U.S. Customs and the War on Drugs

June 17, 2016

The intense, federally funded, “War on Drugs” began for most law enforcement agencies when President Nixon coined the phrase in 1971. This ramping up of intensity eventually led to the formation of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973. A decade later President Reagan used the phase again when he declared that drugs were a threat to National Security. President Reagan initiated a two pronged approach to combating drugs based on the economics of supply and demand. For this two pronged approach to work, it meant reducing the demand for illicit drugs in the U.S., using programs like Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), and keeping the illicit drugs from ever reaching the U.S. in the first place. This put much of the onus on the U.S. Customs Service as the lead border agency.

The increased demand on the U.S. Customs Service put an equal demand on myself. For me this meant many months away from home and working in a very unforgiving environment. My first deployment out of the U.S. was in 1989, and for almost the next 10 years, I would spend 4 to 6 months each year deployed to several countries in Central America, South America, and the Southern Caribbean. Mexico was also a major area of operations. Agents would work with the host nation and many of their law enforcement officers with one goal in mind. The goal was to interdict the flow of illicit narcotics at the source and in the transient zones. In the 1980’s (and continuing to today) 95% of marijuana smuggled into the U.S. came from Mexico. Mexico was also a major overland route to the U.S. for cocaine produced in South America. South America, specifically Colombia and Peru, was the source of most cocaine entering the U.S. The Western Caribbean and Eastern Pacific were the choicest air and water transient routes. To appreciate the challenge of this and why U.S. Customs deployed to assist the host nations, a person only needs to understand the magnitude of this effort. For example, Colombia is 440,000 square miles and Peru is 500,000 square miles. To put this into perspective, each country is larger than Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and Iowa combined. Add in counties in Central America and the area encompassed by the transient routes, and the sheer enormity of the task becomes clear.

To accomplish interdiction U.S. Customs used highly modified aircraft which were designed to intercept aircraft flying between the various countries and into the US. Customs also used specially modified vessels for the same purpose of interdicting the smugglers within U.S. coastal waters. My job was to fly the interceptor aircraft and assist host nation law enforcement in the arrest of suspected smugglers. It was a daunting task considering the area that we were responsible to patrol, the lack of communications, lack of ground based radar, and minimal places to find fuel. At times it felt like searching for a needle in a haystack while looking through a straw. Crews would concentrate their searches at night, since in Colombia and Peru only military, commercial, and law enforcement aircraft were allowed to fly after sundown. This made the haystack a little smaller, but it was still a challenging task. Fortunately, or unfortunately, our effectiveness was also a measure of the host nation’s law enforcement personnel assigned to us.

My crew and I had one mission that stretched the limits of the aircraft, our patience, communications, the cooperative spirit of two countries, and dumb luck. While operating out of Colombia, one of the ground based radar sites picked up an intermittent target that they requested we investigate. The first problem that we faced was that the location of the contact was in Peru. Since we were operating out of Colombia, we had a Colombian law enforcement agent on the aircraft and were prevented from entering Peruvian airspace because of his presence. The Colombians and Peruvians worked extremely well with us but not with each other. We tried numerous times to gain permission, but we were repeatedly denied. This meant potentially losing the target from ground radar before we could acquire the target with the aircraft’s radar. Fortunately we were able to find the target before arriving at the border and were able to have enough room to maneuver and keep the target locked on radar without crossing an international border (and potentially starting an international incident). We tracked the aircraft until it landed on an improved landing strip in the jungle.

We had done our job and now the Columbian host nation officer took over and began to vector the military (who work hand in hand with law enforcement in many counties) to the location where the aircraft landed. At this time we learned that the military asset coming to our assistance was a converted DC-3. The conversion included several Gatling guns, and the U.S. military has affectionately named this version “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Knowing what was headed our way and wanting to guarantee that our two aircraft did not occupy the same space at the same time, I told the host nation officer at what altitude we would be flying and at what altitude I wanted the other aircraft to fly. Unbeknownst to me, the host nation officer got the altitudes mixed up, which could have been catastrophic. Fortunately, he added another thousand feet to the military aircraft. So instead of our aircraft, with the Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) being at a higher altitude, and the military aircraft with the guns being at a lower, it was reversed. We discovered this error when the Colombian military aircraft engaged the smugglers’ aircraft on the ground, and all I could see were the tracers crossing in front of me. I never realized until that night just how maneuverable the aircraft we were flying was, nor how good it felt to land back safely at the airfield. It was my mistake on not paying closer attention, and it was a mistake that I never made again.

There are those who will ask, “Did you make a difference?” It is impossible to say because we will never know the impact on the United States the U.S. Customs and its front line agents had they had not been there to interdict. U.S. Customs, now part of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) continues operating out of many of these countries today. The challenges remain the same for CBP. Although the tactics and equipment have changed as the smugglers continue to come up new and innovative ways to try and thwart the efforts of CBP. However what hasn’t changed is the goal; stop the flow of illicit narcotics from coming to the United States.

About the Author
  • Prior to retiring in 2013 John Beutlich was the Executive Director, Northern Border Operations within Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Office of Air & Marine (OAM). He was responsible for the Northern Region of the United States from Bellingham, WA to Houlton, ME (approx. 5000 miles of border)and the adjacent interior States. The Region consisted of eight Air Branches, nine coastal marine units, and 13 riverine marine units employing over 500 air and marine interdiction agents, staff, and maintenance personnel to operate a fleet of 52 aircraft from an EC-120 light observation helicopter to the C-550 Interceptor Jet and 77 vessels from utility class to high speed interceptors and an annual operating budget of almost $60 million.

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