Drug smugglers heading further out to sea, Coast Guard struggles to keep up amid budget cuts

The Associated Press

This photo taken Jan. 28, 2014, shows a Coast Guard officer following traffic on his screen while facing a dense fog which is almost completely eliminating visibility during a patrol off the San Diego coast in San Diego. With the drug war locking down land routes across Latin America and at the U.S. border, smugglers have been increasingly using large vessels to carry multi-ton loads of cocaine and marijuana hundreds of miles offshore, where the lead federal agency with extensive law enforcement powers is the Coast Guard, a military service roughly the size of the New York Police Department. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

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By JULIE WATSON and ELLIOT SPAGAT, Associated Press

SAN DIEGO (AP) — While security has tightened at the U.S. border, drug smugglers are increasingly turning to the high seas.

The area where boats were seized off California and the northwest coast of Mexico tripled to a size comparable to the state of Montana during the 2013 fiscal year, which ended in September. Off South America, traffickers over the years have been traversing territory so big the continental United States could be dropped inside of it.

Mexico's Sinaloa cartel has been loading marijuana bales onto 50-foot vessels as far south as the Mexican port of Mazatlan — where its leader, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, was captured early Saturday — and running them up the Pacific coast to the U.S., deep into California. It's unclear if Guzman's arrest will hinder the maritime runs.

Meanwhile, budget cuts have hit one of the lead U.S. law enforcement agencies on international waters — the Coast Guard, the only U.S. military service able to make drug arrests hundreds of miles offshore. To meet automatic federal budget cuts, it reduced its operating costs by 25 percent in 2013. It also lost help from U.S. Navy ships on drug missions off Latin America that were decommissioned and not replaced because of cutbacks, or sent elsewhere because of Washington's new military focus.

As such, only a third of suspected drug smuggling boats or aircraft out of South America that were tracked by U.S. intelligence in cocaine-trafficking corridors in the Pacific and Caribbean were stopped last year, the Coast Guard's top officer, Adm. Robert Papp, told The Associated Press.

"Our interdictions are down 30 percent from the year before, when we had more assets out there, so that's an indicator to me that as soon as we start pulling assets away, they're running more drugs and they're getting through," Papp said.

U.S. authorities stopped some 194,000 pounds of cocaine last fiscal year — more than 40,000 pounds less than in 2012, according to Coast Guard statistics. Marijuana seizures dipped between 2012 and 2013 from 124,000 pounds to 81,000 pounds.

Defense officials have warned the cuts would hamper efforts to reach the president's goal of intercepting 40 percent of the illicit drug shipments flowing into the region by 2015. Fighting drug traffickers at sea is crucial because small aircraft used by traffickers can only carry about a ton of drugs versus large boats that can cart up to 20 tons of cocaine or more, authorities said.

As much as 20 percent of the cocaine moving through South America ends up in the United States. Large amounts also travel across the ocean into Africa, providing funding for insurgents and drug traffickers, and then on up into Europe.

"We've had to cut back in hours and funding, and cut back on resources on the water," said Cmdr. Chris German, deputy chief of law enforcement for the 11th District, which stretches from Oregon to Peru. "The Coast Guard's aircraft and ships have cut back on fuel, so every hour we're not in the air or on the water, it does leave a gap."

Even so, sea smuggling has not grabbed the attention of lawmakers like the flow of illegal goods across the land border, where billions have been spent on beefing up security. Part of the reason is the challenge to patrolling the ocean.

With more than 42,000 active-duty members, the Coast Guard is assisted in the drug war by other U.S. agencies.

It works closely with other nations, but that help only goes so far. Bilateral treaties sometimes limit waters it can patrol, and some of the foreign navies are small and underequipped.

U.S. officials, for instance, cannot venture into Mexican waters without prior permission and will stop a chase and alert Mexican authorities if suspected boats cross into that territory. Treaties with nations such as Colombia allow U.S. authorities more latitude.