Drug Enforcement Return on Investment

FierceHomelandSecurity is reporting on testimony of both the Commandant and the Commander of SouthCom, Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, before a joint hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure and Foreign Affairs subcommittees.

“Joint Interagency Task Force South, which is part of Southcom and includes the Coast Guard, (other–Chuck) military services and other agencies, seizes the majority of the cocaine bound for the United States, said Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, the Southcom commander. Yet it receives only 1.5 percent of the federal government’s total counternarcotics budget, he said.”

Commandant Adm. Robert Papp, who appeared alongside Kelly, said that in the past five years, the Coast Guard seized more than twice the amount of cocaine as all domestic law enforcement agencies – federal, state and local – combined.

Over the last five years, Coast Guard ships and law enforcement detachments operating in the offshore regions have removed more than a million pounds of cocaine with a wholesale value of nearly $17 billion. This is more than two times the amount of cocaine seized by all other U.S. federal, state and local law enforcement agencies combined.

While I have my own reservations about the effectiveness of efforts to restrict supply, if you are going to attempt to cut supply, it sure looks like funding Coast Guard efforts should be the first place to put your money.

“Progress” on the Drug War

Some interesting commentary here on the latest efforts in the drug wars. Although we seem to have made some progress on the demand side in the US, demand is up in Europe, so the corrupting influence in Latin America is as strong as ever, and the web of criminal activity has spread to Africa.

We have been at this for 40 years now. I think its time to try something different.

Real Narco Subs?

Of course we know there have been attempts to use true submersibles to transport cocaine, but this is the first I’ve heard of an effort to find them at sea. From http://defensetech.org/:

“Calling them “third-generation” Narco-subs, Adm. James Stavridis, supreme NATO commander said during a speech this week in Arlington, Va., that the U.S. and its allies in Latin America are using P-3s to hunt these actual submarines which have communications suites that rival some modern military subs.”


The article goes on to raise a good question, “All this begs the question, even if you can find a submarine from the sky, how do you know 100 percent who it belongs without getting it to surface? How do you get the vessel to surface for inspection during peacetime without serious kinetic action? Do authorities simply track the vessel and wait for it to arrive at its destination before moving into arrest the smugglers?”

(Thanks again to Lee for the topic)

Is the Coast Guard on Falcon Lake?

Reading the reports of the murder of Texan David Hartley by “pirates” (legally this is not piracy) on Falcon Lake on the border between the US and Mexico, I’ve seen no mention of the Coast Guard in connection with the case, perhaps because we haven’t been allowed to search on the Mexican side of the Lake.

The 25 mile long, three mile wide lake is artificial, resulting from the damming of the Rio Grande, but the resulting waterway is in some ways analogous to the Great Lakes. It also appears to be a ready route for smuggling people, drugs and guns. Do we have any units on Falcon Lake? If not, should we?

Interview with Escanaba’s CO

There is a one hour previously recorded interview of CDR E. A. Westfall, CDR, USCG, Commanding Officer of the USCGC ESCANABA (WMEC 907) at this location. Cdr Westfall touches on a number of things including the recent exchange of gunfire with a suspected drug runner we talked about earlier, the Haiti disaster response, the importance of speed and endurance as ship characteristics, and the 76mm gun. (DER, thanks for the reminder.)

There is also a continuing dialog on the interview and related topics at the US Naval Institute site.

War on Drugs? Time for a Different Strategy

(Please forgive me for using this space to make a proposal that, if accepted, might result in diverting significant funds from the Coast Guard, but I believe this is important. I also know that the Coast Guard is adaptable and has survived major mission changes in the past–plus probably no one will listen.)

We have been waging the “War on Drugs” for decades now. Nixon declared war in 1971, but it started much earlier than that, and it would be hard to argue that our efforts have been successful.

US drug consumption finances terrorism in many parts of the world. Our anti-drug efforts often cause anti-American backlash. Mexico is in crisis and narco-terrorism is starting to spill over the border. To avoid the definition of insanity–continuing to do the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results–we need to do something different.

