Trouble at Sea: Budget Cuts, Changing Smuggling Trends Create New Problems for Old South Florida Headache

BY CHRIS PAWLIK – It’s no secret that South Florida has long been one of the largest entry points for the supply of cocaine sold in the United States. Much to the chagrin of state and federal law enforcement, cocaine smugglers have utilized the vastness of the ocean to elude detection in a difficult game of cat-and-mouse. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that as law enforcement officials change their approach to smugglers, smugglers just change their approach to well, smuggling.

A recent Miami Herald article pointed out that in the first half of 2013 alone nearly double the amount of cocaine smuggled into the United States was trafficked through the Caribbean. According to Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), that amount was 14%. Many factors are believed to account for the recent developments in the Caribbean, including a crackdown along the U.S. border with Mexico and increased enforcement efforts in South and Central America.

The changing trends are also likely to especially draw the ire and concern of other federal law enforcement officials who drive the engine in the War on Drugs. The United States Department of Justice National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) has designated South Florida, along with other regions of the United States, as a high intensity drug trafficking area, or HIDTA for short. The NDIC occasionally publishes Drug Market Analyses for the various regions designated as HIDTAs. According to the NDIC’s most recent South Florida Drug Market Analysis published in 2011, the distribution and abuse of cocaine continued to be one of the principal drug threats within the region. (PG 7). As the Drug Market Analysis further indicates, the amount of cocaine seized in South Florida in 2010 was 16,127 kilograms, an increase of 3,396 kilograms from the year prior.

The numbers from the 2011 NDIC report, when taken together with the DEA’s own reports of the near doubling of cocaine trafficked through the Caribbean in 2013, paint a clear picture that cocaine smugglers are determined to re-assert their presence. When faced with adversity from law enforcement, the smugglers react and adapt their strategies.

Further confounding law enforcement’s battle against the rising waves of cocaine trafficked through the Caribbean are automatic federal budget cuts. The Coast Guard, the only military service of the United States that is authorized to make arrests far from America’s shores, was not immune from these cuts. In 2013, the Coast Guard reduced its operating costs by 25% as a result of those automatic budget cuts. Adm. Robert Papp is the Coast Guard’s Commandant. In an interview with the associated press regarding the cuts, Papp stated, “Our interdictions are down 30 percent from the year before, when we had more assets out there, so that’s an indicator to me that as soon as we start pulling assets away, they’re running more drugs and they’re getting through”

As a result, smugglers are significantly incentivized to continue their illicit trading activities. For smugglers, federal budget cuts mean a reduced law enforcement presence throughout all regions, not just the Caribbean, which in turn encourages the smugglers to ship higher volumes of drugs with a great number of vessels in order to obtain a bigger payout.

While the federal government provides a line of defense for the South Florida community against drug smugglers, this defense should not be considered a perennial bulwark.  Budget cuts and changing trends that have diminished the federal government’s capacity to battle drug smugglers will put increased pressure upon Florida law enforcement when cocaine smugglers come ashore. The drug trade has wreaked enough damage to our community and should not be given the opportunity to return.

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