Category Archives: Ocean Governance

Pushing or Overstepping? Legal Boundaries in the Fight against Maritime Drug Smuggling, Pt. 2

By Thomas “Buddy” Bardenwerper

This is part two of an article posted on November 8, 2021. The first installment provided an overview of the U.S. Coast Guard’s counter-maritime drug trafficking mission and analyzed the extraterritorial jurisdiction created by the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act. This installment discusses the prolonged detention of suspected smugglers aboard Coast Guard cutters and the interaction between intelligence gathering and the trial penalty during prosecution.

Lengthy Detentions and Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 5(a)

Once the Coast Guard has made a successful drug interdiction, the smugglers are embarked upon the patrolling Coast Guard cutter as detainees. Rarely, if ever, will these individuals be formally placed under arrest while at sea, meaning they will neither be read their Miranda rights nor interrogated. It is not until detainees are disembarked on U.S. soil – days or weeks later – that they are formally placed under arrest, usually by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) or Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents. Delaying formal arrest avoids the Fed. Rule of Crim. Procedure 5(a)(1)(B) requirement that “a person making an arrest outside the United States must take the defendant without unnecessary delay before a magistrate judge, unless a statute provides otherwise.”1

Lengthy Detentions

These prolonged detentions have come under considerable scrutiny in recent years. Most notably, the New York Times Magazine chronicled how, in a span of six years, “more than 2,700 men […] have been taken from boats suspected of smuggling Colombian cocaine to Central America, to be carried around the ocean for weeks or months as the American ships continue their patrols.”2 These decisions regarding where and when to transfer detainees ashore are not solely left to the discretion of the Coast Guard, however, but are instead made by the Department of Justice and its subordinate agencies.3 These organizations justify the long detention periods by pointing out the logistical hurdles associated with patrolling over six million square miles of ocean and the fact that most Latin American countries do not allow air transfer of detainees to the United States. If the U.S. government is serious about combating the unrelenting flow of northbound cocaine with only a handful of Coast Guard cutters deployed at any given time, such assets cannot be taken out of the fight for several days just to transit one smuggling crew to port.

Defendants have had little success challenging the legality of their extended stays aboard Coast Guard cutters. In United States v. Cabezas-Montano, the Eleventh Circuit denied an Ecuadorian national’s argument that the 49-day delay between his initial detention in the eastern Pacific and his presentment before a magistrate in Florida violated both Fed. Rule Crim. Pro. 5(a) and the Fourth Amendment right to a probable cause determination.4 As to the first claim, the court noted that “various factors are considered in determining whether a delay was unnecessary, including: (1) the distance between the location of the defendant’s arrest in international waters and the U.S. port he was brought to; (2) the time between the defendant’s arrival at the U.S. port and his presentment to the magistrate judge; (3) any evidence of mistreatment or improper interrogation during the delay; and (4) any reason for the delay, like exigent circumstances or emergencies.”5 Because (1) the distance from the Pacific coast of Guatemala to Florida was “quite lengthy;” (2) there was only a one-day delay between the detainee’s arrival in Key West and presentment before a magistrate; and (3) there was no evidence of mistreatment or interrogation, the defendant “failed to carry his burden that the particular delay here was ‘unnecessary’ and thus a [Fed. Rule Crim. Pro.] 5(a) violation.”6 The court also dismissed the Fourth Amendment claim since such protection “does not apply to searches and seizures (arrests) by the United States of a non-citizen/non-resident alien arrested in international waters or a foreign country.”7

Possible Forum Shopping

Some believe that the Coast Guard’s practice of transporting detained smugglers vast distances – and in some cases through the Panama Canal – to the government-friendly Eleventh Circuit amounts to impermissible forum shopping. In Cabezas-Montano, however, the Eleventh Circuit denied the defendant’s claim “that the government purposely delayed his presentment to a magistrate judge in order to forum shop because federal courts in California require the government to prove a U.S. ‘nexus’ to establish subject-matter jurisdiction, whereas Florida courts do not.”8 According to the court, even if such an incentive existed, “The MDLEA does not prohibit the government from taking offenders to Florida rather than California [because] a person violating the MDLEA ‘may be tried in any district,’ ‘if the offense was begun or committed upon the high seas.’”9

The government fended off an even stronger allegation of forum shopping in Alvarez-Cuan v. United States, a Middle District of Florida case in which a smuggler challenged his MDLEA conviction. Alvarez-Cuan argued that he should have been tried in the District of Puerto Rico vice the Middle District of Florida since a Coast Guard cutter upon which he was embarked pulled into port in San Juan before his eventual transfer ashore in Tampa.10 The court denied his motion on procedural grounds, but noted that the jurisdictional claim was without merit since the MDLEA “makes clear […] that the accused may be tried in any district.”11 In arriving at this conclusion, the court cited precedent in United States v. Gonzales-Cahvec.

In Gonzales-Cahvec, the Eleventh Circuit held that the MDLEA’s forum provision was properly grounded in Art. III, Sec. 2 of the Constitution, which states that when a crime is “not committed within any State, the Trial shall be at such Place or Places as the Congress may by Law have directed.”12 However, the Eleventh Circuit went on to say that jurisdiction over Gonzales-Cahvec was properly established in the Southern District of Florida because that is where he “first entered the United States.”13 While seemingly sensible, this logic does not support the Middle District of Florida’s ruling in Alvarez-Cuan—the prior case—because Alvarez-Cuan “first entered the United States” in the District of Puerto Rico when the cutter transited U.S. territorial seas on its way to the pier in San Juan. Or perhaps the cases are distinguishable because Alvarez-Cuan was not physically transferred ashore? The Middle District of Florida did not say.

Detention Takeaways

For the time being, the Coast Guard’s dual practices of lengthy smuggler detention and government-friendly venue selection seem resilient to legal attack. Lengthy detentions will likely continue to stand – unless they are particularly egregious – because judges know that the maritime counter-drug mission would be logistically impossible if cutters had to rush detainees ashore after every interdiction. Convenient forum selection will likely continue to stand because the only judges and justices who can deem such a practice unlawful sit on either the government-friendly Eleventh Circuit or the majority conservative Supreme Court. However, while the government in general and the Coast Guard in particular benefit from this status quo, both entities would do well to develop long range contingency plans in the event that the judiciary someday changes course.

Intelligence, Prosecution, and the Sixth Amendment

When Coast Guard cutters patrol the eastern Pacific and Caribbean for drug smugglers, they are not operating blindly thanks to Joint Interagency Task Force – South (JIATF-S),14 a “multi-agency, international alliance [based out of Key West] 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.”15 While the actual mechanics of JIATF-S’s mission execution are classified, suffice it to say that JIATF-S collects intelligence from its federal and international component organizations; evaluates and synthesizes this information; and briefs operational units. The Coast Guard cutters in theater will then coordinate with their shoreside command centers to determine – in conjunction with Coast Guard, Navy, and CBP surveillance aircraft – which smuggling ventures to target for interdiction.16

Much of the actionable intelligence that powers JIATF-S originates from domestic and overseas DEA, HSI, and FBI investigations, as well as cooperation agreements brokered by federal prosecutors. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida has played a leading role in these efforts through its Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF) known as Operation Panama Express. As of 2016, Operation Panama Express had a conviction rate of 97 percent and sentences averaging over ten years.17 With this track record, it is unsurprising that so many MDLEA offenders are tried in the Middle District of Florida. But more important from a law enforcement perspective is the intelligence that these prosecutions produce, intelligence that has contributed to the arrest and extradition of a majority of all Colombian Consolidated Priority Organizational Targets, or “drug kingpins,”18 not to mention hundreds of additional low-level maritime drug smugglers.

