Photos by Robert Holland
Shock and Awe
The tactics the Department of Homeland Security uses during patrols is meant to make a drug runner rethink their choices.
Coming up on the vessel at a blistering 45 knots, the captain makes a snap quarter-turn of the steering wheel and we zip across the wake of the boat we’re pursuing. Our bow slingshots over the white water a mere 10 inches from the outboards.
“Failure to heave-to is a felony!” an agent yells into the haler, but they don’t listen and keep running. We zip across the wake again and power ahead, moving up the starboard side of the 27-foot center console that’s trying to elude us. We’re so close I could reach out and tie a line to the runner’s stern cleat.
A Black Hawk helicopter slides sideways above us, pointing its nose at the boats and staring down like an angry hornet. The rotor wash from the big chopper throws as much water as a summer squall, and its massive blades sound like they’re about to chop us into bits. Two boat lengths behind our 41-foot SAFE Boats Interceptor is another Coastal Interceptor Vessel. We’ve got some major backup. There’s no escape, but the runners continue running.
The captain tells the shooters on board to get into position. Two agents grab firearms out of a special storage compartment aft of the second row of seating. They place the gun butts into their armpits, holding the barrels out, and step forward. One agent heads to the bow with an M4 automatic rifle. A large magazine sticks out of the bottom in a reverse J shape. He’s the cover guy. It’s his job to protect the captain and the other agents. He watches every move of the operator on the boat we’re about to overtake. The other agent wedges himself into position on the port side deck just forward of the captain. He’s gripping a stainless-steel shotgun. He’s the shooter, armed with specialized frangible slugs that explode on impact, kicking out tiny fragments that will rip apart an outboard’s innards like they’re made of tin foil. The captain’s eyes never waver from the boat an arm’s length away on our port side.
“Last chance!” the captain yells. “Heave-to!” The runners don’t relent, and the two vessels fly toward the flats of Biscayne Bay at an alarming rate. If we don’t do something soon, they’re going to run us aground.
“Shooter, you clear to take the shot?”
“Clear,” he responds.
“Take the shot.”
There’s no smoke and no gunfire. The boom I heard was the deep, barreling voice of agent Cleon Arrington yelling out the word. His finger, clutched to the trigger on the shotgun, never made the pull. The captain slides the throttles back. The Black Hawk skies upward, fades away and heads back toward base. The men on the “rabbit” boat are all interdiction agents. This was a simulation of the Air and Marine Operations (AMO), a division of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection which falls under the Department of Homeland Security. The 9/11 attacks, which occurred 20 years ago, spurred the government to create the agency.
I’ve often wondered what it was like to be on this side of the boat, the operator side. I’ve been on the other side, and it’s scary as hell. I wasn’t running coke for some Columbian cartel—I was drifting shrimp in Miami’s busy Government Cut, hoping to hook a tarpon. We were fishing after dark on an incoming tide. The bite was slow, and out of the blackness a large center console with quad outboards appeared right next to us like an apparition. They flicked on their ridiculously bright flood lights, stunning us to the point of immobility and rendering our tongues useless.
I couldn’t tell you what they asked us, but they were gone in a flash, motoring toward open water with no running lights on. We weren’t the guys they were looking for. It was one of those situations where you look at your buddy and say, “What the hell just happened?” That was my first interaction with the Department of Homeland Security, but it left an indelible impression on me.
They were running 39-foot Midnight Express center consoles with quad 225s back then, the fastest patrol vessels on the water at the time. When I ask the three agents about the go-fast boats they used to run, Arrington says, “You mean Big Sexy?” It’s a term of endearment with an undertone of pain, like he’s talking about an old girlfriend whom he loved dearly but hurt him in the end. While fast and well-built, the Midnight Express center consoles knock you around when chasing a boat at 60 knots in a 4-foot chop. The three agents I’m with came up on those boats, and while there are some strong feelings there, it’s hard to miss them from where we’re standing—on the deck of a 41-foot SAFE Boats Interceptor.
“The SAFE Boats can go longer and faster in bad conditions than those boats,” Arrington says. “And you don’t feel like you went eight rounds with Mike Tyson.”
With the foam collar that wraps around the hull, the 41 Interceptor appears to be a rigid-hull inflatable at first glance, which it most definitely is not. This is a 22,000-pound aluminum boat with a modified V-shape hull that slices through the water and cuts across chop. The collar adds a bit of buoyancy and softens the blow when playing bumper boats with desperados.
The boat is designed to cruise at 45 knots in just about any sea state. Fin stabilizers run from the midship aft so the captain can cut a hard-banked turn and the boat won’t slide out. She’ll juke and jive like a running back. “It’s basically a 41-foot jet ski,” the captain, whose name is Alex, says to me. He’s from Texas and came to AMO via the Coast Guard. He asked me to refrain from using his last name so I won’t blow his cover.
