Watchful Eyes

Task Force Chief: Indo-Pacific Partners Collaborate to Disrupt Traffickers


Rear Adm. Robert Hayes took over as director of Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) West in April 2019 to lead U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s counterdrug activities. In his previous post as the U.S. Coast Guard’s assistant commandant for intelligence, Hayes led the efforts of more than 1,100 intelligence professionals. He is now leaning on that intelligence background to spearhead efforts to disrupt drug cartels and transnational criminal organizations in the Indo-Pacific. Hayes sat down with FORUM in October 2019 to discuss a range of topics that included everything from JIATF West’s partnerships in counterdrug efforts to the havoc being wrought internationally by the dangerous opioid fentanyl.

FORUM: How does JIATF West work with partners in the Indo-Pacific region to stem drug trafficking?

Rear Adm. Hayes: Given the vastness of this region, everything we do is a team sport. Whether we are helping to interdict drugs or precursor chemicals, generate and share information with allies and partners, or assist other nations in improving their capabilities, it requires collaboration. As one example, the reality is that for drugs that come to the United States (or other nations), almost all of them require chemicals to be produced. There are many drugs of concern for us in this theater — methamphetamine, fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and marijuana being the primary ones. Other than marijuana, if you’re going to make an illegal drug such as heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl or cocaine, you are going to need chemicals and a lot of them. And where are most of the chemicals made that are used for that? In the Indo-Pacific, chemicals are made in China and India. The majority of these chemicals are made for legal purposes and are often regulated. They are made for pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, paints, and a number of other legitimate purposes. As we like to say, they are legal until they are not. On a daily basis, there are significant loads of chemicals coming across the Pacific to countries such as Mexico, Colombia, and others that may be diverted to make a drug like fentanyl or cocaine. Understand, Colombia produces about half of the world’s cocaine, while Mexico makes most of the heroin and methamphetamine that comes to the United States. And increasingly, fentanyl is coming to the United States from Mexico. All of these drugs require chemicals for production.

Like I mentioned, intelligence and counterdrug work are team sports. And so, the size of the Indo-Pacific region and the ability to understand the networks operating there and target them effectively requires investigative and intelligence work that no one entity or country can do alone. We rely a lot on multiple intelligence and law enforcement partners within the U.S. government, but much more broadly than that, many similar partners in other countries. When we are dealing with other countries, we are working in coordination with our law enforcement partners — the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Homeland Security Investigations, the FBI and others who have investigative authorities to target transnational criminal organizations, drug-trafficking organizations and the like. They have people in the various embassies throughout the Indo-Pacific area, and we work through them. Sometimes, we will put an analyst in that embassy and work directly in support of those law enforcement investigators as they leverage our analytical horsepower. They coordinate with that host country on investigative leads and operational targets, after which the task force gathers the information and refines it, working with others in the inter-agency and ultimately pushes the information back so that a more thorough investigation or operation may be conducted. 

Indonesian Maritime Police Force officers practice narcotics field testing techniques during training with members of Joint Interagency Task Force West’s Integrated Maritime Skills Training Team. PETTY OFFICER 2ND CLASS RYAN GRADY/U.S. NAVY

Most chemical shipments are not moving fast. When you are talking about a cargo vessel, a container vessel that has chemicals onboard, it might take a couple of weeks for that ship to go from China to South America or Mexico, so we have time to refine the information. While I am focusing on the eastward flows of precursor chemicals used to make illegal drugs, we also look at the westward flows of the finished drugs created with these precursors. We can’t do this without other people. We don’t arrest people. We don’t directly investigate people. We don’t conduct end-game law enforcement activities. But by the intelligence that we produce, by the partner capacity and security cooperation efforts that we conduct, we work together to counter transnational criminal groups.

FORUM: The precursor chemicals have legal and illegal uses. How much more difficult does that make your task?

Rear Adm. Hayes: Absolutely. It’s very difficult because they have legitimate uses. It takes significant analytical efforts and partnerships to identify the suspicious shipments. You don’t have to have a chemist’s level of knowledge, but you do need to have an appreciation for the specific chemicals required to make illegal drugs.

You can look for patterns. How much extra of a certain chemical might be going to a certain location? Or, you try to find linkages between transnational criminal groups … people who we know are known bad actors in the crime world and the transnational criminal world … and find connections between them and the people importing those drugs.

Like other countries, Mexico and Colombia import lots of chemicals — for pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, a whole host of things. To identify the possible shipments of concern, you are looking for specific shippers who are known to collaborate with bad actors. You are looking for other linkages to the networks that we try to understand and that we try to support investigations of and support targeting of them.

FORUM: How does your mission contribute to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific region?

Rear Adm. Hayes: What is a Free and Open Indo-Pacific? It is an environment that respects the sovereignty of every nation, ensures freedom of movement in international waters and airspace, adherence to international laws and norms, and relative stability and prosperity. A fundamental component of that is governance, which means a nation is able to monitor and govern its borders to include maritime borders. Most nations claim a 12-[nautical] mile territorial sea and a 200-[nautical] mile exclusive economic zone. Being able to govern that means I can monitor that and detect bad activity that’s going in and out of my country or through my borders. So on the security cooperation side, what we do is with countries that maybe lack some of those elements of a drug control strategy, a judicial system, law enforcement capabilities, the ability to launch boats or launch aircraft. … we work with the U.S. government and Congress, get money and do security cooperation to help address those areas. We build things for them, train them on how to use them, do exercises with them and things like that. … It’s promoting good governance in the region because better governance is bad for the bad guys and better for those of us on the good-guy team working for the rule of law, transparency and good governance.