Trial Penalty

Operation Panama Express – like any U.S. Attorney’s Office – gathers intelligence by making deals with defendants awaiting trial. In exchange for a defendant’s cooperation and guilty plea, the prosecution will recommend a lesser sentence to the trial judge. This process is largely made possible by the threat of a “trial penalty,” which is the “substantial difference between the sentence offered in a plea offer prior to trial versus the sentence a defendant receives after trial.”19 Other than winning at trial, the only way for an MDLEA defendant to avoid the 21 U.S.C. § 960 ten-year mandatory minimum is to cooperate 20 because “the court has authority to sentence below the mandatory minimum only upon a government motion based upon the defendant’s ‘substantial assistance’ to the prosecution.”21 Under this legal regime, “the prosecutor holds the key to the jailhouse door,”22 and the pressure upon a defendant to forego his Sixth Amendment right to trial can be overwhelming.

This practice of leveraging mandatory minimums to compel defendants to waive their Sixth Amendment right to trial and cooperate is not unique to MDLEA prosecutions. However, the practice is especially effective in the MDLEA context since these defendants are at a particular disadvantage should they go to trial. First, with the exception of co-defendants, there are rarely any firsthand witnesses to refute the testimony of law enforcement. Second, the U.S. government expends its limited resources on prosecuting only the most clear-cut cases. And third, these prosecutions can be so repetitive that desensitized judicial actors in venues like the Middle District of Florida may overlook weaknesses in the government’s case. Really, there exists only one long-shot defense, and that is to attack the court’s subject matter or personal jurisdiction, as seen in the discussion in Part One about extraterritoriality.

Just because many defendants will knowingly and willfully plead guilty in the face of these unfavorable conditions does not make the practice uncontroversial. According to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, less than three percent of criminal prosecutions go to trial.23 As Judge John Gleeson writes, using mandatory minimum sentences not for their intended purpose of “impos[ing] harsher punishments on a select group of the most culpable defendants,” but rather to “strong-arm guilty pleas, and to punish those who have the temerity to exercise their right to trial” undermines “the integrity of our criminal justice system.”24 First, the risk of losing trial and facing an enormous sentence will compel even innocent defendants to plead guilty; and second, even culpable defendants are deprived of their Sixth Amendment right to force the government to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.25

Safety Valve Relief

Looking forward, however, there may be one other way for suspected drug smugglers to avoid the ten-year minimum sentence associated with MDLEA convictions. A circuit split has developed with the D.C. Circuit now recognizing the applicability of 18 U.S.C. §3553 “safety valve” relief to defendants convicted of MDLEA violations. This legislation “permits a sentencing court to disregard a statutory minimum sentence for the benefit of a low-level, nonviolent, cooperative defendant with a minimal prior criminal record, convicted under several mandatory minimum controlled substance offenses.”26 In United States v. Mosquera-Murillo, the D.C. Circuit extended safety valve relief to appellants previously convicted of violating the MDLEA even though the MDLEA is not “‘an offense under’ any of [18 U.S.C. §3553(f)’s] five enumerated [controlled substance] provisions.”27 The court reasoned that the appellants were eligible for relief nonetheless since MDLEA defendants are sentenced pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 960 – which is one of the safety valve’s “five enumerated provisions.”28

Because the D.C. Circuit handles so few MDLEA prosecutions, it is unclear what practical effect – if any – its holding will have on the vast majority of defendants. The Eleventh Circuit, for example, still precludes such defendants from invoking safety valve relief. In United States v. Valois, the court held that just because safety valve relief is “available to [non-MDLEA] defendants convicted of drug trafficking within the United States,” the safety valve’s exclusion of MDLEA defendants “does not violate the equal-protection guarantee of the Fifth Amendment.”29 The court justified this holding through rational basis review, saying that “Congress had ‘legitimate reasons to craft strict sentences for violations of [the MDLEA],’” reasons that included “concerns about foreign relations and global obligations” as well as the need to deter “drug trafficking on the vast expanses of international waters.”30

The Ninth and First Circuits agree. Despite its pro-defendant understandings of other aspects of the MDLEA, the Ninth Circuit – using the expressio unius canon of construction – has held that “the plain statutory language indicates that the safety valve provision in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) does not apply to violations of [the MDLEA].”31 While the First Circuit has not “addressed directly whether a defendant convicted of an MDLEA offense is eligible for safety valve relief,” the District of Puerto Rico recently reiterated that “MDLEA offenses are not section 960 offenses” because Congress repeatedly “omitted MDLEA offenses from section 960” during multiple revisions of the latter statute.32 However, it should be noted that this case is pending appeal. Therefore, until the case law changes in any of these circuits, the vast majority of MDLEA defendants will remain ineligible for safety valve relief.

Trial Penalty and Relief Takeaways

Just as the government has pushed the bounds of extraterritoriality and due process, it has also pushed the bounds of a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to trial by leveraging the trial penalty to induce guilty pleas and cooperation. This strategy is not unique to maritime law enforcement, but it is particularly effective in relation to this mission. Given the vast swaths of ocean that a small number of Coast Guard assets patrol, intelligence gained through defendant cooperation is vital in positioning these cutters in the right place at the right time. While other circuits may eventually follow the D.C. Circuit’s lead with regards to extending safety valve relief to MDLEA defendants, such a change is unlikely to alter the dynamics of the maritime counter-drug mission. However, should there be a national push against the use of the trial penalty to compel cooperation in all criminal cases, law enforcement would suddenly find itself operating blindly in the ongoing struggle against maritime drug smuggling.


All three branches of the U.S. government have helped create a maritime law enforcement apparatus specially designed to combat the trafficking of South American cocaine. The executive has contributed an aggressive and proficient Coast Guard; the legislature has produced the MDLEA; and the judiciary has provided government-friendly interpretations of statutes and the Constitution. Of these three legs that support the struggle against maritime drug smuggling, the most fragile is the last. Should judicial opinion shift regarding the legality of (1) the MDLEA’s extraterritorial jurisdiction; (2) the prolonged detentions of smugglers aboard Coast Guard cutters and their prosecutions in geographically far-flung judicial districts; or (3) the use of the trial penalty to compel guilty pleas and cooperation, the struggle against maritime drug smuggling will fundamentally change. A more narrowly tailored MDLEA would result in the contraction of de-facto U.S. maritime borders and/or a reduction in the categories of vessels that the Coast Guard could target. A less permissive approach to prolonged detentions would lead to less efficient Coast Guard patrols. And, finally, a rejection of the trial penalty would foreclose valuable sources of intelligence.

It is tempting to say that any one of these changes would shift the balance of the maritime counter-drug mission, but that would be inaccurate. The mission is already out of balance – any of these changes would only make the endeavor more Sisyphean. Indeed, even in today’s favorable legal environment, several hundred known smuggling ventures go untargeted each year.33 There are just too few cutters and too many square miles of ocean. For the calculus to change, either Americans must curb their appetite for cocaine or their government must legalize and regulate the drug. Until either of these changes happen, the cycle of Coast Guard interdictions, detentions, and prosecutions will continue to play itself out, with lawyers arguing the points raised in this article, low-ranking South American traffickers heading to U.S. prisons, and cartels profiting from the illegal trade.

Thomas “Buddy” Bardenwerper (@TBardenwerper89) served for five years as a Coast Guard officer assigned to cutters homeported in Maine and Puerto Rico. Thanks to the GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon Program, Bardenwerper will graduate with a joint degree from Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government this spring. His maritime migration-related novel Mona Passage will be published by Syracuse University Press in December.


[1] Fed. R. Crim. Pro. 5(a)(1)(B).

