Task force targets ships illegally smuggling drugs and people through Bay Area ports

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Every day, ships cross under the Golden Gate bridge, bound for the Port of San Francisco or the Port of Oakland, all while law enforcement agencies are on watch to target illegal activities, contraband or even people onboard.

Right now, there’s an expanded team effort to bolster border security and safety by increasing presence, deterring crime and stopping complex crime rings. Homeland Security Investigations, which could be described as the detectives of ICE, lead the crews that are on the search for transnational criminal organizations and their activities. 

Special agent in charge, Ryan Spradlin said there are lots of misconceptions about what his agents do and how they’re helping keep the ports safe and keeping weapons and drugs off the street.

“We’re trying to detect and intercept narcotics, any type of contraband or person who poses a national security risk,” Spradlin said. “We truly cannot make the greatest impact unless we go after the heart of the organizations responsible for the contraband being smuggled.”

Homeland Security partners with the U.S. Coast Guard and other state and local law enforcement agencies to tackle the task of securing and patrolling the ports. The crew call themselves the ‘Best Team’, which stands for Border Enforcement Security Task Force. That group expanded last year in the Bay Area to better tackle the sheer volume of ships.

“There’s always a presence out on the water,” Captain Tony Ceraolo with the U.S. Coast Guard said. “It happens every single day in this port and our goal is always the safety of the port and the security of the port.”

As dozens of international ships sail into the Bay, the Vessel Traffic Service tracks and monitors movements and plans for any ship. On any given month, the task force makes at least 200 routine and unannounced boardings of cargo and container ships.

“We know where they’re headed, where they’re going and what they’re off loading,” Ceraolo remarked. “We will be able to see or look for any anomalies.”

The Port of Oakland just happens to be the nation’s fifth busiest port with 2.5 million containers coming through every year. But before they reach the dock, the task force may swoop in without warning. Coast Guard members are like the police officers on the water and the Homeland Security agents are the detectives. The major outcome the crews hope for is to bust elaborate criminal organizations.

As criminals get smarter, law enforcement is deploying technology like an underwater drone that looks under the ships for any devices that could be hidden or attached. Roughly 2,400 inspections are done in and around cargo ships every year in the Bay Area, Spradlin said.

“This is every day. Criminal organizations will stop at nothing to evade law enforcement and further their criminal activities so we’re constantly trying to use techniques and technology to keep up with them,” Spradlin said. “It’s a daunting task. The ports and waterways are huge. We certainly feel we make an impact in securing this country from criminal organizations that are trying to exploit the ports.”

Pictures obtained by 2 Investigates show bales upon bales of marijuana seized aboard a ship during one of the routine inspections in the San Francisco Bay. The task force is also on the prowl for panga boats that are often used to smuggle drugs, people or other contraband. 

Just this week, 22,000 pounds of cocaine were found aboard a similar style boat near San Diego. The task force in Southern California has nabbed 11 tons of drugs in the last month. The estimated street value is about $300 million, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

“It’s really a team effort,” Captain Ceraolo said. “We work and train together all the time and we’re remaining vigilant, looking for suspicious activity to make sure we’re addressing that activity and prevent bad things from happening out here.”

Currently, dozens of investigations have been launched from the proactive patrols happening near the ports. Agents said since it’s typically international cargo, there’s a reduced expectation of privacy, which means as transnational investigators, they’re able to get access to ships without a warrant.

While there is not a lot of publicity often given to these tasks forces, they’re constantly and consistently trained and ready to respond to emergencies or react to hazards threatening national security.

“We’re in the business of public safety,” Spradlin said. “Whenever we intercept dangerous contraband or people coming through the port illegally, we certainly consider that a win.”