Drug traffickers in the western hemisphere, many with ties to international terrorist organizations, have the ability to move almost anything under 10 tons undetected straight to the U.S. coastline, according to an officer tasked with hunting them.
The U.S. is falling behind swiftly advancing foes operating within countries such as Honduras, Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador, who often have capabilities that exceed those countries' militaries, says Coast Guard Rear Adm. Charles Michel, director of the Joint Interagency Task Force-South. Narco-traffickers employ military-style equipment such as improvised explosive devices and even untraceable homemade submarines to protect and move hundreds of tons of drugs into the U.S., Europe and Asia every year.
The task force's efforts have been gutted by sequestration, leaving three to four ships (from a high of eight in recent years) and four to five aircraft to cover a region nearly 12 times the size of the continental U.S. Michel would not provide specific numbers on vessels for security reasons.
"We're working against a non-state actor that brings to the table capabilities that heretofore have only resided in nations," Michel said at a breakfast meeting with reporters on Wednesday of the roughly $85 billion cocaine trade. "Unfortunately, because of our consumers' desire to use this particular product, that's what we've created down there."
These transnational criminal organizations have tested, developed and built submarines capable of carrying 10 metric tons of any substance or objects across thousands of nautical miles without the need for refueling. This cargo could include people or a weapon of mass destruction, though so far have only been used for drugs, says Michel.
They are made using ordinary parts that could be found at any hardware store. None of the components can be traced back to foreign military powers, Michel says, and they look like small-scale fishing vessels on detection equipment. They cost roughly $1 million and are scuttled after delivery, as its payload could carry hundreds of millions of dollars worth of distributable cocaine.
"I have a lot of respect for the capabilities of these narco-traffickers," says Michel. "They are as inventive and creative and ruthless as anyone I have ever seen."
"These guys...are just evil people, but they're brilliant evil people," he adds.
One of these vessels recovered by JIATFS is on display outside its headquarters in Key West, Fla. It is coyly dubbed "Bigfoot," after a previous commander claimed this elusive and then-unconfirmed vehicle could not possibly exist. The New York Times published a picture of this submarine in 2009.
These drug traffickers constantly parry against U.S. and allied nations' efforts to stop the distribution and creation of these drugs. One side started spraying large coca fields with chemicals, so the traffickers began growing smaller fields intermingled with actual crops, or covering them with nets.
Traffickers also began using IEDs and snipers to keep law enforcement officers from accessing these fields.
Despite this arms and tactics race, and limited resources from the U.S. defense budget, the task force has still seized 186 metric tons of cocaine since January 15, 2012.
Michel's organization is comprised of every military and intelligence service, almost every law enforcement agency and officers from 14 countries to combat the flow of drugs -- namely cocaine -- out of Central and South America.
But it is a large-scale war. JIATFS estimates roughly 1,200 metric tons of cocaine was likely grown last year, with roughly three quarters of it bound for countries other than the U.S.
These narcotics organizations are also increasingly teaming up with foreign nefarious groups, such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in Northern Africa. Of the 62 terrorist organizations listed by the U.N., 37 are fueled by some sort of drug trade.
"It is truly a global problem and we need to be concerned about flows going not only into the U.S. but into these other directions as well," Michel says.
"The trends in the non-U.S. direction are not good," he adds. "Those routes that move in other directions are by magnitudes far less patrolled and controlled than those in the U.S."
JIATFS is increasingly modernizing its tactics as it fields only three U.S. Coast Guard ships, one Navy vessel, and a handful of aircraft from the Navy, Coast Guard and Air Force. It is turning more to intelligence gleaned from drones and cyber investigations, and no longer conducts regional patrols. It only deploys ships for specific interdictions, Michel says.
JIATFS has been tasked with interception of 40 percent of U.S.-bound cocaine by 2015. In 2012 that number was roughly 25 percent.