Feb. 23, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement team boards a small fishing boat that was stopped carrying close to 700 kilos of pure cocaine, in the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles south of the Guatemala-El Salvador border. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills) Feb. 23, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement team boards a small fishing boat that was stopped carrying close to 700 kilos of pure cocaine, in the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles south of the Guatemala-El Salvador border. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

Feb. 23, 2017. U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement team boards a small fishing boat that was stopped carrying close to 700 kilos of pure cocaine, in the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles south of the Guatemala-El Salvador border. (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills)

Miriam Valverde
By Miriam Valverde April 9, 2018

California lawmaker says Coast Guard confiscates tons of illegal drugs

U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said that if President Donald Trump wants to make the country safer, he should focus more on funding the Coast Guard than on his promised border wall.

After all, Garamendi claimed, the Coast Guard confiscates tons of contraband.

"I'm concerned about border security. I'm concerned about the Coast Guard being underfunded," Garamendi said in an April 2 CNN interview. "Fact of the matter is, the Coast Guard confiscated 200 tons of contraband, heroin, and so forth. At the border they collected 20 tons. So if you want to go where the problem is, fund the Coast Guard."

Trump says a southern border wall will stop drugs from coming in and alleviate the nation’s drug overdose epidemic. Drug trade and policy experts are skeptical about that.

In his first year, the Trump administration did initially explore a Coast Guard budget cut to offset costs of the southern border wall, prompting bipartisan group of senators to send a letter to the White House against it. The final proposal did not cut the Coast Guard’s budget. The Coast Guard got $12.1 billion in the omnibus spending bill that Trump signed into law in March.

So, is Garamendi’s claim about Coast Guard confiscations true? He’s largely accurate about their enforcement efforts, but his remarks omit nuance and need clarification.

To start, his office said he meant to highlight interdictions of cocaine, not heroin.

The Coast Guard in fiscal year 2017 removed 223.8 metric tons of cocaine from non-commercial vessels in drug transit zones. Removal figures represent cocaine physically seized by the Coast Guard and cocaine discarded or destroyed by criminal organizations due to Coast Guard action.

The 223.8 metric tons removed represents about 8 percent of all the cocaine estimated to have flowed toward the United States in 2017.

The amount lost is "at times, an intelligence-based estimate of the quantity of cocaine onboard a given vessel that is burned, jettisoned, or scuttled in an attempt to destroy evidence when Coast Guard presence is detected," said a January 2018 report from the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security.

In addition to the cocaine removed, the Coast Guard told PolitiFact that in 2017 it also removed 31,190 pounds of marijuana, 6 kilograms of heroin and other opiates, and 168 kilograms of methamphetamines.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions in September 2017 commended the Coast Guard for setting a new record. "This record-breaking year by our Coast Guard saw the arrest of more than 500 suspected drug traffickers and kept nearly half a million pounds of dangerous drugs from getting to our streets — and ultimately to our neighbors, friends, and families," Sessions said.

The Coast Guard in an October 2017 blog post also said its crews and interagency partners’ 2017 record stopped over 455,000 pounds of cocaine worth over $6 billion wholesale.

"Annually, the Coast Guard interdicts more than three times the amount of cocaine seized at our borders and within the U.S. combined," the blog post said.

Now let’s look at the border.

Garamendi’s remark that "at the border they collected 20 tons" also made it sound as if "they" still referred to the Coast Guard. While the Coast Guard is not responsible for land border interdictions, U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows that in fiscal year 2017, its field officers and Border Patrol agents seized about 66,000 pounds of cocaine (about 30 metric tons).

"Interdictions at the land border average around 20 metric tons with another 20 metric tons by law enforcement inside our borders," said Eric Olsen, Garamendi’s press secretary.

In a story about the Coast Guard’s record year, the Washington Post quoted Adm. Paul F. Zukunft, the Coast Guard commandant, as saying that he looks at a border wall "as a goal-line defense."

"The fact is that we have awareness of these drug movements and actually are attacking because we know where they’re at, and just don’t have enough attackers," Zukunft said, according to the newspaper. "The border really is your last-stop measure."

Our ruling

Garamendi in a CNN interview said, "The Coast Guard confiscated 200 tons of contraband, heroin, and so forth. At the border they collected 20 tons."

Garamendi’s office said that the congressman meant to highlight interdictions of cocaine, not heroin. 

The Coast Guard in fiscal year 2017 removed 223.8 metric tons of cocaine from non-commercial vessels in drug transit zones. Not all of that is "confiscated" —  it includes cocaine physically seized by the Coast Guard and cocaine discarded or destroyed by criminals in attempts to eliminate evidence. It collected substantially smaller amounts of heroin by comparison.

CBP officers and Border Patrol agents seized about 30 metric tons of cocaine in fiscal year 2017.

Garamendi’s comparison is partially accurate. We rate it Half True.

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Half True
"The Coast Guard confiscated 200 tons of contraband, heroin, and so forth. At the border they collected 20 tons."
in a CNN interview
Monday, April 2, 2018

Our Sources

YouTube, Rep. John Garamendi interview on CNN April 2, 2018

Email exchange, Eric Olsen, Rep. John Garamendi’s press secretary, April 4, 2018

PolitiFact, Trump-O-Meter: Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, last updated March 23, 2018

PolitiFact, Will a border wall stop drugs from coming into the United States?, Oct. 26, 2017

Office of Inspector General at the Department of Homeland Security, Review of U.S. Coast Guard’s Fiscal Year 2017 Drug Control Performance Summary Report, Jan. 30, 2018

Coast Guard Compass, Coast Guard breaks record for cocaine seizures, Oct. 4, 2017

U.S. Justice Department, Record Maritime Cocaine and Heroin Seizures in FY 2017 Include San Diego-Based Case, Sept. 20, 2017

The Washington Post, As Trump presses for a border wall, there’s a new Coast Guard record for drug seizures at sea, Sept. 20, 2017

U.S. Coast Guard, FY 2018 Budget Overview

Email exchange, Lt. Amy Midgett, U.S. Coast Guard spokeswoman, April 6, 2018

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, CBP Enforcement Statistics FY201

Politico, Coast Guard, TSA cuts would help pay for Trump’s wall, March 7, 2018

 

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