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Cutter Crew Eyes Drugs, Migrants, U.S. Ports

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA
American Forces Press Service

PORTSMOUTH, Sept. 16, 2004 – Coast Guard Capt. Charles Allen Mathieu talks proudly of the four paper symbols he calls "snowflakes" that hang on a bulletin board in his small office aboard the Coast Guard cutter Tampa.

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The Coast Guard cutter Tampa, moored at its homeport in Portsmouth, Va., left this month for a two-month deployment to the Caribbean, where the vessel has been involved in several drug and migrant interdiction operations. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA

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Mathieu said each snowflake represents a major drug bust by the Tampa's crew.

The 270-foot cutter is one of 13 medium-endurance vessels in the service, six of which are based here at the Coast Guard Integrated Support Command.

Mounted on two of the snowflakes are empty bullet casings, meaning the cutter's crew had to shoot out the engines of the "go fast" boats the speedy vessels smugglers use to transport illegal goods. The rounds were from a .50-caliber rifle shot from a Coast Guard helicopter assigned to the ship, he said.

Last year, the Tampa's crew was involved in four drug seizures while on deployment to the Caribbean, one avenue for narcotics bound for the United States. In October, the Tampa hauled in a total of 134 bales of cocaine weighing nearly 9,000 pounds.

In January, two more drug busts led to some 7,000 pounds seized. Overall, the crew has seized 7.86 tons of cocaine that might have ended up on U.S. streets. Thirteen suspects are now in custody.

This month, the Tampa deployed back to the Caribbean, where Mathieu said he suspects there will be more of the same activity.

Although fighting the nation's war on drugs by catching smugglers has become one a primary mission of cutters like the Tampa, the ship and its crew also are heavily involved in the war on terror by helping to interdict migrants trying to enter the United States illegally.

The maritime mission is one of five outlined in the 2002 Homeland Security Act, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 focused attention on stemming the flow of undocumented aliens entering the country from Cuba and Caribbean countries such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

It's a mission, however, that presents a unique challenge for the Tampa's crew. Mathieu said the situation often turns from interdiction to humanitarian, as many of the vessels encountered by the Tampa are overcrowded and not seaworthy.

"We can't count how many (boats) that just disappear, with lots of people on board," he said. He said his crew has found boats from Haiti that were "so grossly overloaded, that people were just laying on top of people."

"There was a boat that we found designed to carry 10 people, and there were 68 (people) on it," he said. "Any kind of wave and that thing is going over."

At the rear of the cutter, bunched together on long cables, hang some 400 bright-orange life vests that came into use last year when Mathieu said the ship had to bring aboard some 400 migrants.

The cutter must bring migrants aboard for two reasons, he explained: "You can't leave them on that boat or they'll die," Mathieu explained. "And two, they're trying to get into the United States, so you can't let them continue on in."

Mathieu said the Tampa's crew often has rescued undocumented migrants drifting at sea for weeks with no food or water, and dying of starvation.

"So this is not just about illegal migrants," he explained. "This also becomes a humanitarian mission."

Mathieu said migrants brought on board are given food and whatever medical care and clothing the ship can provide. They are then repatriated to their country, he said.

According to Coast Guard statistics as of June this year, 3,053 migrants were interdicted from Haiti, 4,575 from the Dominican Republic and 804 from Cuba.

Mathieu said the attacks of 9/11 also have meant greater emphasis on protecting ports like the ones here, where a major metropolitan area and several military facilities, including a large naval shipyard, are nearby.

It is perhaps, the Coast Guard's greatest challenge. There are some 95,000 miles of coastline and 361 public seaports in the United States.

The Tampa is homeported here in southeastern Virginia's Hampton Roads area, both a major international shipping port and huge naval base. Mathieu said that many ports, like Hampton Roads, lack a vessel-tracking system such as the one used by the Port Authority in Seattle to monitor ships coming in and out of the area. That is where the Tampa comes in, he said. The cutter is armed with modern weapons, an MK-75 76 mm fully automatic gun and two 50 mm machine guns. The vessel also has the latest in radar and satellite technology that allows it to track suspect vessels and aircraft. In the event of a heightened security alert, he explained, cutters like the Tampa could be called up to provide port-monitoring service. The Tampa, he said, would sit at the mouth of the port, some 10-15 miles offshore, and guard against anyone "coming in or going out."

"Basically, it's who's coming in, who are they, why are they coming in, and who's on board," he said. "To make sure that we don't have some ship that means to do us harm." Smaller Coast Guard vessels would patrol near the ports to "clamp down" on smaller vessels that may be trying to get into port terminals, Mathieu said.

For Petty Officer 1st Class Scott Romich, the increased presence of Coast Guard vessels at U.S. ports and patrolling waterways has meant "there are a lot of eyes on us."

"They (Coast Guard leaders) are demanding a lot of us now; we're under way more than ever, because we are needed," he said. "It's a challenge. But what it comes down to is you're helping somebody, somewhere. At night, when everybody is home sleeping, we're out making sure that nobody is going to get in here -- no drugs, no terrorists, whatever the case may be. We're always there."

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageCoast Guard Capt. Charles Allen Mathieu, points to the "snowflakes" that show the four drug busts his crew onboard the cutter Tampa have been involved in. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageIn January, the Coast Guard cutter Tampa seized 65 bales of cocaine; some of the bales are shown here. Last year, the Tampa was involved in four drug seizures while on deployment to the Caribbean, one avenue for narcotics bound for the United States. Photo courtesy of USCG cutter Tampa  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageBefore the afternoon work shift begins, Coast Guard petty officers Robert Sherwood, Josh Quintero and Scott Romich go over the shift duty roster. About 100 crewmembers serve on the cutter Tampa. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA  
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