the program in the early 1980s but
dropped out. The U.S. Army had to
stop providing support — which
included three Black Hawk helicopters — last year due to overseas
commitments in Iraq and
Nine people from the U.S. Coast
Guard are on staff in the Bahamas,
and 150 service members are
involved in the OPBAT mission.
Those not staffed in the Bahamas
report to a liaison officer in District
Seven, in Miami, and are based at
Coast Guard Air Station, Clearwater, Fla.
The Coast Guard’s activities in
OPBAT include counter-drug operations, Alien Migrant Interdiction
and search and rescue. Those
responsibilities represent a shift
from solely focusing on drug trafficking in the early years of the
operation, as the service has partnered more with the DEA and other agencies so aircraft
could be used more effectively, said Cmdr. Richard
Lorenzen, operations officer for Air Station Clearwater.
“The evolution process and leadership change in
District Seven were the reasons for the philosophy
change,” he said.
The DEA is in charge of OPBAT investigations and
the Coast Guard provides aviation, maritime capability and experience, said Billburg.
“We have the capability to operate over the water
effectively and get over these small [islands] effectively,” he said.
Nine Coast Guard HH- 60 Jayhawks are maintained
specifically for OPBAT operations, with three based in
the Bahamas. The DEA provides OPBAT with three Bell
412 utility helicopters and one RU- 38 aircraft.
One of the biggest challenges the Coast Guard
faces with OPBAT is adequate facilities, specifically in
Great Inagua, which Lorenzen said is an ideal operational location because of its close proximity to Cuba
— less than 60 miles — and its ability to act as a gatekeeper along the Windward Passage between Cuba
and Haiti. However, the remote site, which received
improved living quarters for OPBAT personnel in
2005, is in need of a larger berthing area, better communications and larger helicopter hangers, he said.
There are no immediate plans for further facility
A majority of OPBAT’s funding comes from the
departments of Justice and Homeland Security. Exact
DRUG ENFORCEMENT AGENCY
Where aircraft once were the preferred mode of transport for drug smugglers in
the Bahamas, the threat has shifted to the sea, with container ships, fishing vessels and high-powered go-fast boats, shown here, being used.
funding numbers are not made public, said Kevin
Stanfill, the DEA’s assistant special agent in charge at
the Miami Field Division.
The DEA said it has no plans to stop the OPBAT
program, despite the drop in drug trafficking activity
in the region.
“We know that if we left tomorrow, gradually the
Bahamas would become the primary trafficking route
again,” said Stanfill. “We never want it to become like
it was back in the ’70s and ’80s. We want to keep it this
The DEA conducts investigations alongside local
“That’s how you make seizures, based on intelligence,” Stanfill said.
The DEA’s Bahamas office, located in Nassau, is the
agency’s fourth largest overseas office.
The Coast Guard has maintained a steady personnel
team in the Bahamas since OPBAT’s inception.
And despite other service branches leaving the program over the years, Billburg does not see the Coast
Guard following suit.
“We have a big investment here. … I don’t see any
reason why that would not continue,” he said. “All the
threats that exist in the Bahamas are intended for the
southeast United States as well.
“We are taking the fight out to where the threat is
right now. Instead of guarding the goal posts right
along the Florida beaches, we are out trying to intercept them long before they get here.” ■