One of the US National Drug Control Strategy's priorities is to disrupt the illicit drug market. To this end, the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security provide ships and aircraft to disrupt the flow of illicit drugs, primarily cocaine, shipped from South America through the Caribbean Sea and eastern Pacific Ocean--an area known as the transit zone.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy oversees the US anti-drug strategy. The Joint Interagency Task Force-South directs most transit zone operations.
Cocaine seizures and disruptions in the transit zone have increased about 68 percent since calendar year 2000--from 117 metric tons in 2000 to 196 metric tons in 2004. About two-thirds of the disruptions were in the western Caribbean Sea and eastern Pacific Ocean where the United States has most of its interdiction assets.
JIATF-South and other cognizant officials attribute the increase to improved interagency cooperation and intelligence, the introduction of armed helicopters to stop go-fast boats, and increased cooperation from nations in the region.
Since fiscal year 2000, the availability of assets -- ships and aircraft -- to disrupt drug trafficking in the transit zone have varied. On-station ship days peaked in fiscal year 2001 and flight hours peaked in 2002, but both have generally declined since then, primarily because the Department of Defense has provided fewer assets.
Declines in Defense Department assets have been largely offset by the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, and certain allied nations. Nevertheless, in recent years, JIATF-South has detected less than one-third of the "known and actionable" maritime illicit drug movements in the western Caribbean Sea and eastern Pacific Ocean. Yet, once detected, over 80 percent of the drug movements were disrupted.
Various factors pose challenges to maintaining the current level of transit zone interdiction operations. The reduced availability of the US Navy's P-3 maritime patrol aircraft due to structural problems will degrade the US capability to detect suspect maritime movements, readiness rates of older Coast Guard ships have declined since fiscal year 2000, and the surface radar system on the Coast Guard's long-range surveillance aircraft is often inoperable.
Coast Guard and CBP officials also noted that they may not be able to sustain their level of assets in light of budget constraints and other homeland security priorities that may arise. These officials expressed concern that the long-term implications of likely declines in transit zone assets have not been addressed. The Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 requires agencies to develop performance measures to assess progress in achieving their goals.
The Coast Guard's measures relate to reducing cocaine flow through the transit zone, CBP's planned measures are not specific to the transit zone, and Defense's planned measures focus on the number of disruptions of cocaine movements. But data that would help in assessing transit zone interdiction operations are problematic. For instance, in its assessment for 2004, ONDCP reported that between 325 metric tons and 675 metric tons of cocaine may be moving towards the United States. Such a wide range is not useful for assessing transit zone interdiction operations.
In addition, data on US drug usage are difficult to obtain and often cannot be generalized to the United States. In a 2001 report for ONDCP, the National Research Council made similar observations and recommended ways to improve the collection and analysis of illicit drug data, but ONDCP has not fully addressed them.
Sources: US General Accounting Office, US Department of Homeland Security, US Department of Justice, International Narcotics Enforcement Officers Association
Jim Kouri, CPP is currently fifth vice-president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. He's former chief at a New York City housing project in Washington Heights nicknamed "Crack City" by reporters covering the drug war in the 1980s. In addition, he served as director of public safety at a New Jersey university and director of security for a number of organizations. He's also served on the National Drug Task Force and trained police and security officers throughout the country. He writes for many police and crime magazines including Chief of Police, Police Times, The Narc Officer, Campus Law Enforcement Journal, and others. He's appeared as on-air commentator for over 100 TV and radio news and talk shows including Oprah, McLaughlin Report, CNN Headline News, MTV, Fox News, etc. His book Assume The Position is available at Amazon.Com, Booksamillion.com, and can be ordered at local bookstores. Kouri holds a bachelor of science in criminal justice and master of arts in public administration and he's a board certified protection professional.