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Navy Adding Muscle to Drug War

Crime: High-tech gear and firepower are increasingly being put to sea to help the Coast Guard stop the flow of narcotics from Latin America.

March 28, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Under gray skies and light rain, the guided missile cruiser Valley Forge, built to do hull-to-hull combat with the Soviet navy, set sail Monday for six months in hostile waters.

The Valley Forge will not be on the prowl for the Soviets or the armed forces of Third World nations considered by the United States as potential adversaries.

Rather, its quarry will be one of the most elusive on the high seas: the "go-fast" boats of drug smuggling cartels in the eastern Pacific and the Caribbean.

"I have a message for the go-fast boats: We're watching and we're going to get you," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Van Durick, executive officer of the 567-foot Valley Forge.

The sleek rogue boats, powered by up to four 250-horsepower engines, can skim the waves at up to 70 mph and, by slipping through the "zone defense" of the U.S. anti-drug effort, are thought to be responsible for a ton or more of drugs entering the United States each day.

Until recently the go-fasts were helped both by superior speed and a U.S. Coast Guard policy that all but prohibited the use of preemptive firepower.

But now, the Coast Guard has changed policy and, along with the Navy, is putting more manpower, horsepower and firepower into stopping the clandestine flow of drugs from manufacturers to consumers.

With a budget boost provided last year by Congress, the Coast Guard has added souped-up helicopters called Enforcers and inflatable chase boats with more speed than older models. Coast Guard sharpshooters now have authority to fire warning shots and, if needed, to use state-of-the-art nonlethal weapons to punch holes in the go-fasts and disable their engines.

Coast Guard personnel have also learned "fast-roping" techniques from the Marine Corps in how to board a hostile ship by rappelling from a hovering helicopter.

"In the past, it could be very frustrating when the go-fasts would just outrun us or refuse to stop," said a Coast Guard petty officer, part of a seven-man team deploying with the Valley Forge. "Now we've got a considerably more aggressive posture. This is real law enforcement."

The Coast Guard has established elite, well-armed squads in Miami, Portsmouth, Va., and San Diego trained in the difficult and dangerous job of chasing, disabling and boarding go-fast boats and other drug-laden craft. On some missions, the squads use the Coast Guard's own cutters; other times, they are assigned to Navy ships such as the Valley Forge.

Announced late last year, the Coast Guard's policy change marks the first time since the 1920s--when the Coast Guard was battling rum runners--that the service has used firepower to disable smuggling vessels at sea.

The new policy has meant added coverage from Baja California to Ecuador. In the past, the Caribbean was the main area of concern, with the eastern Pacific being left virtually uncovered by U.S. seaborne forces for weeks.

The two regions are now given nearly equal priority, and a continuous presence is being provided in the eastern Pacific, where many shipments of drugs are dropped off in Mexico or Central America to be trucked into the United States.

Although it is open to debate whether the nation's drug problems can ever be eradicated by focusing on supply rather than trying to reduce demand, there seems no question that the new Navy-Coast Guard effort is productive.

In all of fiscal 1999, the Coast Guard seized 19 1/2 tons of cocaine and other drugs from smugglers in the eastern Pacific. In the first six months of fiscal 2000, the figure is 24 tons and rising.

The White House Office on Drug Policy estimates that more than 400 missions are attempted each year by go-fast boats operating out of ports in Latin America, particularly Colombia.

The Coast Guard says it probably catches fewer than 15% of the go-fast boats, but it aims to increase that figure significantly.

Under U.S. law and several treaties, the Coast Guard has sole authority to board and search vessels thought to be engaged in drug running in international waters. The Navy provides a platform to find and pursue the go-fasts with the Coast Guard doing the actual boarding.

For some patrols, the Coast Guard uses its own cutters, like the San Diego-based Hamilton and the Oregon-based Steadfast that, together, stopped a go-fast boat 40 miles off Acapulco shortly before Christmas and seized 2 1/2 tons of cocaine.

For longer missions, Navy ships like the Valley Forge have something that smaller Coast Guard cutters do not: the best electronic gear that the Silicon Valley can produce to detect, classify and track hundreds of moving targets simultaneously at a distance that is classified top-secret.

Although it is exceedingly rare that go-fast boats are armed, the Valley Forge has deck-mounted guns that could easily destroy any boat that attempted to fire on U.S. forces.

"The Navy's role is to intimidate the drug lords," said crew member Vaughn Hampton. "A show of force can be very persuasive."

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