[2] Seth Freed Wessler, “The Coast Guard’s ‘Floating Guantánamos,’” in The New York Times Magazine, November 20, 2017.

[3] Id.

[4] United States v. Cabezas-Montano, 949 F.3d 567, 590-94 (11th Cir. 2020).

[5] Id. at 591 (citing United States v. Purvis, 768 F.2d 1237, 1238-39 (11th Cir. 1985)).

[6] Id. at 592.

[7] Id. at 593 (citing United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez, 494 U.S. 259, 274-75 (1990)).

[8] Id. at 590.

[9] Id. at 591 (quoting 46 U.S.C. § 70504(b)(2)).

[10] Alvarez-Cuan v. United States, 8:20-cv-414-T-27AEP, 2020 WL 5407559 at *5 (M.D. Fla. 2020).

[11] Id. at *6.

[12] United States v. Gonzales-Cahvec, 750 Fed.Appx. 853, 855 (11th Cir. 2018).

[13] Id. at 855.

[14] House of Representatives Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, “Western Hemisphere Drug Interdictions: Why Maintaining Coast Guard Operations Matter,” June 4, 2019 at vii (“A typical operation begins with the collection of intelligence on drug trafficking activities. This is used to help cue or tip the operational unit to narrow its patrol area and decrease its response time.”).

[15] Task Force Works to Stem Flow of Illicit Drug Trafficking and Dismantle Criminal Networks, (December 7, 2016),

[16] House of Representatives Hearing at vii (“Next, CBP, Coast Guard, DoD, or allied nation Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) are launched to detect drug smuggling activities, sort through potential targets, and monitor the suspect vessel(s).”).

[17] Tampa-based federal prosecutors, investigators recognized for their efforts to combat drug trafficking, Coast Guard News (September 8, 2016)

[18] Id.

[19] The Trial Penalty: The Sixth Amendment Right to Trial on the Verge of Extinction and How to Save It, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (July 10, 2018),

[20] 21 U.S.C. § 960(b)(1)(B)(ii) (2018) (“in the case of a violation of subsection (a) of this section involving 5 kilograms or more of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine […] the person committing such violation shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment not less than 10 years”).

[21] John Jeffries, Jr. and John Gleeson, The Federalization of Organized Crime: The Advantages of Federal Prosecution, 46 Hastings L. J. 1095, 1119 (1995).

[22] Id. at 1119.

[23] John Gleeson, “Forward” to The Trial Penalty, 3.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentences: The Safety Valve and Substantial Assistance Exceptions, Congressional Research Service (February 22, 2019),

[27] United States v. Mosquera-Murillo, 902 F.3d 285, 292 (D.C. Cir. 2018).

[28] Id.

[29] United States v. Valois, 915 F.3d 717, 729 (11th Cir. 2019).

[30] Id. at 729 (quoting United States v. Castillo, 899 F.3d 1208 (11th Cir. 2018)).

[31] United States v. Gamboa-Cardenas, 508 F.3d 491, 496-97 (9th Cir. 2007).

[32] United States v. Espinal-Mieses, 313 F.Supp.3d 376, 384 (D.P.R. 2018).

[33] Congressional Testimony at x (“In his May 1, 2019, testimony to the U.S. House Committee on the Armed Services, SOUTHCOM Commander Admiral Craig Faller stated that last year JIATF-S was only able to disrupt about 6% of known drug movements.”).

Featured Image: MEDITERRANEAN SEA (April 23, 2021) The crews of the U.S. Coast Guard Legend-class national security cutter Hamilton (WMSL 753) and the Italian coast guard Dattilo-class offshore patrol vessel Ubaldo Diciotti (CP 941) conduct simulated search and rescue exercises and helicopter hoist operations in the Mediterranean Sea, April 23, 2021. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Lt. Andrew Breen) see less | View Image Page

Beyond Competition: Why the U.S. Must Cooperate with China and Russia for Maritime Stability

By Jan Stockbruegger and Christian Bueger

Great power competition with China and Russia dominates debates in Washington. Few analysts therefore paid attention when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined Russian President Vladimir Putin and other leaders at the UN Security Council for a high-level debate on Enhancing Maritime Security — A Case for International Cooperation” (China was represented by its UN ambassador). As expected, disagreements over basic maritime rules and norms dominated the debate. While the United States criticized Russia and China for unlawfully restricting freedom of navigation, China accused the United States of escalating conflict in the South China Sea. Yet the debate also demonstrated that the leading states share a common view on other maritime threats. The United States agreed with China and Russia not only that piracy, smuggling, and climate change undermine stability at sea, but also that states need to work closely together to address these threats and protect global maritime trade. What does this consensus suggest for U.S. strategy?

We argue that the United States should build on the consensus reached during the UN Security Council debate to enhance global maritime security, working multilaterally with China, Russia, and other states to address criminal and environmental threats at sea. The United States has traditionally protected trade routes and freedom of navigation. Securing the maritime commons is also part of the 2020 Tri-Service Maritime Strategy to maintain order at sea. Yet the U.S. Navy cannot secure the world’s oceans without the support of other states, including China and Russia. Certainly, little agreement can be expected with China and Russia on maritime disputes or their use of gray zone tactics to undermine international rules. However, China and Russia depend on seaborne trade, and they are keen to fight piracy and other threats to shipping and stability at sea. Strengthening collaboration with China and Russia on diplomatic and technical levels will therefore be vital to protect global maritime trade.

The case of maritime security has broader implications for U.S. strategy. The United States needs to defend the rules-based order against China and Russia, but it also needs to work with its adversaries to address transnational challenges such as climate change and pandemics. The maritime security case demonstrates that this balancing act is possible. The United States can – and must – both compete and cooperate with its adversaries to secure the global commons. Below we draw on the Security Council debate to analyze the maritime security landscape. We identify the joint interests of China, Russia, and the United States in protecting maritime trade, and we show how the United States can cooperate with its adversaries to ensure safety and security at sea.

Maritime competition is back

One of the reasons for the new urgency of maritime matters is the rise of maritime great power competition and the proliferation of gray zone tactics and attacks at sea. China’s growing naval and anti-access/area denial capabilities threaten U.S. dominance in the Western Pacific, but Iran and Russia have also increased their military operations at sea. China, Russia, and Iran have so far refrained from conducting aggressive maritime operations that could escalate conflict with the U.S. Navy. However, they increasingly conduct covert operations and deploy civilian or irregular forces – such as fishing vessels, coast guards, and militias – to intimidate other states and harass U.S. and allied forces at sea.

An incident that is paradigmatic for this new trend is the drone attack on the Israeli owned oil tanker MV Mercer Street in the Gulf of Oman only days before the debate. The attack, in which two sailors were killed, was the latest in a series of maritime incidents in the shadow war between Israel and Iran. An Iranian vessel was hit by a mine in the Red Sea in April 2021, for instance, and the United States believes that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were behind attacks on four tankers in the Persian Gulf in 2019.

Yet China and Russia have also used gray zone tactics to secure contested waters. China has built military outposts in the South China Sea, and it regularly deploys its coast guard and maritime militias to protect Chinese fishing vessels in disputed waters. China’s maritime forces have harassed Filipino and Vietnamese fishing vessels, as well as the USNS Impeccable, a surveillance vessel operated by the U.S. Navy. Russia has deployed its coast guard to secure waters around the Crimean Peninsula, which it annexed from Ukraine in 2014. In 2018, the Russian Coast Guard captured three Ukrainian Navy vessels in the Sea of Azov.

