Cocaine Commandos

Flying thousands of feet above the ocean, the pilots that serve as America’s first line of defense in the war on drugs use cutting-edge technology and old-fashioned know-how.

​Inside the Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion, a high-tech, flat-gray turboprop used to track drug smugglers, two men eye the radar screens perched just outside the open cabin door. Another grips a joystick controlling a long-range infrared camera, which he zooms down on the dark, choppy waters below. 

Roughly 90 miles off the coast of Costa Rica, 5,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean, the team is searching for a speedboat. Two months earlier, this U.S. Customs and Border Protection team had spotted a sleek, 30-foot fiberglass vessel cutting through the waters north of the Galapagos Islands and, following the carefully choreographed rules of engagement, called in the cavalry, in this case a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter that was in the area. When the drug smugglers realized they’d been discovered, they leaped into action, unloading cocaine—bales and bales of it—and sweeping the boat clean. They were swift, but not swift enough.

With the boat attempting to hightail it away from the scene, the helicopter team fired, disabling the craft, and arrested the crew. The next day, a CBP P-3 team out of Jacksonville, Florida made yet another sortie, this one in the western Caribbean, near the Panama–Colombia border. That one netted 6,000 pounds. All told, the CBP teams made six busts in 10 days, totalling 17,700 pounds of cocaine. That’s $1.3 billion worth of coke that will never make it past America’s borders—not a bad way to start the summer.

As the first line of defense against the estimated 600 tons of cocaine funneled toward the U.S. from South America each year, these P-3 surveillance crews are a crucial cog in an interdiction strategy known as defense in depth, which targets drug runners in the early stages of delivery, intercepting them before they reach Central America or Mexico. Altogether, CBP’s scouts are credited with more than $8 billion in drug seizures a year, making them the country’s most successful counternarcotics team. On average, they capture $1.3 million worth of coke for every hour they’re in the air.

And yet they have the seemingly impossible task of finding tiny speedboats, not to mention semi-submersibles, in the 42 million square miles of hot zones that blanket the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific. As pilot BJ Hutchinson (his name—along with others—has been changed to protect him from cartel retaliation) admits, “It’s like having one car to patrol the entire state of Texas.”

That’s where that high-tech surveillance equipment comes in. The radar has just detected a craft heading north toward Nicaragua at 20 knots. Keith Asbury, a jovial 35-year-old pilot, quickly lowers the P-3 to 500 feet for a closer look. 

Timo Martinez, the stocky camera operator, picks up something on his infrared screen: a tiny black dot with a white stream shooting behind it. As he zooms in further, he can see the photonegative image of the boat riding low, a sign that it’s weighed down with bales of coke and barrels of gas. “He’s definitely not out here to fish,” BJ says.

In the main hallway of the crew’s headquarters—the National Air Security Operations Center in Jacksonville—there’s a drug lord “wall of shame,” 156 photos of bounty seized by the team: 8,157 pounds of cocaine from a go-fast boat in the Eastern Pacific, 4,700 more from a bust near Colombia, 13,037 from a vessel in the Caribbean. 

Back in the Miami Vice days of the 1980s, drug cartels employed small planes to ferry coke to the States. Mexicans would drop it near the border and then cart it into the U.S. on the backs of mules. “They would see us and not care,” says veteran radar operator Rick Barrett. As the planes were intercepted, smugglers began to supplant them with fishing boats capable of carrying up to 20,000 pounds of contraband. Instead of filling the hulls with ice and fish, they packed them with powder. Still, the boats averaged only 10 to 12 knots, or less than 15 miles per hour.

When those vessels proved to be easy pickings for law enforcement, the smugglers turned to the long, narrow go-fast boats of racing and rum-running fame. Slicing through the water at 50 knots, the fiberglass hulls carry less coke than fishing boats can, but they’re harder to track on radar and harder to catch up to once spotted.

