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Drug Trafficking Through Maritime Routes

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Transportation
Wordcount: 2186 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Background, DHS, USCG

National security refers to the concept of the security of a nation including its citizen, economy, institution and considered a duty of the government. It also includes protecting the nations “secrets”.

To answer the issue of national security, the department of national security (DHS) has for mission to protect the nation from the many threats it faces. The DHS was established in 2002, in the aftermath of 9/11, and falls within the Presidential Policy Directive / PPD-8 which gives each agency within the national security their guideline and what they should be doing. Within the DHS fall some support component such as FEMA and the USCG (Figure 1). The USCG is one of the five military forces the United State possesses and the USCG serves alongside the navy – and together they comprise the “national fleet” (white paper 2013), however the only military branches belonging to DHS. It is a federal agency and Maritime’s first responders which protects those on the sea, against threats delivered by sea and the sea itself. It protects the border, manages movement of commerce and shipping indeed since the US relies on its maritime field for commerce but also for security. The USCG is in charge of inland and coastal waters. Us waterways and offshore zone are vulnerable to illicit and criminal activities.

Figure 1: adapted from DHS

It is also important to keep in mind that the USCG is part of the intelligence community (2016, presidential transition). There are 16 members of the intelligence community that work separately and together to conduct intelligence activities to support the foreign policy and national security of the United States.

The role of the USCG within the DHS falls within eleven missions (Haddow et al 2017) including: (1) port, waterway and coastal security, (2) drug interdiction, (3) aids to navigation, (4) search and rescue, (5) living marine resources, (6) defense readiness, (7) marine safety, (8) migrant interdiction, (9) marine environment protection, (10) ice operation, (11) other law enforcement.

 In addition, the USCG is dealing with our ever changing world and challenges such as the opening of the Artic where the CG faces commercial, environmental, and security concerns. Looking at the budget of DHS in 2014, the USCG received about 16% of their total funds (Haddow et al 2017). The Coast Guard’s fleet has been updated and keeping up with the new technologies. Indeed National Security Cutter (NSC), that started coming online in 2008 are replacing the older high endurance cutters that have been in duty since the 1960s. The range of a cutter is about 12.000 miles.

USCG and drug interdiction

The USCG drug interdiction mission has been present for many years. Chinese immigrants were the first known to smuggle drug in the 1870s (Rosen, 2015). Opium was being smuggled in the country via merchant ships and cargos. The first documented opium seizure was made by the Revenue Cutter Wolcott on Aug. 31, 1890. During the 1920s, more funding and resources was provided to the USCG to increase drug interedition, which was proven successful. Through time, smugglers kept using the maritime route as a primary way for illegal smuggling of narcotics into the U.S. with the USCG remaining the main player in counteractions (Kramek, 2000).

Its first major marijuana seizure on March 8, 1973, when Coast Guard Cutter Dauntless boarded a 38-foot sports fisherman and arrested  crew, with more than a ton of marijuana on board.

With technology evolving, so did the drug smuggling and task forces across agencies but also internationally have been put together to increase drug interdiction.

In 2014, more then 90% of cocaine smuggled into the country came from maritime routes with the rest being by aircraft. With the increasing illegal movement of narcotics, the USCG has paid special focus on the matter using different techniques. Indeed, in April 2015, Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell returned to homeport with more than 29,700 pounds of pure, uncut cocaine, with an estimated street value of more than half a billion dollars. The narcotics was seized during an international joint operation, marking the largest maritime cocaine seizure in the Eastern Pacific Ocean since 2009.

  In the fiscal year of October 2014 to the same month of 2015 the USCG seized approximately 50,000 kilos of cocaine in maritime areas, interestingly for the period 2016-2017 the figure had increased to 206,000 kilos with a value exceeding 6,000 million dollars (Petrov, 2018). Numbers are increasing. The Mexican Navy, seized, in 2018 already, 4 tons of cocaine that was being smuggled via maritime routes, which same time in 2017 they had only seized 1 ton. This is only what is being seized, indicating even more illegal drugs being smuggled. 

Coast Guard Cutter Stratton

The Coast Guard Cutter Stratton is one of six USCG cutters and part of the National Security Cutter or also the known as Legend-class national security cutter (NSC). The program is the core of the Coast Guard’s fleet, capable of executing the most challenging operations, including supporting maritime homeland security and defense missions. The cutters are designed to complete open ocean patrol missions (Box 1).

The DEA is suggesting that in 2012, 80% of the drug arrived in that country by sea and by 2015 it had already increased to 95 %.

