If you watched the most recent Cocaine Cowboys about Willy & Sal, you saw cocaine coming over in go-fast boats and planes. But that's the old way of doing things. According to Bloomberg, the drug trade has dramatically changed:
At a Florida port, the U.S. Coast Guard drops off $1.4 billion worth of cocaine and marijuana seized in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific. The haul, the fruit of nearly 30 incidents and boarding operations by the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands, contains nearly 60,000 pounds of cocaine alone.
No, it’s not a reboot of “Miami Vice” — it happened last week.
Huge shipments of drugs are being captured at sea on their way to the U.S. and Europe. In 2019, U.S. authorities boarded the Gayane, a 1,000-foot container ship registered in Liberia, as it was entering a Philadelphia marine terminal at the end of a 9,300-mile voyage from Chile. The raid netted 40,000 pounds of cocaine worth $1.3 billion.
In the 2000s, when I headed the U.S. Southern Command (which has military responsibility for the Western Hemisphere south of the U.S.), one of our crown jewels was the Joint Interagency Task Force South. Headquartered in Key West, Florida, it is built around participation from the entire U.S. government — led by the Coast Guard but with significant support from the Department of Defense, Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration, Customs and Border Patrol, FBI and CIA. Flags of 20 other nations fly in front of the Key West facility, representing liaisons from countries across Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe.
Over the years, traffickers moving cocaine up from the production zone — principally Colombia, Ecuador and northern Peru — have refined their efforts and, like any thriving business, scaled them significantly. In previous decades, they typically used many small runs on light aircraft, ultra-high-speed boats and even semi-submersibles. We captured one of the latter (often referred to in press accounts, incorrectly, as submarines), carrying 10 tons of cocaine, and put it on the lawn in front of Southern Command’s Miami headquarters as a trophy.
While those kinds of operations continue, the movement is toward more industrial notions of transport, with much larger shipments stored in huge container ships headed to the U.S. and Europe. With more than 5,000 major cargo ships globally moving 25 million containers (technically known as “20-foot equivalent units,” or TEUs) — and 11 million containers arriving annually to the U.S. alone — locating the ones carrying drugs is a needle in a haystack problem.
To deal with the traffickers’ new approach of going big, the U.S. and its allies need to update their own strategy and tactics.