China’s, Russia’s, and Iran’s gray zone tactics threaten vital U.S. and global interests in the maritime domain. U.S. Secretary of State Blinken therefore warned that “Conflict in the South China Sea or in any ocean would have serious global consequences for security and for commerce,” and that “States are (…) provocatively and unlawfully advancing their interests in the Persian Gulf and the Black Sea.” Russia largely ignored these accusations, but China responded angrily. China not only claimed that the “Security Council is not the right place to discuss the issue of the South China Sea,” but it also accused the United States of undermining “peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

Piracy is a major concern, but other crimes matter too

While China and Russia contest freedom of navigation, piracy remains a bigger threat to global shipping. From 2005 to 2012, Somali pirates attacked nearly 1,000 vessels in the Gulf of Aden and Western Indian Ocean. The World Bank estimated that piracy off Somalia cost the global economy $18 billion annually. Somali piracy has since been eliminated, but piracy remains a major threat in Southeast Asia and West Africa. According to the ICC International Maritime Bureau, an industry body, 195 ships were attacked by pirates worldwide in 2020.Last year, pirates kidnapped 130 seamen in the Gulf of Guinea, which is the world’s epicenter for maritime kidnappings.

Piracy is part of the larger problem of “blue crime,” which also includes illicit migration, maritime smuggling, and other criminal activities at sea. Human trafficking is a major problem in the Mediterranean, for example, where hundreds of migrants have drowned over the last few years. Smuggling of narcotics fuels corruption and drug abuse and led to increased rates of addiction, HIV/AIDS infection, and domestic violence in coastal communities in the Indian Ocean and other regions. Additionally, the smuggling of small arms and light weapons, which fuel conflict from Afghanistan to Somalia, often relies on maritime routes. A number of other illicit cargos are trafficked at sea, including counterfeit products, antiquities, wildlife, hardwood timber, and waste. Armed groups such as al-Shababa sometimes tax maritime smuggling activities to fund their operations.

In contrast to gray zone tactics, there is broad consensus among leading states that blue crime is a major threat to stability at sea. Ambassador Dai Bing, China’s representative at the UN Security Council, noted that “Criminal activities such as piracy, armed robbery, human and drug trafficking at sea, and maritime weapon smuggling are rampant, all of which have further destabilized relevant regions.” U.S. Secretary of State Blinken agrees: “Non-state actors also pose serious risk to maritime safety and security, from pirates and illicit maritime traffickers in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, to pirates and armed robbers in the Gulf of Guinea, to drug traffickers in the Caribbean Sea and the Eastern Pacific.”

The environmental security agenda has arrived at sea

The emphasis on blue crime is not surprising given the centrality of piracy and trafficking to the maritime security agenda. Yet the degree to which Security Council members emphasized environmental challenges was noteworthy. Two issues featured prominently in the Security Council debate: illegal fishing and climate change. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is perhaps the most prevalent environmental crime at sea. It includes not only fishing in the waters of a state without its permission, but also fishing in marine protected areas and other fishing practices that are prohibited under national laws or international conventions. Interpol has estimated that up to USD 23.5 billion is lost to illegal fishing each year. Illegal fishing also leads to overfishing and threatens the livelihoods of coastal communities. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi therefore urged council members to “take joint steps against overfishing and marine poaching.”

Analysts also increasingly worry about the impact of climate change on the marine environment and coastal economies. The warming of the oceans, for instance, will weaken ecosystems and alter the abundance, diversity, and distribution of marine species. Furthermore, climate change increases the risk of flooding and other natural disasters, and threatens coastal ports, infrastructures, and communities. Other threats to the marine environment include pollution and oil spills from ships (e.g. the 2020 Wakashio oil spill) and offshore petroleum operations (e.g. the 2020 Deepwater Horizon oil spill). Vietnam warned the Security Council that “climate change and sea level rise and pollution of the marine environment, especially by plastic debris and degradation of the marine ecosystem, have caused serious and long-term consequences.”

Cooperation is the Strategy

No state, not even the United States, is strong enough to protect the world’s oceans alone. The oceans cover 70 percent of the earth’s surface. Every day, thousands of vessels pass through contested waters, and maritime smuggling, illegal fishing, and rising sea levels threaten coastal communities and maritime operations around the world. These threats are transnational. Pirates attack vessels in international waters, smugglers operate across national jurisdictions,  and oil spills and illegal fishing operations often take place in internationally recognized protected areas. Securing the world’s oceans therefore requires states to cooperate and build international maritime infrastructure. This includes coast guard and maritime patrol vessels, communication and surveillance networks, and systems to manage marine resources and respond to accidents and environmental disasters at sea.

The United States has long led international efforts to enhance safety and security at sea. The United States initiated the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, for example, and it also facilitated the adaptation of the 2004 International Ship and Port Facility Security Code at the International Maritime Organization. In West Africa and Southeast Asia, the United States helps regional states strengthen their maritime capacities and protect their waters against piracy and illicit fishing and trafficking operations.

Yet China and Russia have also joined international efforts to protect maritime trade. They have participated in the Contact Group on Somali piracy and deployed naval forces to protect international shipping in the Gulf of Aden. Moreover, China is a member of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAPP), while Russia has participated in debates on maritime security at the ASEAN Regional Forum.

During the Security Council debate, China promised “to deepen pragmatic cooperation in combating piracy and maritime law enforcement in our joint efforts to achieve peace and tranquility in the oceans.” And Russian President Vladimir Putin not only reaffirmed Russia’s commitment “to the common task of countering crime at sea in all its forms,” but he also proposed the creation of a “special structure within the UN that would directly address problems related to combatting maritime crime in various regions.”

Beyond competition

The United States should take Russia’s and China’s offers seriously and work with its adversaries to protect the maritime commons. China and Russia will not support efforts to address maritime disputes, gray zone tactics, or illegal fishing in contested waters. Yet they are interested in working with the United States and other states to tackle piracy and maritime crime, and perhaps also to address environmental threats such as climate change and pollution.

Maritime security cooperation with China and Russia can be difficult. China was initially reluctant to share information and coordinate closely with U.S.-led counter-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden. The United States should therefore follow up on Russia’s proposal at the UN Security Council and establish a high-level political framework for maritime security operations. The United States could, for example, help construct a new technocratic mechanism at the UN to facilitate information sharing and the exchange of best practices in maritime governance and capacity building. The organization’s mandate would be limited to non-controversial issues such as piracy, trafficking, pollution, and climate change. China might agree to discussing maritime security in the Persian Gulf, where most of its oil originates; but illegal fishing and maritime disputes in the South China Sea would need to be excluded to ensure its support for the mechanism. International organizations, civil society, and industry groups should also be included to reinforce the technocratic and problem-driven nature of the initiative. The UN mechanism would complement ongoing regional efforts by providing a forum for global coordination and helping to form a broad consensus on maritime security governance across regions.

Critics might argue that China and Russia will exploit maritime security cooperation to project naval power and increase their geopolitical influence. China, for example, used counter-piracy operations to practice forward deployment and establish its first overseas naval base in Djibouti. China and Russia are also trying to dominate international organizations and undermine U.S. interests by supporting authoritarian regimes. Moreover, critics might argue that the proposed mechanism does not address China’s and Russia’s efforts to undermine the rule of law at sea, which are the greatest threat to order and stability on the world’s oceans.

These counterarguments are valid, but they ignore the fact that China and Russia are too powerful and important to be excluded from global maritime governance. China is already the largest investor and trading nation in Africa and Southeast Asia, and Russia has increased its global influence in recent years. Moreover, China’s and Russia’s large navies can help protect dangerous shipping lanes and support coastal management and maritime capacity building activities. Working with China and Russia on countering maritime crime does not prevent the United States from defending its interests and protecting global maritime rules and norms. The United States can continue its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, for example, and mobilize like-minded nations through initiatives such as the Quad or the G7.