Drug route

Cartels, the main manufacturers of drugs, usually do not aim to sail drugs directly into the U.S., they have boats trying to avoid USCG by cruising along beaches along the Mexican coast (figure 2). The main maritime routes include the Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico and now, more intensively, the Caribbean. The Tijuana cartel were the first to use maritime routes for smuggling and have been using it since the 90s. They run from different Mexican ports of the Pacific and the Gulf of California: in Topolobampo, Sinaloa; La Paz and Ensenada, in the peninsula of Baja California; Guaymas Sonora; Acapulco Guerrero; Lázaro Cárdenas, in Michoacán; Manzanillo, Colima, and Tapachula, Chiapas. Trafficking via the sea has turned into a business or industry comprised of many individual enterprises of varying size and organization with complex dynamics and moving parts (Aune 1990). It has been misleading to believe that the drug trafficking is run by a handful of powerful cartels, when what appears to be happening is a flexible and fluid flow, depending on demand, market opportunities and constraints (Kenney, 2007). This trafficking area is known as the “transit zone” which is an area six million square mile the USCG patrols. In the fiscal year of 2017, 455,000 pounds of cocaine worth over $6 billion wholesale have been stopped by the Coast Guard (Petrov 2018).

Smuggling methods

Cargo trains, passenger busses, planes, tunnels, catapult, mule and many more methods have been used by cartels to smuggle narcotics into the US. However there has been a significant increase in use of maritime routes. The cartels have been very inventive, indeed in 2009, drug was being smuggled in the stomachs of dead sharks. However nowadays new techniques are being used such as self-propelled, semi-submersible able to hold tons of drugs (Nixon 2017). The Department of Homeland Security has estimated that drug submarines account for nearly 32 percent of all maritime cocaine flow. The cartels have developed some highly sophisticated and diverse methods from motorboats, hidden in large container vessels, submarines. In 2016, the Columbian authorities discovered a drug shipment “sailing” north for Panama driven by currents and highly sophisticated radars operating with solar energy and which could be located via cellphone.

Globalization of drug use

This also raises the question of the globalization of drug use, also considering the current heroin crisis (Bagley, 2012). Indeed, the drug use remains low in Latin America compared to increase use in the U.S. (Seelke. 2010). The drug use is an addiction which leads to ever higher demand too. So, unless drug issue and the heroin crisis are reducing the demand will keep rising. The primary consumption countries are US, Canada and western Europe. A study in Australia showed that almost 60% of young people reported the  ‘lifetime use’ of illegal drugs and about 30% recent users (in the last month) (Duff, 2005)


Illegal trafficking of narcotics through the maritime routes is an ever growing challenges with increased demands and new and more sophisticated technologies. The U.S. Coast Guard within the Department of Homeland security aim to reduce the entry of narcotics into the country a. With the underline worry of what is the profit of selling drugs used to fund terrorism; human, weapon and drug trafficking; piracy; environmental crime; and cyber-crime.

Box 1: USCG capabilities: USCGC Stratton


  • 2013 white paper on resourcing the USCG, Homeland Security
  • 2016 Presidential Transition – DHS Component Overview, U.S. COAST GUARD
  • Aune, B. R. (1990). Maritime drug trafficking: an underrated problem. Bulletin on narcotics42(1), 63-72.
  • Bagley, B. (2012). Drug trafficking and organized crime in the Americas. Woodrow Wilson Center Update of the Americas.
  • Duff, C. (2005). Party drugs and party people: Examining the ‘normalization’of recreational drug use in Melbourne, Australia. International journal of drug policy16(3), 161-170.
  • Haddow, G., Bullock, J., & Coppola, D. P. (2017). Introduction to emergency management. Butterworth-Heinemann.
  • Kenney, M. (2007). The architecture of drug trafficking: network forms of organisation in the Colombian cocaine trade. Global crime8(3), 233-259.
  • Kramek, J. E. (2000). Bilateral maritime counter-drug and immigrant interdiction agreements: is this the world of the future. U. Miami Inter-Am. L. Rev.31, 121.
  • Nixon (2017), By Land, Sea or Catapult: How Smugglers Get Drugs Across the Border, NY times
  • Petrov, 2018, How Do Mexican Drug Cartels Traffic Through the Sea?, Maritime Herald.
  • Rosen, 2015, 225 years of Service to Nation: Drug interdiction, Coast Guard Compass)
  • Seelke, C. R. (Ed.). (2010). Latin America and the Caribbean: Illicit drug trafficking and US counterdrug programs. DIANE Publishing.


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