Some 30 miles away, Colombian sailors on patrol boats hug the South American coast as they covertly close in on a motorboat suspected of ferrying cocaine. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in the air on a P-3 plane capture everything on radar, part of an orchestrated multinational trap to nab bulk loads of drugs long before they make it to the United States. While America has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into securing the U.S. border across Texas and elsewhere, the mammoth sea still beckons with possibilities, absent the sensors, cameras, massive manpower and fences found on land.
Fortified as never before, drug traffickers increasingly are bypassing the heavily guarded land crossings for the comparatively naked seas and 367 miles of shore where they are more likely to cross paths with fishermen than federal agents - and where snagging smugglers is a puzzle based on intelligence, surveillance, patience and luck. "I think we've got a guy coming out of the bay now, this could be our boy," said a veteran CBP officer flying in the P-3 at about 12,500 feet over choppy waters. But it wasn't. Not this time. "You get information from a confidential informant. Maybe somebody stubbed their toe, or the wind wasn't right," the agent joked of the litany of things that could have delayed the journey. "Maņana," he said, using the Spanish word for tomorrow. "We refer to it as 'doper time.' "
'Going to get worse'
The Caribbean is a long way from the shores of Texas, but this is where the smuggling begins, where huge loads of cocaine are slipped out of the jungle-lined coasts and jumped to Central America, or the Caribbean Islands, then methodically moved toward the United States. Today, bundles of marijuana and cocaine are drifting onto Texas beaches as a result, loads likely abandoned or lost before they could be intercepted. "I don't see it getting any better; if anything, it is going to get worse," Travis Poulson, chief ranger for the Padre Island National Seashore, said of traffickers turning to the coast. "There is money in it."
Authorities still make many more busts on the land border between the United States and Mexico than along the beaches, but concede they don't know exactly what is happening on waters that stretch far and wide, and lap the Third Coast of the United States. "As we make the land border more secure, they will find any way they can to get in," said U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, an Austin-based Republican who heads a committee that oversees the Department of Homeland Security. "They will certainly turn to the sea to get their product in." McCaul, who represents part of Harris County, is to preside over a hearing June 21 in Washington to examine the maritime threat posed by drug traffickers. He noted that 165,000 metric tons of illegal drugs were seized in the Caribbean, Bahamas and Gulf of Mexico last year, up 36 percent from 2008. In April, 55 pounds of cocaine washed up on San Jose Island in Aransas County.