JOINT BASE CHARLESTON, S.C. —
Many may be familiar with the U.S. Coast Guard’s myriad of missions including search and rescue, law enforcement, port security, aids to navigation and marine safety -- especially since our boats, small cutters, buoy tenders, and helicopters are always out and about in the Lowcountry. What may be less known is, since the end of 2014, Charleston has been homeport to two National Security Cutters, the U.S. Coast Guard cutters Hamilton and James. Additionally, in the next few years, at least one more cutter will likely call Charleston home. USCGC Hamilton was the first to arrive in Charleston and is the sixth cutter to bear the name of the nation’s first Treasury Secretary. Alexander Hamilton was also the father of the Revenue Marine Service which would become the nucleus of today’s Coast Guard.
The National Security Cutters, like Hamilton, are the largest and most technologically advanced asset in the Coast Guard’s fleet. Not only are they capable of performing all of the Coast Guard’s missions (except perhaps ice breaking), including national defense, but are typically called upon to perform those missions far from our homeport. Not seeing Hamilton in our local waters is not an indication of inactivity. Quite the contrary, we are doing our work all over the world. A typical deployment for Hamilton is 60 to 90 days long and we are gone, on average, more than half the year - every year.
Hamilton and James both supported hurricane response and recovery efforts in Florida and Puerto Rico in 2017 and are often deployed to the Eastern Pacific where our primary mission is law enforcement. The EPAC is an area where transnational criminal organizations and their activities are more vulnerable and can be targeted far from our shores.
On Feb. 17, 2018, Hamilton returned from a 60 day patrol spent mostly in the Eastern Pacific and at times in the southern hemisphere. Working with other Coast Guard crews, Customs and Border Protection aircraft, Navy aircraft, DoD units and our foreign partners, Hamilton detained 18 suspected drug smugglers for trial in the U.S. and confiscated 14,000 lbs. of cocaine, worth over $188 million. Thanks to the crew of Hamilton (and our families we left behind), our shipmates on our sister cutters and our interagency partners, those drugs did not reach main street America. In addition, the illicit profits can’t be used by the transnational criminal organizations to fund further expansion of their criminal networks, promote greater corruption, violence, or a break down in the rule of law in our partner nations to the south.
Unfortunately, it is a temporary victory. According to multiple reports from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Business Insider, Insight Crime and ABC News, cocaine production in Colombia has reached a record high and the transnational criminal organizations are continuing to develop new tactics to try to keep their profit margins high. As the influence and power of these criminal organizations spread, no one in our hemisphere is safe from their corrosive effect. Overdose rates are at epidemic levels killing more than 60,000 people in the U.S. in 2016. Epidemic murder rates plague our neighbors in Central America forcing them to flee violence as rival gangs vie for valuable territory at drug transshipment points. In fiscal year 2016, nearly 46,900 unaccompanied children and more than 70,400 family units from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were intercepted at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Your Coast Guard is the only U.S. agency with the unique authorities to pursue criminal organizations on the high seas, far from our borders. Since commissioning, Hamilton has interdicted approximately 41,580 pounds of cocaine valued at $795 million. More importantly, 86 suspected smugglers have been brought to the U.S. for trial. The Coast Guard as a whole apprehended a record 708 suspected smugglers, the majority of which will face prosecution in the U.S., and interdicted more than 493,000 lbs. of cocaine in Fiscal Year 2017. While the work of Hamilton and our partners is critical, it is a team effort focused on taking down networks through the use of intelligence based operations and putting together air tight case packages. Skilled U.S. prosecutors and investigators leverage our interdictions to bring suspected drug kingpins to justice. The Coast Guard has reported that, from 2002 to 2011, information obtained from suspects apprehended by the Coast Guard contributed to the arrest and extradition of more than 75 percent of the then known drug kingpins.
The more interdictions we make, the more we know about the dangerous organizations trying to flood our borders with illicit narcotics. Our efforts lead to more interdictions, extraditions, arrests and prosecutions. The continued pressure on these transnational criminal organizations allows Hamilton to use intelligence-based targeting to locate, monitor, track and apprehend members of these criminal organizations. Our goal today is to find the most vulnerable points in the network and apply pressure to close these criminal enterprises.
The threat of transnational organized crime is a danger no single ship, agency, country or person can address alone. Hamilton and James represent a vast group of dedicated interagency and international partners resolved in a shared purpose to protect those who could be harmed by these dangerous drugs and bring the criminals who smuggle them to justice.
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(U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Anna Ruth, combat systems officer also contributed to this commentary.)