Source: Miami Herald (FL)
Pubdate: Tue, 9 Jun 1998
Author: James Anderson, Associated Press


ABOARD THE U.S. COAST GUARD CUTTER DALLAS -- On the front line of the war
on drugs, Seaman Chris Taylor casts a fishing line into roiling waters from
the stern of his 380-foot ship.

``It breaks up the monotony of the patrol,'' the 26-year-old native of
Nashville, Tenn., said with a laugh. ``Sometimes we'll get a couple hundred
pounds of dolphin and take them in and they'll grill them up.''

A couple hundred pounds of cocaine would be better.

But neither drug smugglers nor fish -- at least on this day -- are biting.
The Dallas, command ship for an ambitious drug interdiction effort in the
Caribbean, hadn't made a bust in weeks.

Welcome to ``Operation Frontier Lance,'' a three-month-old, $2.5 million
effort to stop South American smugglers from using Haiti and the Dominican
Republic to ship cocaine into Puerto Rico and the southeastern United

Capt. James W. Underwood, the Dallas' commander, concedes that he faces an
uphill battle against nimble smugglers who use hard-to-detect speedboats to
crisscross the Caribbean -- the route for 40 percent of the cocaine that
reaches the United States.

``Getting real solid intelligence would be fabulous,'' he sighed.

A favorite strategy of smugglers has been to focus on Puerto Rico. Since it
is a U.S. territory, drug smugglers can proceed from there to the American
mainland without dealing with customs or borders.

When U.S. agencies began cracking down around Puerto Rico last year,
traffickers shifted 100 miles west to Hispaniola, the underpoliced island
shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Some gangs staged nighttime airdrops in isolated parts of Haiti.

Once in Hispaniola, smugglers wait for the right moment to spirit shipments
via speedboat across the narrow Mona Channel into Puerto Rico -- or even to
the U.S. mainland.

Under Frontier Lance, U.S. intelligence tries to track ships and planes
while U.S. Navy and Coast Guard officers direct as many as a dozen ships
swarming around Hispaniola -- American, Dominican, occasionally British.

In all, U.S. officials believe they intercepted about one-third of the
estimated 430 tons of cocaine shipped from South America to the United
States last year.

It's not entirely clear whether the new operation has made a serious
difference, said A.P. Bennett, a combat systems officer on the Dallas,
which is based in Charleston, S.C.

Since March 1, the Coast Guard has seized only 1 1/2 tons of cocaine and
eight smuggler boats and arrested 27 people. The Coast Guard says it seizes
a global average of $1.5 million worth of cocaine and marijuana a day.

The chief of U.S. anti-drug efforts, retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, says
cocaine shipments into Puerto Rico have dropped from as high as 14 tons a
month last year to seven tons.

Yet the street price in Puerto Rico remains relatively constant, at
$8,600-$11,400 a pound, said William Santiago, a Drug Enforcement
Administration agent in San Juan.

McCaffrey said chasing the smugglers farther from Puerto Rico is a victory
in itself by making it more difficult for them.

Some have moved as far west as the Central American nation of Honduras,
where the Coast Guard has seized more than three tons of cocaine this year.
Smugglers have even organized illegal trips of boat people to divert the
Coast Guard, Dominican newspapers reported.

``It's a constant game of move, countermove,'' said Commodore John W.
Young, commander of the U.S. Navy's Destroyer Squadron Six based in
Pascagoula, Miss.

Occasionally, there are flashes of excitement:

In March, following an 18-hour chase, a Colombian speedboat crashed into
rocks near Haiti. The Coast Guard recovered 200 pounds of cocaine; the
boatmen escaped.

In April, a Coast Guard ship fired across the bow of a speedboat during
another 18-hour chase back south to Colombia, where the Colombian navy
finally arrested the smugglers.

Off Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, an engine room fire on the 31-year-old Dallas
slightly injured two sailors.

For the 170-odd men and women on the Dallas, most days are devoted to
routine: ship maintenance, fire drills, launching helicopters, watching
videos, catching fresh air on deck.

Over three recent days, the Dallas rarely crept above 9 mph while cruising
off the cloud-shrouded Haitian island of Gonave. An anticipated drug
shipment never materialized.

Lt. Ernesto G. Rubio gazed from the ship, lights out as it prowled, under a
nighttime sky dotted with stars.

``If we're deterring them, then I guess we're doing what the American
taxpayer is paying us to do,'' he said.

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Checked-by: (Joel W. Johnson)