ABOVE THE CARIBBEAN SEA — As soon as the aging P-3 surveillance plane rumbles off the island runway, a crew of three agents for U.S. Customs and Border Protection begins hunting with high-tech radar for anything that looks out of the ordinary in the vast Caribbean Sea.
It could be a fishing boat with no obvious fishing gear. A speed boat in the middle of open water and loaded with more gas cans than passengers. A sail boat that doesn't quite sit right on the surface.
"To us, every dot out there is a possible bad guy," said J.D., a senior agent, describing the faint white dots on his radar screen during a surveillance flight over the Caribbean Sea and South America last month.
J.D. spoke to The Associated Press on the condition that he be identified only by his initials, because of safety concerns surrounding his work to find and intercept cocaine. He and his colleagues increasingly are finding cocaine smuggled across the Caribbean bound for the United States or points farther east.
While the eastern Pacific Ocean remains the most popular route for cocaine smuggling, the Caribbean is again becoming a popular option decades after U.S. authorities all but shut down cocaine smuggling into South Florida in the notorious era of the cocaine cowboys that started in the 1970s.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates smugglers have increased shipments of cocaine through the Caribbean from about 60 tons to about 100 tons in the past several years. But it's difficult to measure how much cocaine gets through the dragnet of surveillance planes, U.S. Coast Guard ships and other detection efforts.
Since about 2002, the DEA and other American agencies have run interdiction efforts, including Operation Panama Express Strike Force North and Operation Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, that led to the seizure or destruction of more than 200 tons of cocaine in the Caribbean.
Yet the agency said its intelligence suggests drug flows through the Caribbean are on the rise, particularly via air and marine traffic from Venezuela to the island of Hispaniola, which includes Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Devon Brennan said his agency is "always taking drugs off the water" in partnership with CBP, DEA and the U.S. military's Joint Interagency Task Force South.
The CBP crews, based out of Jacksonville, Florida, and Corpus Christi, Texas, have much to do with those Coast Guard seizures in recent years.
Over several weeks in June, P-3 crews from Jacksonville helped tracked down about 114,000 pounds of cocaine, worth what the U.S. government estimates to be more than $1 billion, said Bob Blanchard, the operations director for CBP's national air security operations center. U.S. law enforcement estimates that a kilogram of cocaine has a wholesale value of about $25,000; prices for the drug will vary from city to city.
Since the 2006 budget year through April 2015, P-3 missions have seized about 740 tons of cocaine, worth an estimated $100 billion, according to statistics maintained by CBP. Those seizures have been in both the eastern Pacific and the Caribbean.
Last month the Coast Guard unloaded more than 66,000 of cocaine seized over several months in the Pacific Ocean. In the past 10 months, the Coast Guard has seized about 119,000 pounds of cocaine, worth more than an estimated $1.8 billion, Coast Guard Adm. Paul Zukunft said.
In 2014, the Coast Guard seized 91 tons of cocaine in the ocean transit zone. Since 2006 the agency has recovered more than 814 tons of drugs.
"We're trying to push our borders away," said Randolph Alles, CBP's assistant commissioner in charge of the air and marine operations. "There is still a major flow toward the United States."
While Alles and Brennan are eager to promote U.S. triumphs in intercepting drug loads, they acknowledge that significant amounts of cocaine are still being smuggled successfully into the United States.
"We get some of it," Alles said.
The P-3 crews under Alles' command are workhorses in the drug interdiction effort above the Caribbean and eastern Pacific, contributing about 6,000 patrol hours annually. That's about 40 percent of the government's time in the air over the region.
Each P-3 flight is carefully choreographed by a military-run task force, and intelligence driven.
When J.D. and his crew are on the hunt, they "sanitize a box" by searching every inch of a designated search area. If they spot a suspect boat, the plane will typically stay high above it, taking pictures of the vessel and its cargo if possible. The goal is to stay in the area, tracking a drug-laden boat until an "end game" can arrive, be it a Coast Guard or Navy ship or authorities from the nearest partner country.
When there is no end game available, the P-3 pilot routinely will fly closer to the boat, a maneuver that not only startles the smugglers, but routinely causes them to dump their drugs overboard. Even in a case when no one is arrested, a mission is considered a success if the cargo gets tossed overboard.
"We're trying to cut down the flow," Alles said.
The goal for U.S. authorities is to have air coverage on a near constant basis. The crews based in Florida and Texas spend up to a week at a time flying patrol missions from Curacao, Panama and Costa Rica, among other locations. But from time to time, a surveillance mission will be scrapped in favor other security operations.
That happened to J.D. and his crew on a mid-July mission in Curacao.
For several days during their weeklong stay, the crew was tasked with air security operations over South America. But even when the mission changes, J.D. and the other drug detection agents manning radar screens are constantly on the lookout for anything in the water that seems suspicious. It can be a monotonous effort that Stan Konopacki, a detection enforcement officer who works with J.D., described as a lot like fishing.
"Hours of boredom broken up by moments of sheer pandemonium," Konopacki said.
That pandemonium begins the moment a suspect boat is spotted and continues as the pilots maneuver the lumbering, twin-engine propeller plane to get a better view of vessel. Detection officers such as J.D. and Konopacki are responsible for tracking pictures of the boat, photos that are routinely used as evidence in criminal cases. The plane crew also has to coordinate with officials on the ground in the United States who can direct U.S. or ally officials to intercept a boat on the water.
That scenario played out off the coast of South America as J.D.'s crew was diverted to a separate security mission when a second P-3 crew flying out of Panama was tracking down a sailboat named the Black Pearl that was suspected of smuggling cocaine. The boat was spotted, followed from above and later intercepted by a Coast Guard cutter. Officials found two suspected smugglers on board and more than half a ton of cocaine before sinking the boat, a common practice when a boat is too large to tow back to shore or is deemed unsafe.
While the U.S. is still the most significant market for cocaine, the drug's popularity is rising in Europe. Drug cartels, including powerful and dangerous criminal gangs from Mexico, are sending more cocaine on to foreign markets in part because prices are higher the further the drugs travel from Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.
Because of the value of the cocaine shipments, smugglers go to great lengths to hide their illicit cargo. Using small semi-submersible submarines has been a popular tactic in the Eastern Pacific for several years, though J.D. said CBP agents are starting to see some of the mini-subs trying to cross the Caribbean as well.
Follow Alicia A. Caldwell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/acaldwellap