Finally, facilitating global maritime security cooperation under U.S. leadership with support from like-minded states, including the EU and India, would legitimize and help stabilize international order. It would demonstrate that U.S.-leadership is not exclusively directed against China or Russia, or about dominance. Instead, the United States would show that it takes seriously the concerns and problems of other nations, and that it is prepared to work with its adversaries to provide global public goods.

The maritime security case shows that the Biden administration needs to move beyond great power competition as its guide to foreign policy. Challenging threats to the rules-based order, no matter where they originate, is vitally important; but the United States also must cooperate with its adversaries, especially China and Russia, to secure the global commons and tackle other transnational threats, such as climate change and global pandemics.

Jan Stockbruegger is a Dean’s Faculty Fellow at Brown University’s Department of Political Science.

Christian Bueger is a Professor of International Relations at Copenhagen University and the Director of SafeSeas.

Featured image: An oil tanker is on fire in the sea of Oman, Thursday, June 13, 2019. Two oil tankers near the strategic Strait of Hormuz were reportedly attacked on Thursday, an assault that left one ablaze and adrift as sailors were evacuated from both vessels and the U.S. Navy rushed to assist amid heightened tensions between Washington and Tehran. (Credit: AP Photo/ISNA)

Pushing or Overstepping? Legal Boundaries in the Fight against Maritime Drug Smuggling, Pt. 1

By Thomas “Buddy” Bardenwerper


Every day, U.S. Coast Guard cutters patrol the eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea for drug smuggling vessels, seizing more cocaine than all other American law enforcement agencies combined. Federal prosecutors then bring charges against the detained smugglers under a controversial and confusing legal regime. By analyzing the lifecycle of a case – from interdiction to detention to prosecution – this two-part article explores (1) the extraterritorial jurisdiction established by the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA); (2) the practice of detaining suspected smugglers aboard Coast Guard cutters for weeks without formal arrest; and (3) the interaction between intelligence gathering and the trial penalty. In each of these instances, a different branch of the federal government is pushing against – if not overstepping – legal constraints in order to empower the Coast Guard in the fight against maritime drug smuggling. This is a fragile system, however, and should one of these government branches become squeamish, the whole apparatus could collapse.

Overview of the Coast Guard’s Counter-Maritime Drug Trafficking Mission

The Coast Guard is both an armed service and a federal law enforcement agency. While the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps are barred from conducting law enforcement operations by the Posse Comitatus Act 1 and other federal law,2 the Coast Guard is not.3 Therefore, the Coast Guard has become the lead federal agency for maritime law enforcement on the high seas, which are those waters that fall outside of any nation’s twelve-nautical-mile territorial seas.4

The Coast Guard’s maritime law enforcement mission pits a small sea-going service of approximately 40,000 active duty members against powerful transnational criminal organizations (TCOs). TCOs use various means to transport cocaine north from coca producers in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia to cocaine consumers in the United States. Maritime smuggling is a preferred option for transport that generally occurs in one of the following two ways: 1) Cocaine is transported by boat from the Pacific coast of South America to the Pacific coast of Central America, at which point shipments are divided into smaller loads for overland transit through Mexico and across the border; or, to a lesser extent, 2) cocaine is transported by boat from the Caribbean coast of South America to either the Caribbean coast of Central America or to various Caribbean islands for further transit – again, in smaller quantities – to the United States. Competition for these drug trafficking corridors has caused destabilizing violence throughout the hemisphere.

The modes of maritime transit can be roughly grouped into the following three categories: slow-movers, go-fasts, and hard-to-detects.5 “Slow-movers” include commercial fishing vessels and coastal freighters outfitted with secret compartments or parasitic devices. Oftentimes, only certain crewmembers are even aware that their vessel is being used for illegal purposes. “Go-fasts” are speedboats that carry contraband openly on deck and rely on speed and maneuverability to evade law enforcement assets. “Hard-to-detects” include low-profile and semi-submersible vessels that are virtually impossible to detect via visual or electronic sensors.

For any successful interdiction, the Coast Guard must be able to find the suspect vessel, stop it, and locate the contraband. The relative difficulty of these tasks varies depending on whether a particular case involves a slow-mover, a go-fast, or a hard-to-detect. In order to find the target of interest, Coast Guard operational planners rely on intelligence regarding the suspect vessel’s anticipated movements. In order to stop the target of interest, Coast Guard law enforcement teams then employ warning shots and disabling fire from agile small boats or helicopters. Finally, in order to locate the contraband, Coast Guard boarding teams use complex space accountability computations and state-of-the-art drug detection equipment.

In September 2019, U.S. Coast Guard boarding team members climb aboard a suspected smuggling vessel in the Eastern Pacific (Image credit: Luke Cla, USCG).

This sophisticated operational and tactical regime only works when and where the Coast Guard has the legal authority to pursue its counter-maritime drug trafficking mission. Thanks to the aggressive legislation, favorable judicial holdings, and proactive executive actions that will be explored below, the Coast Guard enjoys a great degree of latitude in combatting TCOs on the high seas.

Far-Flung Interdictions and the Extraterritorial Jurisdiction of the MDLEA

The Coast Guard can only operate if it has jurisdiction.6 In those situations where there is a clear nexus with the United States – i.e. a target of interest is in U.S. territorial seas, the vessel itself is American-flagged, or the master is a U.S. citizen – jurisdiction is easily achieved. However, when none of those three boxes is checked – as they rarely are in drug smuggling cases – the legal picture is less clear. Given this lack of clarity, how is it that the Coast Guard can board non-U.S. vessels in non-U.S. waters to detain foreign nationals?

The answer to this question is the Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act (MDLEA), which Congress passed in 1986.7 Grounded in Congress’s Constitutional power to “define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the High Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations,”8 the statute made “drug smuggling on the high seas a crime against the United States and [gave] the Coast Guard the authority to search for, detain, and bring suspected drug traffickers back to the United States for prosecution.”9 Under the conspiracy provision of the MDLEA, even members of trafficking networks who have never set foot on a boat can be extradited to the U.S.10 The most important – and controversial – portion of the MDLEA, however, is that section which extends U.S. jurisdiction over the following six categories of vessels: (1) a vessel without nationality (also known as “stateless”); (2) a vessel assimilated to without nationality;11 (3) a foreign-flagged vessel if the flag state consents or waives objection to the enforcement of United States law; (4) a vessel in U.S. customs waters; (5) a vessel in the territorial seas of another nation if that nation consents to the enforcement of United States law; and (6) a vessel in the U.S. contiguous zone.12

The U.S. government had to be creative in justifying a statute with this degree of extraterritorial reach since universal jurisdiction does not apply to drug smuggling – it is not illegal under customary international law13 – and it is difficult to prove that a particular shipment of narcotics seized in the eastern Pacific Ocean or Caribbean Sea is destined for the United States. Instead, the ostensibly aggressive approach taken by the U.S. government can be tied to the protective principle of international law. Because of “the deleterious effects of drug trafficking in the United States and on regional stability,”14 the U.S. government considers itself justified in proactively combatting this threat through law enforcement operations well beyond its borders.15

Because most Western Hemisphere governments are in favor of fighting drug trafficking, there has been relatively little international pushback against the MDLEA. Furthermore, the reach of the MDLEA is heavily dependent upon the cooperation of international allies, especially with regards to those categories of vessels subject to U.S. jurisdiction. In exchange for economic and military aid, many source and transit zone nations have signed bilateral agreements with the United States.16 These agreements often give the U.S. Coast Guard the authority and jurisdiction to conduct operations in partner-state territorial seas or against partner-state-flagged vessels.17 Not surprisingly, this particularly ambitious jurisdictional aspect of the MDLEA has garnered significant scrutiny from U.S. courts.

