Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials said other surveillance technology, including radar-equipped P-3 aircraft, last up to only 10 hours – not long enough to pinpoint drug runners on the high seas. They said the drones can loiter in the skies twice as long.
They said part-submarine vessels travelling great distances without surfacing to refuel are emerging as a key vehicle for ferrying drugs through the Caribbean Sea.
And cocaine-laden speedboats often sail at night to evade capture, the US officials added.
“The goal is to be on station long enough to detect and track targets making their way through the transit zone and bring in units for the intercept [that] can track a variety of smuggling vessels, including semisubmersibles and go-fast vessels,” said Lothar Eckardt, executive director of DHS Customs and Border Protection national air security operations.
“It doesn’t matter what the target is; it matters that we are able to stay out and look for it,” he added.
Eckardt said the Guardian, a maritime version of Homeland Security’s other Predator drones, is mounted with search radar and an electro-optical/infrared sensor.
“The Guardian UAS is an excellent [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] platform,” he said. “Its persistent surveillance capability is what makes it perfect for the maritime environment.”
DHS officials said the trafficking of illicit goods has shifted from the air to the sea in the Caribbean.
“Trying to pinpoint smugglers to one specific means of transport is hard; they like to change the way they do business to prevent us from predicting their movements,” Eckardt said.
He said tighter border security also is pushing more deliveries to the Caribbean basin and other remote areas off the coast of California.
Eckardt said DHS “works closely with law enforcement authorities in many countries throughout the Caribbean Basin in order to reduce the flow of drugs from the source zone though the transit zone,” adding that the US government shares intelligence and security technologies with neighbors to the north and south.
The US and Canadian governments, for instance, have agreed to board each other’s vessels during drug crackdowns, he said.
“We provide aerial assistance upon request following guidelines and parameters established by bi-national and multinational anti-drug trafficking-related agreements,” Eckardt said.
He said “all videos and images taken during a mission are safeguarded using documented procedures” to protect the privacy of sea users.
“The determining factor in how long a video or still picture is held is if it is being used as evidence in an on-going case,” he said.
Since 2011, US officials said the Miami-based Joint Interagency Task Force South, a command with staff from DHS and the intelligence community, as well as the US Defence and Justice departments, has disrupted five semisubmersibles, each escorting more than 6.5 tonnes of cocaine.
Of the 214 reported incidents, the stealth vessels evaded authorities 79 per cent of the time, the DHS said.