By the late 1990s, however, successful interdiction efforts in the Caribbean resulted in what drug trafficking analyst Bruce Bagley, chair of International Studies at the University of Miami, calls “a massive proliferation of Pacific corridor transportation.” Smugglers simply loaded their go-fast boats with barrels of gas and ventured way out to sea—at times 1,000 miles into the eastern Pacific—heading north toward Portland to drop their goods. Today they have taken what LotharEckardt, executive director of the U.S. National Air Security Operations, calls a “flood strategy,” spreading boats throughout the waters on the East and West coasts

In the late 2000s, strange vessels began surfacing like something out of a Jules Verne novel. Cobbled together in the jungles of Colombia, the so-called narcosubs skimmed along the ocean surface powered by small diesel engines. Crafted from fiberglass, they had narrow cross-sections that confounded radar and blue decks that blended into the seas. One CBP team spotted a semi-submersible disguised as a fishing vessel. After the smugglers had reached open water, they tore away the wood panels, revealing the slippery specter beneath. Though no faster than fishing boats, these subs carry massive loads—as much as five tons of coke.

There is, it seems, no shortage of innovative delivery options—jet-skis, buoys, hollowed-out tree trunks and coke-filled torpedoes dragged behind boats, even unmanned drones. When you stop to think about it, the wall of shame becomes a dizzying taunt.

“Go! go! go!” shouts Keith,as he bounds into a van with the troops. The sun is beating down on the tarmac here at the airport in Costa Rica. The giant gray P-3 looms nearby, a local maintenance crew carefully inspecting its propellers. 

The CBP logs about 140 missions a year, all launched from deployment spots that offer quick access to the drug trade. In total, there are 98 P-3 crew members based in Jacksonville and Corpus Christi, Texas.

Each is summoned for duty roughly one week a month. 

As the guys board the plane and slip into their flight suits, they crack jokes and rib each other, clearly happy to be on the job. In the armed forces, they might be shuttling supplies or soldiers to specified targets. Here they get credit for making busts. “It’s almost like a dream job,” Keith says. “You’re a law enforcement guy, you get to carry a gun…The guys in the navy are all jealous I got in.”

To make the cut as a pilot or a flight engineer, candidates are required by the CBP to have 1,500 hours of flight time, which means most of them are military vets. Keith spent nine years as a pilot and flight instructor in the navy. BJ logged six. For both, there’s a satisfying rush that comes with keeping cocaine off America’s streets. “In Iraq, you don’t necessarily get the full picture of what you’re doing,” Keith says. “But here you see the bad guys, you see the drugs come off the water.”

Right before takeoff, the team assembles for a debriefing near the cockpit. They’ve received information about another go-fast that left Ecuador the day before with roughly 950 pounds of cocaine in its hold. This one’s heading north toward a rendezvous with a fishing vessel off the coast of Nicaragua. The plan is to bust both boats mid-swap.

This requires perfect timing, of course. Tip off the go-fast crew and it will dump the contraband—no matter how valuable—overboard. Wait too long and risk the darkness of night. Frightened smugglers have been known to cut their engines and play a waiting game, bobbing in the middle of the ocean until a P-3 gets low on gas and retreats to refuel. At times, the bandits even scuttle their boats, drugs and all, leaving the P-3 team with no choice but to rescue them.

At the moment, however, everything’s working according to plan. Timo zooms in on the go-fast, working his joystick like a fisherman angling for tuna, as the boat fills his screen. Known for his eagle eye, the camera operator can identify black blurs as bales of coke from five miles away. “I think I see two engines and three people,” he says, leaning into the task.

“But we can’t find out until we go overt. We can’t spook him.”

Couple of hours into the mission, a thick blanket of clouds has moved in below us, obscuring even the infrared detector. And Timo is pissed. “Shit,” he says.

“I just lost him.”

As the camera sweeps over the ocean, it’s like looking for a deer tick on a giant scalp of rolling waves. Somehow, Timo finds the dot yet again and we’re back on target. But with sunset just an hour away, the mood is somber. The plane that’s been feeding us info on the fishing vessel, last spotted 30 miles north, is running low on gas and has to head back to Corpus Christi.

For all the thrill of the hunt, the game requires endless patience. Busting drug runners isn’t simply about finding them; it’s about catching them at just the right moment. The Joint Interagency Task Force-South—JIATFSfor short—coordinates the interdiction efforts from a base in Key West, continuously reviewing the footage from the other plane’s camera feed. There’s a constant back-and-forth between the mission commanders. In this case, JIATFS calls the shots in conjunction with officials from Nicaragua, who are responsible for making the actual arrest. The collaboration requires a delicate balance. While the crew here is itching to spring the trap, they can’t make a move until they get the go-ahead from authorities thousands of miles away. Now, roughly 120 miles offshore, the go-fast is too far out to sea for the Nicaraguan police. If the smugglers get within 12 miles of the coast, however, the P-3 may have to recognize the no-fly zone imposed by international borders.

