The Coast Guard is struggling with 'a capacity challenge' amid a cocaine boom

US Coast Guard officials have warned several times that their units are unable to keep up with the flows of illegal narcotics coming to the US from South and Central America.

Vice Adm. Charles Ray, the Coast Guard's deputy commandant for operations, repeated those concerns on Tuesday during a hearing before the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.

"We have good intelligence on between 80% and 90% of these movements," Ray said, referring to trafficking in the eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean. "So we have good intelligence, [but] we only have the capacity to get after about 30% of those" shipments.

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Marijuana found in the trunks of new Ford Fusion cars in Ohio in this undated photo obtained by REUTERS July 18, 2017. Drug Enforcement Administration Detroit /Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Marijuana found in the trunks of new Ford Fusion cars in Ohio in this undated photo obtained by REUTERS July 18, 2017. Drug Enforcement Administration Detroit /Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
An undated handout picture released by the New York Special Narcotics Prosecutor's Office show 62 kilograms of cocaine (136 lbs.) seized by police in New York City December 17, 2015. Two men were arrested and nearly $3 million worth of cocaine was seized in New York City in what is being described as the biggest bust involving the drug in recent years as heroin abuse has surged, law enforcement authorities said on Saturday. REUTERS/New York Special Narcotics Prosecutor's Office/Handout via Reuters THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS
Police show crystal methamphetamine packaged as boxes of chocolate to journalists following a drug trafficking operation which netted 202 billion rupiah (approx $15.4 million USD) worth of various narcotics at police headquarters, Jakarta, Indonesia, April 13, 2016 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. REUTERS/Wahyu Putro/Antara Foto ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN INDONESIA.
Mona, a Colombian drug-sniffer dog, stands guard next to packs of cocaine at the police building during a photo opportunity to the media in Bogota, Colombia September 7, 2015. Police in Colombia and Mexico have seized more than two tonnes of cocaine after a drug-sniffing dog alerted authorities in Bogota to the narcotics, which had been dyed black and falsely registered as an ingredient in printer cartridges, the Colombian police said on Monday. REUTERS/ John Vizcaino
An indoor marijuana farm, also known as a "grow house", is seen in an empty swimming pool, concealed by a thick slab of concrete, in this undated handout photo provided by Miami-Dade County Police Department in Miami, Florida on January 31, 2014. Police arrested and charged three individuals, after a routine traffic stop found them to be in possession of five pounds of marijuana, with a further 82 live plants discovered in the empty pool in the backyard of a house. In 2012, Florida had more marijuana "grow houses" than anywhere else in the country, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). REUTERS/Miami-Dade Police Dept/Handout via Reuters (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW DRUGS SOCIETY) ATTENTION EDITORS ? THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
A carton box filled with wood briquettes and cocaine is pictured during a news conference at the police headquarters in Hamburg April 13, 2010. About 1,3 tonnes of cocaine with a market value around 40 million euro was seized and 7 suspects arrested during an operation at the Hamburg harbour. It was the largest amount of cocaine ever seized in Germany, according to the authorities. REUTERS/Christian Charisius (GERMANY - Tags: CRIME LAW)
A Colombian soldier displays marijuana packs confiscated by army troops in Florida Valle del Cauca province November 19, 2009. At least 4.5 tons of marijuana were seized near Toribio during an operation by army troops, authorities said. REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga (COLOMBIA MILITARY CONFLICT SOCIETY)
- PHOTO TAKEN 26DEC02 - A forensic police officer inspects one of seven plastic tubes filled with ecstasy tablets at the Australian Federal Police headquarters in Sydney on December 26, 2002. Australian police made their largest seizure of the party drug ecstasy on Cristmas Eve after finding three quarters of a million tablets worth A$45 million ($25 million) in the back of a van during a raid in Sydney, police said on Friday. Three men, including a Canadian, were arrested. Picture taken December 26. ? EDITORIAL USE ONLY (Credit : New South Wales Police Service)
Over 28,000 pounds (12.7 tons) of cocaine seized by U.S forces in 18 separate interdictions is shown on the deck of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Boutwell upon its return to Naval Base San Diego in San Diego, California October 6, 2014. The drugs, seized off the coast of Central America with the help of the U.S. Navy, were turned over to agents from the DEA. REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW MILITARY POLITICS DRUGS SOCIETY)
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Like Ray and US Southern Command chief Adm. Kurt Tidd, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft has warned about the gulf between what the service can see and what it can stop.

"Just last year we had intelligence on nearly 580 possible shipments but couldn’t go intercept them because we didn’t have the ships or planes to go after them," he told The New York Times this summer.

Coca and cocaine production in Colombia surged 134% between 2013 and 2016.

The amount of export-quality cocaine produced in Colombia increased from 270 metric tons in 2013 to 910 metric tons in 2016, according to Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who is chairman of the caucus. Additionally, "the drugs are up 207% in coming in," Sen. Dianne Feinstein said during the hearing.

Those increases have provided plenty of cargo for smugglers who ply a swath of the eastern Pacific Ocean the size of the continental US — from the west coast of South America to the Galapagos Islands and up to waters off western Mexico and the southwest US — according to Ray, who said the service's assets in the area were stretched thin.

The Coast Guard, along with partners in the region, is tasked with patrolling the waters of the US's southern approaches.

"On any given day we'll have between six to 10 Coast Guard cutters down here," Ray said. "If you imagine placing that on [an area the size of] the United States ... it's a capacity challenge."

In 2016, the Coast Guard intercepted 45,000 pounds of cocaine with an estimated value of $6 billion. So far this year, the service has made a number of sizable seizures at sea.

In March, a Coast Guard cutter unloaded 16 tons of cocaine seized by US and Canadian ships over a month period in the eastern Pacific. In May, a cutter unloaded 18.5 tons of the drug seized by six ships off the coasts of Central and South America. In June, another cutter unloaded 18 tons of the drug seized by it and other cutters in the eastern Pacific.

Those seizures, and the gap Ray described between what the Coast Guard has intelligence on and what it can act, on would seem to indicate that a significant amount of narcotics is making its way past the US security assets deployed to intercept it.

Asked by Feinstein about what was needed to address the flow of narcotics, Ray emphasized the Coast Guard's offshore-patrol-cutter program, which the service has said will bridge the gap between national-security cutters, which patrol open ocean, and fast-response cutters, which patrol closer to shore.

The Coast Guard plans to spend $12.1 billion on the offshore-patrol cutters through 2032 (though the GAO has raised questions about the spending plan), but the first of the 25 cutters it plans to build isn't scheduled for delivery until 2021, meaning the Coast Guard is likely to grapple with balancing its priorities and its resources going forward.

"The US Coast Guard is kind of doing it on their own. There have been pretty much zero naval assets in the Caribbean doing this for a few years," Adam Isacson, senior associate for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Business Insider.

"Ultimately, as dire as the Coast Guard makes it out to be, it is ridiculous they can only get 30%," he added. "When you stack up all of the missions the Navy and Coast Guard are supposed to fulfill, this is low. It's low on the list."

NOW WATCH: Here's what $1 billion worth of cocaine looks like

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