MDLEA Jurisdiction over Foreign-Flagged Vessels Boarded with Flag-State Approval

Foreign nationals charged with violating the MDLEA have had varying degrees of success challenging the statute’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. While all circuits recognize U.S. jurisdiction over stateless vessels18 (and their occupants19) – which includes most go-fasts and virtually all hard-to-detects – there is disagreement regarding foreign-flagged vessels boarded by the Coast Guard with flag-state approval. The Ninth Circuit is the most defendant-friendly forum for this issue.

In United States v. Perlaza, the Ninth Circuit reversed the MDLEA convictions of Colombian nationals caught smuggling cocaine aboard a Colombian-flagged fishing vessel. The court held that although the Colombian government granted the Coast Guard permission to board the vessel and detain the crewmembers, the Fifth Amendment right of due process required that “for a United States court to properly exercise jurisdiction [over a foreign-flagged vessel], the Government still needs to establish some detrimental effect within, or nexus to, the United States.”20 The court reasoned that a defendant aboard a foreign-flagged vessel “would have a legitimate expectation that because he has submitted himself to the laws of one nation, other nations will not be entitled to exercise jurisdiction without some nexus.”21 From the government’s perspective, this analysis has made the Ninth Circuit an undesirable forum for many MDLEA cases, an issue that will be discussed further below.

The First and Eleventh Circuits – which handle many MDLEA cases through Puerto Rico and Florida, respectively – have not required a U.S. nexus for MDLEA prosecutions of foreign nationals detained aboard foreign-flagged vessels boarded with flag-state approval. In United States v. Trapp, for example, the District of Puerto Rico denied a motion to dismiss an MDLEA indictment brought by foreign nationals detained aboard a Grenadian-flagged vessel on the high seas after Grenada “waive[d] its primary right to exercise jurisdiction over the [vessel], its cargo, and its crew to the extent necessary for the enforcement of United States law.”22 The court held that the “MDLEA contains no explicit requirement that there be a nexus between a defendant’s criminal conduct and the United States” and that “a vessel ‘subject to the jurisdiction of the United States’ is defined to include ‘a vessel registered in a foreign nation if that nation has consented or waived objection to the enforcement of United States law by the United States.’”23

Likewise, the Eleventh Circuit has found the application of the MDLEA to foreign-flagged vessels boarded with flag-state approval to be constitutional24 because (1) Congress allowed for this in § 70502(c)(1)(C) of the MDLEA;25and (2) the MDLEA is grounded in the “protective principle,” which “does not require that there be proof of an actual or intended effect within the United States.”26 By not finding any Fifth Amendment concerns with this critical aspect of the MDLEA’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, the First and Eleventh Circuits are government-friendly venues for this particular strain of cases. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Middle District of Florida and the District of Puerto Rico have permanent billets for Coast Guard lawyers.

MDLEA Jurisdiction over Vessels Boarded in Foreign Territorial Seas with Coastal State Approval

The application of the MDLEA to defendants interdicted in a foreign nation’s territorial seas with that nation’s approval was recently held unconstitutional by the government-friendly Eleventh Circuit in United States v. Davila-Mendoza, a case involving a Coast Guard interdiction made in Jamaican territorial seas with the approval of the Jamaican government.27 The court held that the MDLEA was unconstitutionally applied in Jamaica’s territorial seas – regardless of whether or not Jamaica had consented – because extraterritorial jurisdiction beyond the high seas was not justified by the “Foreign Commerce Clause,” the “Necessary and Proper Clause,”28 the “law of nations,”29 or the “Define and Punish clause.”30 Whether this ruling stands, however, remains to be seen, as the case may be appealed to the Supreme Court.31 If it does stand, existing bilateral agreements between the United States and many of its regional allies will lose some of their potency since Coast Guard cutters will no longer be able to target smuggling vessels located within those partner nations’ territorial seas.

MDLEA Jurisdiction Takeaways

All circuits agree that the MDLEA applies to foreign nationals smuggling drugs on the high seas aboard stateless vessels. However, prosecutions become more difficult in the Ninth Circuit if a foreign-flagged vessel is involved and are impossible in any circuit if the interdiction is made in foreign territorial seas. Nonetheless, the reach of the MDLEA is impressive. Through aggressive lawmaking and international deal-making, the U.S. government has created a legal environment that allows its maritime forces to dominate the eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Both the domestic need for a robust law enforcement presence and the lack of any meaningful international resistance – save from perhaps Venezuela – has made this expansive dominion possible, one upon which the U.S. maritime counter-drug mission is built.

The second installment of this article will discuss the prolonged detention of suspected smugglers aboard Coast Guard cutters and the interaction between intelligence gathering and the trial penalty during prosecution. Read Part Two here.

Thomas “Buddy” Bardenwerper (@TBardenwerper89) served for five years as a Coast Guard officer assigned to cutters homeported in Maine and Puerto Rico. Thanks to the GI Bill and Yellow Ribbon Program, Bardenwerper will graduate with a joint degree from Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government this spring. His maritime migration-related novel Mona Passage will be published by Syracuse University Press in December.


[1] 18 U.S.C. § 1385 (1994) (“Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or Act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.”).

[2] 10 U.S.C. § 275 (2016) (“The Secretary of Defense shall prescribe such regulations as may be necessary to ensure that any activity (including the provision of any equipment or facility or the assignment or detail of any personnel) under this chapter does not include or permit direct participation by a member of the Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marine Corps in a search, seizure, arrest, or other similar activity unless participation in such activity by such member is otherwise authorized by law.”).

[3] 14 U.S.C. § 102 (2018) (“The Coast Guard shall enforce or assist in the enforcement of all applicable Federal laws on, under, and over the high seas and waters subject to the jurisdiction of the United States.”).

[4] 33 C.F.R. § 2.32(a) (2020) (“For purposes of special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States […] high seas means all waters seaward of the territorial sea baseline.”).

[5] While “go-fast” is a commonly used term, the author came up with “slow-mover” and “hard-to-detect” for ease of explanation.

[6] 14 U.S.C. § 89 (2018) (“The Coast Guard may make inquiries, examinations, inspections, searches, seizures, and arrests upon the high seas and waters over which the United States has jurisdiction, for the prevention, detection, and suppression of violations of laws of the United States.”).

[7] 46 U.S.C. §§ 70501-08 (2008).

[8] United States v. Campbell, 743 F.3d 802, 805 (11th Cir. 2014) (quoting U.S. Const. Art. 1, § 8, cl. 10).

[9] Stringer, Morgan, The U.S. Coast Guard Is Arresting Drug Traffickers in Ecuadorian Waters. How Does That Work?, The Water Log 7 (The University of Mississippi Press, 2018).

[10] See e.g. United States v. Ballestas, 795 F.3d 138, 145 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (holding that because the substantive offense established by § 70503(a) of the MDLEA applies extraterritorially, so too does the conspiracy offense established by § 70506(b)); United States v. Mosquera-Murillo, 902 F.3d 285, 289 (D.C. Cir. 2018) (“We have held that a defendant can violate the [MDLEA’s] conspiracy provision without personally setting foot on board a covered vessel.”).

[11] Article 6.2 of the United Nations Convention on the High Seas (1958) (“A ship which sails under the flags of two or more states, using them according to convenience, may not claim any of the nationalities in question with respect to any other state, and may be assimilated to a ship without nationality.”).

[12] 46 U.S.C. § 70502(c) (2008).

