THE SCOPE OF THE ISSUE
First it must be noted that the threat of yachts and other small vessels arriving and departing without notice for clearance from authorities is not limited to the Pacific Basin. It is a worldwide phenomenon which also impacts the West, Gulf and East Coasts of the U.S. mainland.
For that matter, it is a noteworthy modus operandi of criminal and terrorist elements operating under cover of secrecy around the globe. But today we’re going to limit our discussion to a regional analysis of the peril posed in and around the Pacific Ocean.
Today, I am deliberately going to avoid the temptation to get into circuitous commercial air routes such as the backdoor approach to Hawaii via South America and the South Pacific. We also shall save for another vital discussion at an appropriate time the matter of private aircraft and clandestine air strips.
These merit separate and specific attention to the details involved. The Pacific Basin is uniquely vulnerable and susceptible to penetration of sovereign jurisdictions by unauthorized persons arriving by yachts and other small ocean craft, by which I mean primarily small commercial fishing vessels.
WHY IS THE YACHT ISSUE SO TIMELY AND PERTINENT NOW?
Please see the relevant article which I submitted yesterday in conjunction with Dr. Rieko Hayakawa of Japan: “Heart of darkness of island society“.
See also my article of September 17th, entitled “Focus on the Pacific: Establishing a Pacific Fusion Centre“.
From my many years doing Customs work here in Hawaii, my experience and expertise led me to the initial reaction regarding the assassination on Yap Island of a young American Acting Attorney General, to suggest that a possible method of ingress and egress for the perpetrators would be on a yacht. This is not to say that such was definitely the case, but it is to recommend that the FBI and other authorities investigating this murder give due consideration to that possibility.
Reports are that the number of legally registered weapons in the Federated States of Micronesia number only in the hundreds. No one, of course, has any idea how many illegal guns there may be. But if the murder weapon was indeed a shotgun, Yap island is not a lot of terra firma on which to conceal it beforehand or afterwards. Of course it could have been thrown into the sea after the event, but that still leaves how and when it got there in the first place.
My first thought when I heard about the assassination was that the perpetrator probably jumped on a yacht and was long gone immediately after committing the heinous deed. Recent reports are that the FBI has identified suspects but has not publicly released their names. It is wise to consider any possible perpetrators or conspirators who may no longer be on the island.
Yap is located between Palau and Guam. There are only three flights per week via United Airlines which took over the old Continental Airlines island-hoppers upon that airline’s demise. But yachts could easily come and go from any small Pacific island or atoll without attracting undue attention.
A PACIFIC-WIDE SMUGGLING TECHNIQUE
I can vouch from my Customs experience for the fact that contraband has been for many years and is still today being smuggled across the Pacific Basin on private yachts. Hawaii has not normally been the destination of choice. But many American citizens and quite a few Canadians are involved in these smuggling ventures.
A typical route begins somewhere in South Florida near Miami and proceeds past the Gulf of Mexico, across the Caribbean, picking up drugs in Cartagena, Colombia, then via the Panama Canal to the Pacific coast of South America, sometimes with stops in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru or Chile.
Then they sail out by the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, through the Marquesas Islands and on to Papeete, Tahiti or to Bora Bora in French Polynesia.
Their next stop will normally be in either the Cook Islands or perhaps farther north in American Samoa or independent Samoa.
From there, they may make port calls in Fiji or Tonga.
The next line of islands they will normally traverse will take them either to Vanuatu or New Caledonia.
The final destination in some instances could be New Zealand, but the most lucrative market for illegal drugs is Australia.
There will be definite variations in this route due to weather conditions and due to smugglers’ perceptions as to where they can best evade detection. But, these are the South Pacific countries and territories that are primarily used as transit points.
What I have just outlined is historical over a period of several decades. Some of this could potentially be changing now as recent open source reports indicate that crystal methamphetamine is a growing menace among Pacific Islanders.
Meth is corrupting once insular societies with outside contraband. In my Customs experience, much of the drugs in that category unfortunately and shamefully came either from San Francisco or Los Angeles or Honolulu, most of it by air. But, what we’re looking at today involves how yachts are used for illegal activity in the Pacific.
HOW THIS APPLIES IN AMERICA’S PACIFIC DOMAIN
While the current and former United States territories in the Far Western Pacific are north of the equator and not on this South Pacific smuggling route we just looked at, their vulnerability to infiltration by nefarious persons and contraband coming in by yacht is identical.
As for the United States, including Hawaii, since it has been almost five years since I retired, I just now looked at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Pleasure Boat Reporting Requirements which you can read for yourself. It was updated almost precisely a year ago.
What strikes you most about this procedure? To me, it is abundantly obvious that this is based upon voluntary reporting. It involves trusting boaters to let us know they’re here.
Yes, of course it’s ludicrous to think that somebody smuggling drugs or bringing a nuclear weapon or Islamic terrorists in on a yacht is going to comply with these reporting requirements. In essence, once they’ve arrived, particularly in the case of a nuke, it’s already far too late!
In actuality, yachts do just pop in over the horizon. I used to patrol the shorelines and harbors and marinas of Oahu in my official capacity with Customs in the early to mid-1990s. At that time I knew which boats were here regularly and which ones were out of place. I worked very closely with counterparts from the U.S. Coast Guard in boarding numerous yachts and fishing boats and talking to their crew.