If the Nicaraguans don’t come out,” Timo says, “we might go overt, turn on all the lights and try to scare the crap out of them, make them throw the dope overboard.” While waiting on instructions from the JIATFS, the crew decides to creep closer so as not to lose sight of the boat. “I don’t give a shit if he hears us,” Rick says. “I don’t want him to get too far away.”

For the crew, the waiting game is excruciating. “During a nine-, 10-, sometimes 12-hour mission, being at that level of awareness, constantly flying sorties and determining whether something is suspect, is challenging,” says BJ. 

Outside the window, the setting sun casts a magnificent glow across the Pacific Ocean, splashing the black water with orange and red. Moments later, Dan Jameson, a puckish 45-year-old pilot, comes by, lowering the canvas blinds and dimming the interior lights to make the P-3 harder to spot from below. By 6:30 p.m., four hours into the mission, the feeling inside the plane has darkened, too. The go-fast has gone dead in the water, cutting its engines. Perhaps for refueling, perhaps because the smugglers know their pursuers are lingering thousands of feet above them. With the engines off, and no heat bounding from the boat, Timo’s infrared is useless.

“They tell us we’re sitting on a guy who has dope,” he says, looking at the black screen. “And there’s nothing we can do about it.”

By 7:30 p.m., with the wind speckling the seas with whitecaps, we’ve lost radar contact, too. Timo pans his camera back and forth. Nothing. “Shit!” he says.

But tonight gets back on track after all. After two hours without any sign of the go-fast, Timo’s infrared suddenly snaps back in on the boat, which is now cutting through the waves about 20 miles from the last confirmed location. The sounds of cheers and high-fives fill the plane. The mission is a success, and now it’s time to call in the navy to take over. “You know what?” says Rick. “It doesn’t matter that we lost him for two hours, because we found him. That two hours of anxiety was for nothing.”

Back at the palm-lined hotel pool, dressed in shorts and T-shirts, the guys unwind over beers, cigars, and home movies showcasing their drug busts. Over the past week, many have compared their profession to fishing—the waiting, the patience, the catches—and, in a way, they do seem like sportsmen. They even have a running bet with the Corpus Christi crew. “We compete to see who can get the most dope,” Timo says. So far this year, his team is 33,000 pounds ahead, he brags.

The men take turns showing off their trophies. Gail Henley, a detection enforcement officer, boots up footage of a narco-sub scuttled by the crew moments after it was tied to a police boat, pulling both vessels down. Rick plays a video of a plane that landed in Nicaragua. As the P-3 clandestinely watched from above, a procession of locals carried bales of coke to the boats on a nearby beach. The most dramatic clip shows a go-fast striking shore in Ecuador after the local army shot out its engine. As the guns blazed, villagers streamed in to retrieve the coke, firing back at the soldiers. “It was like a gang fight on the beach,” Rick says.

Given the drug war’s history, it’s only a matter of time until the men are chasing some new phantom. In 2011, a 100-foot sub capable of carrying eight tons of coke and diving 30 feet underwater was discovered in a Colombian mangrove swamp. And an even more chilling specter waits on the horizon: unmanned aircraft. The U.S. is already using drones to combat smugglers. They cost millions less to produce, they stay aloft longer, and their small, thin profiles make them very stealthy. Bagley calls them the wave of the future. “Drug traffickers have incentives to innovate constantly,” he says. “They’re usually two or three steps ahead of government bureaucracy.”

Meanwhile, the battles wage on. In the end, the go-fast boat the guys were tailing was intercepted by that navy P-3 dispatched from El Salvador. The smugglers dumped their cargo—estimated to be a half-ton haul worth upwards of $74 million—into the ocean. In March, the Coast Guard unloaded another $122 million worth of captured contraband in San Diego. But, as Keith points out, there are always more boats to catch. “You go right back out there,” he says, “and find another one.”

Photos by Peter Van Agtmael