[13] Aaron Casavant, In Defense of the U.S. Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act: A Justification for the Law’s Extraterritorial Reach, 8 Harv. Nat’l. Security J. 191, 197 (2017).

[14] Casavant, 197.

[15] See 46 U.S.C. § 70501 (2008) (“Congress finds and declares that (1) trafficking in controlled substances aboard vessels is a serious international problem, is universally condemned, and presents a specific threat to security and societal well-being of the United States.”).

[16] Joseph Kramek, Bilateral Maritime Counter-Drug and Immigrant Interdiction Agreements: Is This the World of the Future?, 31:1 U. of Miami Inter-American L. Rev. 121, 146  (2000).

[17] Id. at 124.

[18] See e.g. United States v. Perlaza, 439 F.3d 1149, 1161 (9th Cir. 2006) (“There is one exception, however, to this ‘constitutional jurisdiction’ requirement: ‘if a vessel is deemed stateless, there is no requirement that the government demonstrate a nexus between those on board and the United States before exercising jurisdiction over them.’”); United States v. Van Der End, 943 F.3d 98, 105 (2d. Cir. 2019) (“MDLEA prosecutions involving stateless vessels do not present the same concerns that are present in the extraterritorial application of typical criminal statutes [because] stateless ‘vessels are international pariahs’ that ‘subject themselves to the jurisdiction of all nations.”).

[19] See United States v. Aybar-Ulloa, 987 F.3d 1, 1 (1st Cir. 2021) (“International law accepts the criminal prosecution by the United States of persons like Aybar, who was seized by the United States while trafficking cocaine on a stateless vessel on the high seas, just as if they were trafficking on a United States-flagged ship”.”); United States v. Cabezas-Montano, 949 F.3d 567, 587 (11th Cir. 2020) (“The Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause does not prohibit the trial and conviction of aliens captured on the high seas while drug trafficking because the MDLEA provides clear notice that all nations prohibit and condemn drug trafficking aboard stateless vessels on the high seas.”).

[20] Perlaza, 439 F.3d at 1169.

[21] Id. (quoting United States v. Klimavicius-Viloria, 144 F.3d 1249, 1257 (9th Cir. 1998)).

[22] United States v. Trapp, Crim. No. 16-159, 2017 WL 2821904 at *1 (D.P.R. 2017).

[23] Id. at *2 (quoting 46 U.S.C. § 70502(c)(1)(C)).

[24] See United States v. Castillo, 899 F.3d 1208, 1212 (11th Cir. 2018) (upholding the MDLEA conviction and sentence of a foreign national detained aboard a Guatemalan-flagged vessel).

[25] 46 U.S.C. § 70502(c)(1)(C) (2008) (“A ‘vessel subject to the jurisdiction of the United States’ includes a vessel registered in a foreign nation if that nation has consented or waived objection to the enforcement of United States law by the United States.”).

[26] United States v. Garcia, 182 F.Appx. 873, 876 (11th Cir. 2006) (quoting United States v. Gonzalez, 776 F.2d 931, 938 (11th Cir. 1985)).

[27] United States v. Davila-Mendoza, 972 F.3d 1264 (11th Cir. 2020).

[28] Id. at 1267.

[29] United States v. Bellaizac-Hurtado, 700 F.3d 1245, 1258 (11th Cir. 2012).

[30] Id. at 1249-53.

[31] Josh Blackman, Eleventh Circuit Panel finds that Maritime Drug Law Enforcement Act exceeds Congress’s Powers under the Foreign Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause Powers, Reason Magazine (September 12, 2020),

Featured Image: Coast Guard Cutter Bertholf boarding teams interdict a low-profile go-fast vessel in November 2019 while patrolling international waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean. (Image credit:Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul Krug)

Worldwide Ocean Governance: Protecting the Most Vulnerable Assets—Ports and Harbors

By Jack Rowley

Worldwide “Ocean Governance” asks the important question: “How can navies and coast guards better coordinate with local governments and international agencies in countering violence at sea? What lessons can be learned from instances of good onshore/offshore collaboration? How are governments working together across jurisdictions and in international waters to counter this threat?”

As a former U.S. naval officer, naval architect and ocean engineer, I recognize that this is a crucial question. However, I believe that when most people think about the worldwide “ocean governance,” they think of the safety of ships on the seventy-percent of the globe covered by water. That is a normal reaction. Conversely, I think in terms of the most vulnerable part of the equation: the ports and harbors from which ships sail and that (unwittingly) often serve as the conduit for illegal activities such as trafficking in persons, drugs and many kinds of contraband.

A great deal of ink has been spilled on the term “globalization” – the international interaction of information, financial capital, commerce, technology and labor at exponentially greater speeds than previously thought possible. Globalization has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. And most would agree that trade – carried primarily by sea – has been the engine of globalization in the past and continues to be so today. While most press reports have focused on the importance of ships in carrying this vital trade, these same accounts have failed to identify the critical nodes that support this globalization and burgeoning world trade.

Those nodes are the world’s harbors. From Shanghai, to Rotterdam, to Los Angeles, to other mega-ports, as well as hundreds of other, smaller ports, these harbors are critical to world prosperity. A disaster in one of them – an oil tank explosion, a fire or other catastrophe on a large oil tanker, or any of a host of other events – could close one of these ports for an indefinite time and also spill an enormous amount of pollution into the oceans. The challenge of providing comprehensive security for an average size port, let alone some of the world’s mega-ports, can sometimes lure port authorities into wishing away the challenge.

Port authorities must ensure port security twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. This task includes continuous inspection of port assets as well as on-demand inspections after storms or other disasters, threat detection and security response, ongoing surveys to ensure navigable waterways, hull inspections, and a wide-range of other missions. Port authorities must accomplish these myriad tasks while monitoring port activities’ impacts on the environment and maintaining a positive image with the local community.

Today’s State of the Art for Port Security

Current security measures in most ports involve monitoring the video provided by cameras throughout the port, as well as patrolling the ports’ expanse of water with a fleet of manned vessels. This methodology stresses the ability of port authorities to provide comprehensive security and typically leads to serious – and potentially fatal – gaps in coverage.

Cameras offer one means of monitoring a port. That said, the human cost is often high. Someone must monitor the video for the cameras to have any purpose, let alone effectiveness. With some ports maintaining scores of cameras this entails having a command center and enough watchstanders to monitor all of the cameras in real-time, around the clock.

There are similar challenges involved in the use of manned craft to patrol a harbor of any size. Manned vessel operations are often limited by weather and water conditions. For most ports, multiple manned vessels are needed to guarantee sufficient revisit time to ensure that a threat has not slipped through the security net. Compounding the issue is the physical toll of riding a small vessel – either a rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB) or other craft. Unlike watchstanders on land who might be able to work shifts as long as eight or even twelve hours, pounding through often-choppy harbors in a RHIB or other small craft means that a watch rotation of somewhere between three and four hours is about all most people can endure.

All-in-all, this is an expensive undertaking. Moreover, there are many shallow areas throughout ports that are beyond the reach of any manned vessels. Even limited draft craft like RHIBs draw some water when they are loaded with people, communications equipment, weapons and the like.

Given the challenges of providing comprehensive security for ports with current state-of-the-art systems and capabilities, it is little wonder that port officials are searching for technology solutions that will enable them to provide better security, at lower costs, and without putting people at risk. Some have begun to turn to new technology like unmanned surface vehicles to complement current capabilities.

A Mega-Port with a Challenge

The Port of Los Angeles is the busiest port in the United States. This mega-port comprises forty-three miles of waterfront, forty-two square miles of water and eighty-six ship-to-shore container cranes. Last year, the Port of Los Angeles handled almost ten million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of cargo. This volume is predicted to increase year-over-year. Additionally, POLA is scheduled to soon bring on a substantial liquid natural gas (LNG) handling capability.