And while the Midnights of yesteryear had that speedster look with their navy-gray hull and dark topsides, the 41 Interceptor is equally menacing. This boat means business. It tops out at 60 knots, powered by quad 350-hp Mercury Verados with racing lower units. It was built specifically for intercepting vessels trying to traffic drugs or people into the United States. The electronics package features the latest Furuno radar, redundant VHF radios, FLIR night imaging camera, Sirius weather, two MFDs on the main console and a third behind the captains’ chairs so the agents riding in the second row can monitor it. There are all sorts of lights, sirens and a loud-ass haler. The most game-changing items on the boat, however, are the shock-mitigating seats. There are four on board, and they soften the ride considerably. They have armrests with hand grips so you can hang tight in any seas. You still get jostled, but the lower back doesn’t take the brunt of it. The throttles and gear shifts are mounted to the captain’s chair, so the controls move up and down with the captain. It’s smart and allows the captain to drive the boat aggressively without ever looking down at his hands.
Each agent wears an armor-plated PFD with a small built-in supply of oxygen so they have a few minutes of air if they go over. The vests hold magazines of ammo, handcuffs, glow sticks and other tactical items. They each carry a sidearm. The agents look ready for battle, and after hearing them relive some seizures, I can tell you that this gear is not for show.
AMO is responsible for protecting the U.S. borders and waterways, but don’t confuse this group with the U.S. Border Patrol. That’s a different outfit, and they don’t take kindly to misidentification. U.S. waters begin 12 miles offshore, and if you’re coming in from another country these agents may approach you for a document check. If they have reason to believe something fishy is going on, the more thorough checks begin.
So what exactly defines fishy behavior? There’s the obvious one: boats running toward Florida at 2 a.m. at 50-plus knots. But it’s not just about speed like the Miami Vice days. The runners know that they can’t outrun a helicopter, so they’re very creative.
“It’s the boats that don’t look like they’re doing anything wrong that you really have to watch out for,” Alex says. “We’ll see nice cruisers with good-looking people driving the boat and they just take off when we get close to them.”
On one such occasion, they boarded a cruiser and everything seemed fine but there were two Amazon boxes on board, all sealed up like they’d just been dropped off. Turns out one was full of cocaine and the other was full of cash. They’ve found drugs in all sorts of hidden compartments on boats, but the most interesting story I heard happened after they stopped an inbound center console with multiple outboards. When they popped the cowlings off the engines, one of the outboards had been fully gutted, and sitting in the place of the engine were bricks of coke.
While the agents stop random boats that look suspicious, for the most part they do extensive homework before approaching anyone. The Department of Homeland Security flies fixed-wing aircraft every day that monitors incoming boat traffic, noting course, speed and general description. They record how many people they see on the boat, who’s driving, if there are bags or cargo, if it’s riding heavy, and the course and speed. “We get as much information as we can ahead of time before coming up on them,” Alex says. Weather and sea state dictates the approach. Alex likes coming up on the port side of the target so he has a better visual.
Sometimes they sit offshore and wait for the boats to come to them. At that point, they like to rely on the power of shock and awe. If it’s nighttime, they black out the boat and use the element of surprise to intersect the unknowing craft (I know what that feels like). They may call in the Black Hawk, and it doesn’t get more imposing than that.
Earlier in the day I got to ride in the Black Hawk to get a bird’s eye view of the boat chase. Walking up to the chopper, I was blown away by its sheer size. Measuring nearly 65 feet long, this nimble beast is the size of one-and-a-half school buses. Two pilots sit in the cockpit, manning an unthinkable amount of knobs, levers and dials. Behind the pilots are two gunner seats facing out open windows, then another row of seating and a cargo area. The big bird can run at speeds of 150 knots. And it’s loud. Like rattle the cages loud or squish-ear-plugs-in loud. The Black Hawk is used to back up the boats, as well as in search-and-rescue and hurricane relief efforts.
“We do whatever’s needed,” says copilot Juan Terrasa. “We can land anywhere. We can carry 2,000 pounds. It’s really just a big old pickup truck.”
The pilot, Allen Jones, makes flying the Black Hawk look easy. He shadows the boats, sliding sideways at about the same speed as the vessels before moving upward, then forward and coming back at the boats. There’s no direction this chopper can’t go.
Riding in the helicopter was the highlight of my day, until I ask Alex if I can drive the Interceptor. He sizes me up, smiles and digs out some liability paperwork from the console. I don’t read it; I just sign on the dotted line. With the details taken care of, I step into the captain’s spot. The boat has racing throttle controls, with separate gear shifts. I slide it into gear and follow Alex’s orders.
“Turn the wheel hard over and gun it. More throttle! More throttle! Now back the other way. Hard over! Hard over!”