It’s not enough simply to make drugs more expensive, which is our current strategy. Like all economic activity, distribution of illegal drugs can be discussed in terms of elasticity of demand and supply. The attempt to stop the maximum amount of product assumes that Demand is elastic and that supply is not. That is, it assumes that the drug consumers will choose not to buy drugs if they become more expensive and that the suppliers will not create additional supply to offset losses by passing the higher cost along to the consumer.

This assumption is dead wrong because people who are addicted don’t make good financial decisions, and as the price goes up more criminals are attracted to the trade.

My suspicion is that supply is highly elastic, meaning as the price goes up, supply will expand rapidly, and as price goes down, supply is going to fall off rapidly. On the other hand, I suspect demand is not highly elastic. Those that want their fix will pay anything, while others would not buy it if the price fell to zero.

Whenever you hear officials talk about the “War on Drugs,” they inevitably talk about taking a multi-layered approach to  interdiction, as if that were obviously the best approach. Perhaps in terms of intercepting the maximum amount of product it is. But if the intention is to actually stop the trafficking in drugs, I think there may be a better way. (I am talking here only about hard drugs that represent a serious health hazard, because I’m going to suggest a radically different approach that would require a much more hard nosed approach on the part of the justice system.)

If we look at it from the smuggler’s point of view. There are lots of steps and lots of people involved. Bringing the product to market is a multi-step process, including growing or manufacturing, shipping to storage, warehousing, one or more additional legs of the journey to market,  warehousing at the destination, repackaging, wholesale distribution, and ultimately retail sale. In most cases, because  this is big business, the individuals responsible for each step are different and each makes a profit even if we successfully intercept the product at some step further down the chain. In addition there are management, facilitators, and agents who profit fro the trade. The risk is spread out so that the risk for any one highly profitable step may be less than 1%. No wonder this is a thriving business.

If the idea is to actually stop the trade in drugs, its not enough to interdict a small portion of the drugs at each step in the distribution chain. We have to break one link in the distribution chain (and really, it only needs to be one), by convincing the people involved, that the risks outweigh the rewards and they should go into another line of work. If we adopt a multi-layered approach, we are trying to convince people all up and down the supply chain that they all should go into a different line of work.  This isn’t necessary since breaking one link will stop the process and it dilutes our efforts. We need to target precisely and divert all the money and effort we now spread over many forms of drug enforcement to attack the most vulnerable link in the distribution chain.

What is that link? The retail representative, the one person in the chain who has to advertise that he is in the drug distribution business. We have to make the probable consequences of being a drug dealer so unpleasant that no right thinking criminal would choose that line of work. What will be the result? First the drug dealers share of the profit will go up as the risk increases. There will be attempts at “mass marketing” by internet sales that will have to be addressed, but if there are no direct sellers, wholesale demand will dry up at the same time supply competition will increase, destroying the profitability of the business.

Ultimately drug lords will have to get another job–like stock broker.

How do we go about this? Make taking drug dealers off the street a number 1 priority, then apply mandatory sentences of say 20 years. Overcrowd the prisons? I don’t think so. Once we start applying this vigorously and consistently, being a dealer will no longer be worth the risks, but if we need a bit more space in the prisons, start treating marijuana abuse like alcohol abuse. We need to establish priorities and apply them ruthlessly in order to destroy the traffic in hard drugs.

Need a moral basis for hard time for drug dealers? Every sale is an attempted murder. If they haven’t killed someone already, its just an accident. Its a serious crime and it deserves to be taken seriously. More importantly, without dealers, the entire organization will crash.

Smugglers shooting at the Coast Guard–Not a Trend We Want to Encourage

ESCANABA has released a statement about an incident in which her boarding party was fired upon by suspected smugglers.

In this case, the boarding party was “over the horizon” from ESCANABA. This highlights a potential concern in using this capability. When a cutter is clearly in view, it’s got to be rather intimidating. Smugglers can see, if there is a fight, they will lose. When both the boarding party and the smugglers are over the horizon, the odds look much more even, particularly if the smuggler feels escape is near by.

Perhaps a helicopter in support, particularly if it is equipped with an obviously devastating weapon, would restore a proper imbalance in our favor.