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Jacksonville-based federal agents track traffickers, seize more than $1 billion in drugs

Agents use surveillance planes, boats, helicopters in war on drugs

Stopping drug smugglers from high in the sky, Jacksonville-based federal agents are busting big narcotics operations before the dope gets onto American soil.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Stopping drug smugglers from high in the sky, Jacksonville-based federal agents are busting big narcotics operations before the dope gets onto American soil.

This year alone, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations agents, flying from Cecil Airport, have seized more than $1 billion dollars’ worth of drug shipments.

Using P-3 Orion aircraft with huge radar “domes,” drug interdiction agents patrol Latin American and the waters off the coast, from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

They partner with other agencies like the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard, as well as countries like Costa Rica and Panama, to intercept massive drug trafficking operations. Videos from onboard cameras capture the action.

“The good guy boat is shining a spotlight on the bad guy boat,” agents told each other as they were in hot pursuit of drug smugglers in a “go-fast” boat in the Pacific.

“Definitely four engines, definitely a lot of stuff in the boat,” one of the agents told his team. “It looks like he may be dumping more stuff here.”

In a video, they throw more than a dozen bales of drugs into the ocean. The traffickers dump millions of dollars’ worth of dope and then bailing themselves, letting the boat run ashore.

“OK, the people in the boat have jumped out, and woah!” the agents tell partner agencies over the radios.

It’s just another night on the job, in a world they describe as the wild, wild west for illegal drugs.

They’re patrolling the open ocean day and night, in Central and South America, trying to stop some of the world’s biggest shipments of drugs from getting into the U.S.

Coast Guard and Navy helicopters often respond with firepower to shoot out engines and hold the traffickers at gunpoint.

In another video, under the cover of darkness, a private plane crash lands in an undisclosed grassy area. A caravan of narcos pulls up, unloads the trucks and then lights the aircraft on fire. They think they’ve gotten away with it, but the feds are following their every move and relaying the information to local authorities, who are, for the most part, supportive of the operations.

“There’s a lot of work to be done a lot of coordination, and it could take hours to find any endgame to it,” said Supervisory Agent Kraig Kamp, the deputy director for AMO’s Jacksonville office.

The federal agents behind these operations are from two places: Corpus Christi, Texas, and Jacksonville, Florida.

“We try to keep drugs and illegal activity as far away from our borders as we possibly can,” Kamp said, adding that it’s easier to stop the big shipments before they’re disbursed and spread all over to smaller smugglers.

News4Jax flew with the Jacksonville team as it trained for its next mission: air interdiction.

While many people think of drug smugglers using modified boats, some use semi-submersible watercraft — like submarines — and planes.

“If I can keep drugs off the street and out of the hands of any drug users in the United States, it’s just one big win for me,” said pilot Shy Thorsen, an agent who joined CBP after flying P-3s in the Navy. “Every time I go home and I have a good bust, at one more proud moment for me.”

The radar and other technology can spot planes and boats for hundreds of miles. That’s enough to span the state of Florida from east to west. In the cabin, special agents are using powerful cameras, night vision and other classified technology to spy from the sky. They’re doing it with lights off at night and without sending signals to other aircraft and boats.

“They can’t even see us flying around,” Thorsen said.

The dividends are large.

In the fiscal year 2020, Jacksonville AMO crews reported that they seized 64,450 pounds worth more than $659 million on the streets.

So far in 2021, as of September, they had recovered 116,800 pounds of narcotics, worth $1.19 billion.

The risk is extremely high, and shootouts happen.

One video shows a chase on land, with American authorities exchanging dozens of shots with smugglers. It’s a risk these eyes in the skies say they’re willing to take to keep deadly drugs off U.S. streets.

Besides drug interdiction, the team has done a lot of humanitarian missions. It used its technology to search for two missing Florida firefighters in 2019 and a missing diver off Mayport in 2021, and it responded to hurricanes and, most recently, the earthquake in Haiti. The team said that it has the equipment and the training, and it will use it wherever the team is needed.

By the numbers: Air and Marine Operations nationwide drug seizures

Fiscal Year 2017FY 2018FY 2019FY 2020

For more Air and Marine Operations statistics for fiscal year 2020 — from Oct. 1, 2019, to Sept. 30, 2020 — visit the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website.

About the Authors:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.