If you read my previous articles which I mentioned above, you will recall the two multinational programs of Project Cook and CAPERS in which intelligence information was shared around the Pacific among Customs and other law enforcement regarding both Vessels of Interest [VOI] and Persons of Interest [POI].
How much of that was going on back then? Nationwide, probably very little. Mostly just here in Hawaii. How much of that is going on now? I’m no longer privy to official activities, but there is no public domain or open-source information to suggest that this proactive and aggressive approach in identifying suspects and potential suspects is still an ongoing priority.
There are indications that our counterparts in New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and other major Pacific nations are still very much actively involved and talking to one another to be able to anticipate threats that might arrive via the high seas.
If you plan to wait until they get here and report in, you might as well just go ahead right now and kiss your okole goodbye!
BACK TO YAP FOR A MOMENT
Yap is a tiny island state on the westernmost front of the Federated States of Micronesia in proximity to the Philippines, Indonesia and all of Southeast Asia, within easy reach of the People’s Liberation Army of China. I am confident that the FBI has duly considered or will duly consider the maritime nexus of potential suspects in the recent murder.
But we must not and they must not be reactive only. We absolutely for our own security and well-being ~ and this applies to all our friends in Micronesia as well ~ MUST proactively work with one another to help identify and prepare against those who would arrive in our jurisdictions unannounced by sea.
Whether or not anybody involved in the assassination of Rachelle Bergeron on Yap on October 14th got there on a boat or whether the weapons involved got there on a boat or whether any of the persons or weapons departed on a boat is only part of the concern. The most important thing is to be better prepared in the future so that such eventualities can be better anticipated, monitored and counteracted. Lives may depend on it!
A PERSONAL NOTE
I have a lot of anecdotal evidence that bears on the analysis of this maritime threat throughout the Pacific. But I’m really not at liberty to go into it in the public domain where the bad guys as well as the good guys will read it. They have enough bad ideas already without us adding to their repertoire.
The other thing to remember is that compared to airline travel which takes a matter of hours even across the wide expanse of the Pacific, vessels travel weeks at a time between ports and continue to exploit weaknesses which they discover in Customs, Immigration and other law enforcement activities. Many of the VOIs and POIs are still active many years and even decades after we may have identified and tracked them for a while.
Hopefully the body of knowledge has continued to pass from hand to hand and within official databases to the successors of those who first documented the threats that specific targets may pose. But, at this point, we must take an important further step.
TALKING TO OUR ALLIES IN THE PACIFIC
So, in conclusion for this time, I just want to re-emphasize and stress as strongly as I can that we absolutely must work as closely as possible with our friends in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and all the small islands and atolls of the vast Pacific. It is very frequently the case that one country or territory has one piece of the puzzle and that another jurisdiction has another piece. When we get enough pieces assembled, then we can together find the missing pieces that will bring the entire picture into vivid view.
Yachts pose a threat like none other. Water covers about 71% of the Earth’s surface. The Pacific Ocean alone covers just over 30%. The distance from the Panama Canal to Sydney, Australia is 8,785 miles. That is precisely the area that we looked at earlier in which small yachts transit the South Pacific for nefarious purposes.
It’s a bit over 5,000 miles from San Francisco to Tokyo. Over 9,700 miles of deep blue waters separate the Aleutian Islands of Alaska from Antarctica. The Pacific is dissected by both the equator and the International Date Line.
Hawaii is strategically located in the middle of the North Pacific. The potential of something really bad happening because of a yacht coming in unannounced has not been taken seriously or thoroughly assessed on a national level. I spent about the last 23 years of my federal career trying to spotlight the importance of having an adequate yacht enforcement posture. The best I can do now is to present this issue in the public domain not only in our own country but throughout the Pacific.
The supreme irony of all this is that this will fall on deaf ears inside the DC Beltway. It always has and will until something unfortunate gets the attention of our national political elite. But much, if not all, and what I have just said will ring many bells of those involved in Customs, Immigration and law enforcement in the Pacific Basin and Pacific Rim.
While I am pleased at America’s re-engagement in the Pacific, altogether too much of our renewed effort has been limited to the political and military arenas. What we did during my own Customs career in the Pacific was at the operational border security level.
So I will watch and wait as Australia moves its prototype Pacific Fusion Centre from Canberra to some host country in the islands. Indications are that it will probably be somewhere in Micronesia, either Palau or Federated States of Micronesia. If FSM is chosen, I would not expect it to be on Yap but more likely at the national capital on Pohnpei farther east.
Admiral Phil Davidson, Commander in Chief of U.S Indo-Pacific Command recently told an audience at the East West Center that the United States will be a participant. The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee unfortunately has tasked the Department of Defense with this responsibility. That is frankly an error in judgment.
This should fall upon the shoulders of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security [DHS]. Both U.S. Customs and Border Protection [CBP] and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] ~ as the heirs to the late, great U.S. Customs Service of the Treasury Department ~ are a significant part of DHS, as is the U.S. Coast Guard.
There is much that the new Pacific Fusion Centre will have to focus on which is of mutual concern to the sponsoring and participating jurisdictions. They will involve border security and other law enforcement issues, not so much military coordination.
Yachts and small private vessels should most definitely be at or near the top of their agenda. Staffing should be comprised of those who have been there and done that and who consequently understand the daily analytical duties from an operational rather than academic or political standpoint.
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