We’re carving figure eights and putting the Interceptor into the tightest turns I’ve ever put a boat of this size in. The foam collar touches the water as we make a 180-degree turn in a little more than a boat length. The stabilizing fins do their job. We ride the rails. The photographer can’t even shoot photos—he needs both hands to hang on. It’s hard not to smile like a kid. And while I realize this vessel is by no means built for joy rides, it’s a hell of a lot of fun to drive. But we’ve got one more mission before ending our day.
I meet another team of interdiction agents just before sunset at the Miami Beach Marina and board a different 41-foot Interceptor. This crew is based in Key Largo, and they’re taking the night shift, when things tend to get interesting on the water. As the sun dips behind the purple Miami skyline, the crew formulates its plan. The fixed wing is up but the radio is quiet, so they decide to make a short patrol along the ICW and then head offshore.
On the boat are Paul Marschalk, Anthony Samuelson, our captain for the evening, and Melvis ‘Seve’ Severino, who spent 20 years in the Navy and another 12 with AMO. Seve has seen it all. There’s dwindling light, but Seve wears mirrored sunglasses as he tells me that he prefers night patrols. That’s when the action is heavy with drug-runners coming in from the Bahamas. There’s also a never-ending stream of “chugs” or “rusticas,” rafts made from blocks of Styrofoam, car parts, derelict boats, empty barrels, you name it. Most of them are overloaded with migrants from Cuba or Haiti. Men, women and children crossing the Gulf Stream or the Florida Straits hoping for a better life. Risking it all. It often doesn’t end well for them.
The Interceptor is well-equipped for nighttime patrols with an array of gadgets, but the most utilized tool is the radar. Marschalk shows me how he uses ARPA (automatic radar piloting aid) to keep an eye on vessel movements. Each target leaves an echo trail on the screen, showing its direction. The agent touches the screen to pull up the target’s speed, course and distance. The radar tracks scores of vessels in the background in real time and the information materializes quickly on the screen when the agents need to pull it up.
Each agent has a combat helmet with drop-down night vision goggles (which they call NVG—these boys have an acronym for everything) that aren’t much larger than pocket-sized binoculars. An agent lets me wear his helmet. His head must be twice the size of mine, so I wrench the chinstrap as tight as I can to keep the $20,000 piece of equipment from sliding off my skull. I adjust the goggles to fit my face and am amazed at what I see through them. It turns the nighttime landscape into a clear black-and-white picture. It reminds me of watching M*A*S*H on the 13-inch we used to have on the kitchen table. Nothing is hidden. With radar, FLIR and the NVG, it’s not freaky at all running around at 40 knots with no lights on.
We turn north out of the inlet, running up the coast, watching the radar for boat movements. There are a few vessels out fishing and a large container ship anchored up but no big red flags. One agent spots a boat with its running lights on but the radar shows that it’s not moving. They figure the crew is probably fishing, but maybe they’re making a drop. We run up to the boat and slow down when we’re about 15 feet off the boat’s port side. “I see four people,” an agent calls out. “We got lines off the port side,” another one says. The men in the boat have no idea we are even there, gathering intel. The Interceptor fades back and comes up on the other side. They appear to be fishing for yellowtail snapper, with a few spinning rods and a chum bag hanging off the stern.
“Let’s talk to them,” Seve says.
The Interceptor’s lights click on, and the men on the outboard-powered walk-around freeze in total shock. A shirtless man shines a headlamp at the Interceptor, which the agents don’t appreciate. The agents ask him to turn it off. He fumbles and turns off the courtesy lights. “No, your headlamp. Turn it off,” they holler. He turns the courtesy lights back on and turns off the anchor light. “NO, YOUR HEADLAMP!” This poor chap is in full lizard brain mode. His motor skills and reasoning fail him. I know the feeling. One of his buddies shouts at him in Spanish and he turns the headlamp off. The agents applaud him. The tension cracks. The agents ask if they’re catching any fish. “A few, nothing worth keeping,” someone responds. The agents scope out the tackle. It’s legit. When they board a boat that is “fishing” offshore and find nothing but lightweight freshwater rods and grocery-store-bought fish in the cooler, the jig is up.
Our captain explains that they need to turn their running lights off when at anchor, and though it takes a few more minutes of switching various lights on and off, they finally get it right. Sometimes it’s something as simple as running lights that unveil a much larger picture. But not tonight. As we start to move on, a man on the boat thanks the captain and tells us to be safe. The crew heads back to the marina to drop me off. I ask them if the boats they board are annoyed or respectful. “It’s about 50/50,” the captain says. “Some boaters understand what we do. They like our boat and want to take selfies with us. Others flick us off.”
It bothers me to hear that. Is easy to forget how lucky we are to be able to step on a boat, throw lines and go wherever we please. We take that freedom for granted. Is it an annoyance to be boarded when you’re doing everything right? A little bit. But the job these agents do is a lot more important than your day at the sandbar.