We’re also talking about free and open trade. Part of what we’ve moved to in the last couple of decades is a global economy, which relies on just-in-time delivery of resources. Underpinning that is the safety and security of those goods coming quickly. So what you want is a framework that allows goods to move in and out quickly, but also for the screening of people or cargo on ships or planes in order to discover illegal goods or criminal activity. What we try to promote is the ability to data mine in order to uncover linkages to transnational criminal groups, resulting in leads we forward to appropriate agencies to address. 

FORUM: How does the task force reach out to the remote Pacific islands? And why is that important?

Rear Adm. Hayes: It is important because these nations are our partners; we have historical ties to them. Several of these islands are U.S. territories or are compact states with whom we have a special relationship. Often, people think of the U.S. homeland as being composed of only the continental United States. However, these U.S. territories are part of the U.S. homeland, just as the state of Hawaii is. More broadly, these are countries that are suffering devastating impacts from a confluence of things. Climate change is affecting many of them. For most of them, transnational crime is one of their top concerns. Illegal fishing is affecting their GDP [gross domestic product]. Much of their economies are based on either tourism or fisheries, and illegal activity in the form of illegal fishing is having a very detrimental effect. [Rear Adm. Hayes referenced recent news articles describing how Fiji and some other Pacific islands are becoming transshipment hubs for narcotics traffickers.] … You are talking about small countries with large areas of surrounding waters that are difficult to monitor. All 23 countries in Oceania have a total population of about 10 million people, and Papua New Guinea is about 7 million of that, roughly. The other 22 are tens of thousands each and they usually do not have large customs or police organizations or a robust judiciary. They are doing their best, but when you’re having major drug-smuggling organizations for example, the Sinaloa [cartel] from one end or the triads from the other, their ability to counter that is difficult. What we want to do is work with them to help them with good governance, transparency, stability, all of those things.

Instructors with Joint Interagency Task Force West’s Maritime Skills Training Team demonstrate handcuffing techniques during training with members of the Sri Lanka Navy Special Boat Squadron. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

FORUM: In addition to helping the Pacific islands increase their drug-fighting capabilities, how do these efforts help the broader region?

Rear Adm. Hayes: I think it makes it harder for illegal activity to happen when those countries are in partnership. You essentially create a neighborhood watch program, and that unites the neighborhood. You make it harder for criminals to conduct their activity, and that’s what we’re trying to do regionally. Some of these countries are more capable than others, but we want to raise the game of all of them so that they can deter illicit activity. That’s a rules-based order, the thing that all countries, China included, have benefited from in the last 20, 30 or 40 years. We want that for these countries to help sustain their ability to raise their GDP and raise their standard of living by having good governance and having the ability to push out illicit activity. It’s part of basic sovereignty, really. Some of these countries are seeking assistance and we’re trying to help them. This helps ensure a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, creating economic opportunity for everybody.

FORUM: An increase in consumption and overdose deaths related to fentanyl have generated numerous headlines. How has that changed JIATF West’s task?

Rear Adm. Hayes: We have about 70,000 overdose deaths a year in the United States. That’s a massive number. We lost approximately 55,000 people in the Vietnam War, in the entirety of that war. And we’re losing 70,000 people a year in the United States due to overdoses. Not all are due to fentanyl. Roughly half are due to opioids (including fentanyl). What we’ve seen over the last several years is fentanyl becoming increasingly used as a drug of choice, but also some criminal groups are lacing other drugs with fentanyl to provide a unique high or kick. A sugar packet could contain about 100 lethal doses. With fentanyl, you are talking about very minute amounts and it is relatively cheap to produce. The profit margin is astronomically higher. It’s easier to produce as opposed to cocaine and heroin, where you can use imagery and overhead pictures to say, ‘There are coca leaves growing there. There is poppy being grown there.’ And you can target that for eradication and get the supply chain. Fentanyl is purely chemicals. Most illicit fentanyl consumed in the United States is made in China, but we’re seeing a shift where a fair amount of that is made in Mexico and coming over the border. … So for us as a task force, fentanyl is a difficult one for us to get after because of the way it’s produced, sold on the open net and dark web, and people often use cryptocurrency to pay for it. Where we try to have an impact is more toward looking at the networks and identifying who the bad actors are, identifying the precursor shipments related to fentanyl production, and how is that linked to money laundering and other activities. It’s more of a network approach.

FORUM: What else would you like to highlight about JIATF West’s mission?

Rear Adm. Hayes: We — in partnership with many other agencies and countries — protect our nation and the fellow citizens of other nations. It is hard work, and measuring our impact can take years, given the persistence it takes to disrupt networks or help a partner nation improve their capabilities. It is a noble mission. While it can be disappointing to be in this line of work, we keep at it. Criminal networks are adaptive and have lots of resources. This effort to counter them goes back decades to centuries. It’s almost like there’s a drug, you get after it and people find other drugs. And the movement toward chemical-only drugs is a concerning trend. When you have marijuana, you can see where that’s being grown. Poppy for opioids and heroin, you can see where that’s being grown. The same thing for cocaine and coca leaves. When it’s just chemicals, that really complicates it because somebody can find a warehouse somewhere and if they can get access to chemicals, they can make a synthetic drug. It’s a challenging job. The ingenuity, the creativity and the resources of some of these criminal groups is pretty amazing. They are using everything from semi-submersibles to advanced technology to counter-surveillance. They are capable entities to go after. But at the end of the day, everybody on this task force — we have a mix of civilian, active military and reserve, contractors, intelligence agencies, investigative agencies — we really believe we are protecting our country. We look at it as an honor to be serving our country, to be guardians of our country as well as our partners. So the opportunity to do that gives meaning and purpose to what we do. It’s a privilege to come to work and to do this and to know that many of us have family or friends who have been affected by drugs and drug overdoses. It can be a motivating factor in that regard. It’s also something that ties us together with our partners.  

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