U.S. planes patrol hundreds of miles of open sea near Colombia in the loneliest, farthest front in the war on drugs. It is also the most lucrative – where more cocaine can be snared in a single day than in an entire year by inspectors working at U.S. ports of entry. The Houston Chronicle was aboard one surveillance flight for a rare first-hand look at a little-known program that costs about $49 million annually to operate. It turns 25 this year and is aimed at derailing some of the world’s biggest loads of illegal narcotics long before they reach U.S. shores.
When the plane spots suspected drug runners, it can covertly trail them for hours as the Coast Guard, Navy, or other forces are radioed to move in to make arrests and capture loads. In what looks like a video game, they use joysticks, computer mice, and sophisticated cameras to hone in on visual targets in the distance. The cameras stealthily sweep along ships’ decks, looking at equipment and the crew – sometimes making cold calls and other times acting on tips from informants. Customs and Border Patrol credits the fleet of 16 P-3 planes – all at least 40 years old and based in Corpus Christi and Jacksonville, Fl. – with “seizing or disrupting” a record 257,252 pounds of cocaine in 2009. That is about four times the 61,559 pounds of cocaine seized at every port of entry in the U.S. last year.