How FBI Intel Helps Task Force Stem Illegal Flow of Drugs

The FBI is a critical component of the Joint Interagency Task Force South on Key West, Florida, a multi-agency, international alliance whose mission is to cover 42 million square miles of territory primarily in Central and South America to stem the flow of illegal drugs and to disrupt and dismantle sophisticated narco-trafficking networks. Much of that work is carried out on the high seas.

Video Transcript

A boat capable of carrying $30 million worth of cocaine is being tracked off the coast of Central America. 

The cargo, which originated in South America, has travelled hundreds of nautical miles, ultimately bound for streets in the U.S. and Europe.

In its path stands a unique alliance of the U.S. military, federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and 15 partner nations.

The Joint Interagency Task Force South, or JIATF as it is known, operates from the southernmost border of the U.S., on Key West, Florida.

Its mission is to stem the flow of illegal drugs across 42 million square miles in the Western hemisphere.

Seizures of these drug shipments—cat-and-mouse scenarios that play out daily on the high seas—are often dramatic, with Coast Guard cuttermen boarding vessels and making arrests.

But that’s just part of the story—the end result of a seamless evolution of intelligence into highly orchestrated tactical operations.

What makes JIATF so nimble and effective is its strategic makeup. Task force members—from every branch of the military, along with federal law enforcement agencies and liaisons from 15 member countries—are all under one roof.

So communication moves quickly. And there are no layers of diplomacy or bureaucracy to cut through when it’s time to act.

Gerry Canavan, FBI: One of the highlights of being here is that the intelligence and the operations work together in the same facility. I think that JIATF is the poster child for where integration of intel and ops works.

As a federal law enforcement and intelligence organization, the FBI is one of the key producers of intelligence at JIATF.

With sources throughout the country, agents can pass along tips on drug shipments directly to JIATF, where task force commanders can launch surveillance planes and other tools to pinpoint the vessels used by traffickers.

Once spotted, military and law enforcement personnel step in to carry out the interdictions.

Coast Guard Rear Admiral Christopher Tomney, who is director of JIATF, said the FBI is integral to successful operations.

Tomney: They are both a supplier of information that makes this task force much more effective than ever before with that information. They are a facilitator, helping to share and exchange our information with our partners, and hopefully they are a benefactor at the end of the process.

Lt. Col. Ziggy Shoepf, an Air Force liaison, said having good intelligence on potential routes traffickers may pursue is critical given the breadth of the territory spotter planes have to cover.

Shoepf: The key to success here is what law enforcement brings to the fight, in terms of the human intelligence and law enforcement technical information, that takes a 42 million square mile area and breaks it into something that’s manageable by an aircraft can search.

It could be as simple as knowing what route they might be taking. If we know the route, we can estimate the speed based on the description of the vessel or the SPSS, and we can find that location on the great big ocean, where they can start searching for that vessel.

For liaisons from partner countries, particularly those in Central America where criminal gangs play a major role in illegal trafficking, having immediate access to U.S. operatives—and counterparts from neighbor countries—provides an advantage for their own domestic anti-trafficking efforts.

Cmdr. Jose Jose-Vasquez, Dominican Republic Navy: If I had to go through and make a contact with the Colombian liaison office, for example, I just have to walk to the office. I don’t need a passport or a visa or make diplomatic procedures. In a matter of minutes, we have the information needed to be successful in the maritime interdiction or air interdictions.

Lt. Col. Gustavo Alvarez, Honduran Army: Since we’re all in the same directorate and we’re just a few steps away, one office to the other of all the other liaison officers— foreign liaison officers. The information doesn’t only flow from your country to JIATF, but it starts going between the other countries of interest. So the information flow really grows exponentially.

One example is a recent case where an FBI agent in New Orleans learned that Honduran drug traffickers were launching a boat from Costa Rica, bound for the U.S. with a cache of weapons and cocaine. The tip came into JIATF, where a watch floor commander sought assistance from Honduran liaison officer Lt. Col. Gustavo Alvarez. At Alvarez's urging, the Honduran military dispatched patrol boats and aircraft to intercept and apprehend the traffickers, providing a huge boost to an FBI investigation.

In 2015, JIATF acknowledged the FBI’s significant role, naming a special agent as vice director of the task force.

Brett Chianella said JIATF’s defense-forward strategy is to disrupt and dismantle illegal trafficking networks before their product reaches the U.S.

Chianella: Even though they’re not on our borders at that time, it’s coming. So either you deal with it 1,500 miles away or you deal with it here within the United States. I think the bigger picture to that is if they can smuggle contraband in that vessel, what else can they smuggle? You can smuggle individuals. You can smuggle weapons. You can smuggle money. You can smuggle groups that want to come into the United States in a concealed method. So I think that those bigger type targets with national security priorities, not only the criminal side, but that type of impact to the United States, we have to keep our eye on the ball.

JIATF Director Tomney says a central mission of the task force is to bring stability to the region by fighting the transnational threat. All while keeping drugs off America’s streets.

Tomney: We’ve taken over 6 billion dollars’ worth of illicit profits out of the system. We are talking not just kilos of cocaine, we’re not just talking tons of cocaine, we are talking hundreds of tons of cocaine that have been intercepted which are no longer reaching, not just main street of the United States, but main street of pick a country on the globe.

Slide: Within the last three years, nearly 700 non-U.S. persons were indicted and brought to the U.S. to face criminal charges as a result of task force operations. Some 150 criminal networks were identified during that same period, and 60 of those networks were dismantled.

Slide: In 2015, JIATF-S operations led to the interdiction of seven self-propelled, semi-submersible vessels. The FBI provided intelligence and investigative resources in six of those cases.

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