious activities, including manufacture and trafficking of illicit opioids, synthetics, and methamphetamines.

“Additionally, Coast Guard, working with the U.S. State Department, has been supporting the Mexican Navy’s (SEMAR) maritime authority skill-development process. These efforts will assist SEMAR in their mission to monitor and inspect all cargo, increase the security/safety, and reduce illegal trafficking through Mexican ports.

“The Coast Guard has one case on record involving Fentanyl. In August 2020, Coast Guard Sector San Diego assisted a Customs and Border Protection boat in seizing 9.8 kilograms (21 pounds) of Fentanyl from a smuggling vessel in the waters off southern California.”

Bales of cocaine lie stacked under the deck of a suspected smuggling vessel in October interdicted by the crew of the Coast Guard Cutter Alert in international waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Approximately 2,000 pounds of cocaine were seized and three suspected smugglers were detained.  (U.S. Coast Guard photo, United States, 10.02.2019, Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Alexander Gray)

U.S. Coast Guard, Washington D.C. Headquarters spokesperson also replied to questions on if inspecting for Fentanyl is more difficult to conduct in the open seas because Fentanyl comes in smaller shipments (compared to huge bales of marijuana and cocaine), and if the USCG Cutters have any trained drug-sniffing dogs aboard for detecting Fentanyl.  “TCOs [transnational criminal organizations] employ ever-changing tactics, using a variety of vessels and methods to smuggle illicit drugs in the maritime environment. These include go-fast vessels, fishing vessels, low-profile vessels, self-propelled semi-submersibles, and commercial cargo ships. Smugglers often conceal illicit drugs in elaborate hidden compartments, challenging law enforcement search efforts in often difficult sea conditions. Upon detection by law enforcement personnel, maritime smugglers often jettison illicit drugs along with other evidence in an attempt to evade enforcement action. Illicit drugs smuggled via commercial maritime means (e.g.: commercial cargo ships) are often well-concealed among legitimate cargo, severely challenging detection by law enforcement agencies.

“Drugs other than cocaine and marijuana comprise less than one percent of Coast Guard annual drug removals. These “other drugs” are primarily methamphetamine, amphetamine, and heroin.

“The Coast Guard does not routinely employ drug-sniffing dogs aboard its cutters, but employs a variety [of] actions and devices to detect the presence of contraband.”

Who also assists the U.S. Coast Guard in helping stem the tide of illegal drugs from overseas?

“The Coast Guard leverages our vast network of international and interagency partners to reduce the availability of illicit drugs in the United States. We conduct counter narcotics efforts at sea with partners, to include the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] and FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation].”

“The Coast Guard defers to our partners in the Drug Enforcement Administration regarding Fentanyl smuggling via aircraft.

A boarding team aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Stratton apprehends four suspected drug smugglers in international waters in the drug transit zone of the Eastern Pacific Ocean, February 23, 2017. After gaining control of the suspect’s go-fast vessel, the boarding team discovered and seized 700 kilograms of cocaine. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Mark Barney)

I asked about the protection that USCG’s Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) boat teams, or Cutter personnel use when searching for drugs, and if any USCG personnel have been injured from Fentanyl exposure.  The USCG spokesperson replied, “The Coast Guard employs appropriate safety precautions and procedures against potential exposure to Fentanyl and other illicit drugs. Coast Guard personnel don personal protective equipment when handling or potentially encountering all illicit drugs. This includes gloves, masks, and appropriate coverings of the arms and legs. Additionally, the appropriate Coast Guard assets are equipped with naloxone [naloxone, also known by the name brands Narcan® and Evizo®, can treat a narcotic opioid overdose from, for example, Fentanyl, morphine, and heroin, in an emergency situation], and personnel are trained on its administration following a potential exposure to Fentanyl or other opioids.

“No Coast Guard personnel have been injured due to Fentanyl exposure.”

2 thoughts on ““U.S. Coast Guard Informs on ‘The War on Drugs’: Cocaine, Marijuana, and Fentanyl” –by Peter Ong

  1. “Drugs other than cocaine and marijuana comprise less than one percent of Coast Guard annual drug removals. These “other drugs” are primarily methamphetamine, amphetamine, and heroin.”

    I knew that marijuana and cocaine accounted for the definite majority of Coast Guard seizures, but that surprised me. I didn’t realize just how rare occurrences were of other drugs being seized by USCG.

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