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May 15, 2001

The Transit Zone: Strategy and Balance


Mr. Chuck Winwood
Acting Commissioner
United States Customs Service

Chairman Grassley, members of the Caucus, thank you for this opportunity to testify on U.S. Customs’ Operations in the Transit Zone.

First, on behalf of the Customs Service, I want to express my appreciation to the Caucus for its constant support of our interdiction efforts.  Your work to spotlight the challenges faced by America’s law enforcement agencies has been and will continue to be vital to our success.

The primary mission of the United States Customs Service is to protect the nation’s borders and the American people from drug smuggling.  Customs contributes its personnel and air and marine assets to Joint Interagency Task Force, or “JIATF,” operations throughout the Source, Transit, and Arrival Zones.

Customs assets include a range of fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, from P-3 AEW planes with dome radar, to P-3 Slicks, to C550 interceptor jets and Blackhawk helicopters, among other craft.  These assets are based out of eleven air branches and ten air units spread across the country in our primary areas of responsibility within the Arrival Zone: the coastal waters around San Diego; the Southwest Border; the Gulf Coast; South Florida and the Caribbean. 

Six of our air branches also serve as marine branches, at which we deploy a mix of blue water, interceptor, and utility vessels.  Within each of these branches we maintain a total of sixteen separate marine units.  

In addition, Customs operates air assets out of three forward operating locations in Aruba; Manta, Ecuador; and Comalapa, El Salvador.  Aircraft and crews stationed at these sites support joint interagency operations throughout the Source and Transit Zones. 

Customs assets fly the vast majority of U.S. detection and monitoring flights in the Source Zone.  Our P-3 AEWs and Slicks, with detection systems designed explicitly for drug interdiction, have become the mainstay of U.S. Source Zone operations.  We also utilize C-550 jets for close tracking.    

The Transit Zone encompasses the major smuggling corridors of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Eastern Pacific Ocean.  All Customs air and marine operations in the Caribbean Transit Zone are under the tactical command of JIATF, East.  In the East Pacific, these operations are under the direction of the JIATF East or JIATF West, depending upon their location.  

In addition, Customs is working separately with Mexican officials under Operation HALCON to monitor and track suspected drug flights heading north to the U.S. border through the Mexico Transit Zone.  Customs has two C-550 jets stationed in country, one in Hermosillo, and the other in Monterrey.  We also have a Mexican legal liaison posted to our Air and Marine Interdiction Coordination Center in Riverside, California.  This individual works with Customs personnel to identify potential flights of interest registered by the Tethered Aerostat Radar System, which projects into Mexico from our southern border.

The Mexican drug corridor is fed largely by smuggling through the Eastern Pacific Ocean.  Customs currently supports joint operations in the Eastern Pacific with P-3 flights based out of Corpus Christi, Texas and our forward operating locations in Comalapa and Aruba. 

In a vivid illustration of the importance of these flights, two weeks ago a Customs P-3 was tasked by JIATF East to searched for and track the “Svesda Maru,” a fishing boat operating far off the coast of California.  JIATF was acting on prior Customs intelligence that the vessel was carrying drugs.  Our P-3 located the “Maru” and passed its coordinates along to Navy and Coast Guard assets, which brought the vessel to port in San Diego over the weekend.  Yesterday it was announced that the “Maru” was laden with approximately thirteen tons of cocaine.

The Caribbean Corridor also remains a top focus for Customs in the Transit Zone.  Cocaine smuggling into Florida is heavy in this area, eased by the shorter distances smugglers have to travel from South America to various staging points along the Caribbean Island chain.

Because of the use of air-drops and “go-fast” boats by drug traffickers operating in the area, Customs utilizes the full compliment of its air and marine assets in the Caribbean Zone.  In Puerto Rico, a major area of concern, we operate from five locations: 1 air unit, and four marine units.  Key assets include Marine Patrol Aircraft and Blackhawk helicopters, as well as interceptor vessels. 

Customs also supports operations in the Caribbean Transit Zone out of its Jacksonville air and marine branch.  We fly P-3 missions, and deploy Customs High Endurance Tracker planes, or CHETS, C-550 jets, C-12s, and helicopters.  We also maintain interceptor vessels at Jacksonville.  Jacksonville assets are also used in support of missions conducted under Operation Bahamas, Turks, and Caicos, or OPBAT, the joint U.S.-Bahamian task force coordinated by the Drug Enforcement Administration.       

Mr. Chairman, the Customs Service is committed to a strong and balanced presence throughout the Source, Transit, and Arrival Zones.  Striking that balance is indeed a major challenge.  But we are confident that with effective interagency cooperation, and the ongoing support of the Congress, we will continue to make major strides in our efforts to curtail the flow of drugs into America.