Today, Port of Los Angeles (POLA) officials monitor the video provided by 500 cameras, and patrol the port with a fleet of manned vessels. This methodology stresses the ability of POLA authorities to provide 24/7/365 security. Additionally, POLA has a large number of shallow areas throughout its forty-three miles of waterfront that are beyond the reach of any of the manned vessels.

Current capabilities to secure the Port of Los Angeles involve monitoring the video provided by hundreds of cameras throughout the port, as well as patrolling the port’s expanse of water with a fleet of manned vessels. This methodology stresses the ability of POLA authorities to provide around the clock security.

Port of Los Angeles officials must ensure security against a wide range of human attacks as well as natural disasters. One need only spend a short time on the ground and on the water of this port to understand the magnitude of the challenge. And what is crucially important is that the Port of Los Angeles challenge is not a unique one. It exists in ports from Singapore, to Antwerp, to Shanghai, to Rotterdam to many, many others.

Results of the Port of Los Angeles Demonstration

Port of Los Angeles officials had a mandate from a number of stakeholders to determine if using unmanned surface vehicles could help secure the port. The port invited Maritime Tactical Systems Inc. (MARTAC) to visit and demonstrate the capabilities of their MANTAS unmanned surface vehicle (USV). MANTAS is a high-performance USV built on a catamaran-style hull and comes in a number of variants ranging in size from 6-foot to 50-foot. A demonstration was conducted with a 12-foot MANTAS as it was currently available, and the 12-foot size would be the minimum size viable for conduct of any of the wide-variety of POLA missions described above.

The 12-foot MANTAS (T12) has a length of twelve feet and a width of three feet. It draws only seven inches of water. The vessel weighs 260 pounds and has a carrying capacity of 140 pounds. Its twin-screw electric propulsion prime mover enables the T12 to cruise at a comfortable 20 knots in sea state three.

The modularity of the MANTAS allows it to be equipped with a wide variety of above-surface sensors (EO/IR/thermal video) and below-surface sensors (sonars and echo-sounders), as well as other devices such as chem/bio/nuclear sensors, water quality monitors, and above/below surface environmental sensors. Real-time monitoring is provided by a MANTAS communications package that can support marine VHF, networked RF, 4GLTE, or satellite communications.

In their efforts to find an unmanned surface vehicle manufacturer to provide a port and harbor security demonstration POLA authorities did their due diligence that led them to MARTAC Inc. MANTAS had performed well in a port security demonstration conducted by the U.S. Army. Three MANTAS T-series vessels were part of the Mobile Ocean Terminal Concept Demonstration in Concord, CA. The objective of this demonstration was to assess MANTAS’ ability to patrol and protect the harbor, and especially the loading of ammunition ships. For these missions, three MANTAS vessels, T6, T8 and T12, were used to perform different operations.

The MANTAS T6 was utilized as an intercept vessel to quickly address potential threats at high-speeds – up to 55 knots. It was equipped with a standard electro/optical camera focused on rapid interdiction and base threat identification. The second vessel was a MANTAS T8, with a medium performance envelope of 25 knots. Its role was as a forward-looking harbor vessel situational awareness asset. The T8 operated forward of a harbor patrol vessel working in areas that were not accessible with manned vessels.

The final vessel was a MANTAS T12 tasked with prosecuting above and below surveillance operations to detect and identify intruder vessels, divers, kayaks or other threats to harbor assets. The MANTAS T12 was tasked to detect and provide the precise images for operator threat identification to determine appropriate response level. The MANTAS boats, and specifically the T12, have an open architecture and modular design, which facilitates the rapid changing of payload and sensor components to provide day-to-day port security as well as on-demand inspections.

Port of Los Angeles organized their MANTAS evaluation into three segments:

  • An extended boat tour of the harbor so that MARTAC representatives could understand the entirety of POLA authorities’ span of operations.
  • A comprehensive briefing on MANTAS capabilities where MARTAC officials explained the capabilities of the various size MANTAS USVS.
  • A remote demonstration where port officials controlled and observed MANTAS operating remotely off the eastern coast of Florida.

Based on the results of this event, it was determined that the capabilities of this USV met the requirements for the Port of Los Angeles to use a USV to complement its extant monitoring capabilities. However, the Port further determined that a T12 was too small to accomplish the mission effectively. This determination, coupled with the suggestions of other port officials and U.S. Coast Guard representatives, resulted in MARTAC undertaking a process of “scaling-up” the MANTAS to larger 24-foot (T24), 38-foot (T38) and 50-foot (T50) vessels for conduct of the port and harbor security mission.

These larger size craft will provide better solutions for ports and harbors as they are more visible to ships entering and leaving the harbor, they can carry additional sensors and, most significantly, the larger craft provide for increased speed up to 80kts burst which would be used for unknown vessel intercept and identification. The larger MANTAS T24, T38 and T50 additionally provide for extended patrol distances and longer patrol endurance. A follow-up port and harbor security demonstration using both the T12s and a new prototype T38E was conducted in the Port of Tampa in October 2020. This demonstration, on site within the port, clearly illustrated the improvements that the larger craft brings to the mission success in the significant challenges presented within the realm of port and harbor security.

The Future of Port and Harbor Protection

The Port of Los Angeles event, coupled with the later Port of Tampa demonstrations, showed that commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) unmanned surface vehicles can conduct a comprehensive harbor security inspection of a mega-port through effective onshore/offshore collaboration. As facilities with longstanding needs to augment manned vessel patrol activities with emergent technology in the form of unmanned surface vehicles, the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Tampa demonstrations provided best-practice examples of the art-of-the-possible for enhancing port security.

Until recently, the technology to provide reliable, comprehensive and affordable USV support to augment manned capabilities and expand the reach of port police at facilities such as the Ports of Los Angeles and Tampa did not exist. Today it is readily available in the form of commercial off-the-shelf unmanned surface vessels, and these can be harnessed to increase the effectiveness of port protection while driving down costs. The end result will be an enhanced comprehensive port security, not merely wishful thinking.

In an article in the January 2020 issue of U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Commander Rob Brodie noted: “When the Navy and Marine Corps consider innovation, they usually focus on technology they do not possess and not on how to make better use of the technology they already have.” Extrapolating his assertion to the multiple entities responsible for port and harbor security at mega-ports such as the Ports of Los Angeles and Tampa, one must ask if we are too slow to leverage an innovative solution that can be grasped immediately.

There is a distinct danger in waiting too long to put innovative COTS solutions to use. Mega-ports support globalization and the worldwide security and prosperity it delivers. Leaders should remain cognizant of the obligation and the challenge of protecting these vital nodes. Securing these ports must be a first-order priority for all nations. If successful, this will ensure that the most vulnerable assets in a quest for Worldwide Ocean Governance are protected.

LCDR U.H. (Jack) Rowley (USN-Ret) is a career Surface Warfare and Engineering Duty Officer whose 22 years of active duty included nine years of enlisted service before commissioning. Since his retirement he has continued to work, as a Naval Architect and Ocean Engineer, with the marine ship design and construction areas in both government and commercial sectors. He has had extensive experience with unmanned surface vehicles including serving as the SAIC Lead Engineer in the early stages of the development of the DARPA/ONR Sea Hunter USV Trimaran now operating with the Navy in the Port of San Diego. He currently serves as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for Maritime Tactical Systems, Inc. (MARTAC).

Featured Image: Aerial view from the overhead the Port of Los Angeles, facing South, with Santa Catalina Island on the horizon. Photo credit: Port of Los Angeles.