WASHINGTON (CN ) - Officials tasked with protecting the nation's borders told lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Wednesday that they are in serious need of better equipment and continued cooperation from Mexico and other nations to staunch the flow of illicit drugs pouring into the United States.
These and other concerns were aired during a meeting of the House Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee called specifically to assess the threat international drug cartels pose to the United States.
What subcommittee members heard was that border security officers patrolling the nation's southern and northern boards are squaring off against an increasingly cunning adversary with seemingly endless amounts of cash.
"These entities are capable, sophisticated smuggling organizations that start in the southern hemisphere and end up in New York City. They'll do anything for a profit," said U.S. Coast Vice Admiral Charles Ray.
Cartels in Mexico, Central and South America, as well as from parts of Eastern Europe are implementing world class advanced technologies to do business.
"If you can buy it on the open market, they have the funds to buy it. They can communicate with satellites and their ingenuity, especially in the maritime sense, its impressive. They can build a craft in a ditch in a jungle in Ecuador capable of sailing the distance from Florida to Washington State carrying about 7,000 or 8,000 pounds of cocaine," Admiral Ray said.
According to Admiral Ray, the amount of cocaine that entered the United States from South America in 2016 was the largest amount ever.
He attributed this, in part, to a surge in coca cultivation in Columbia, where an estimated 90 percent of all the cocaine consumed in the U.S. originates.
But Ray's presentation wasn't entirely grim. He reminded subcommittee members that a Coast Guard cutter based in Charleston, South Carolina returned to port in December carrying more than 24 tons of seized high quality cocaine on its decks.
That seizure capped a year that saw the Coast Guard successfully complete 27 such operations, and confiscating about $700 million in cocaine.
In addition, Ray said, those operations netted 111 suspects who are now bound for U.S. prosecution.
The Coast Guard frequently collaborates with U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement task forces to stop drugs from making landfall.
If it could double down on just its fleet of cutters, it would "make a good dent" in trafficking, Ray said.
The Coast Guard's budget request for 2017 is $1.4 billion. This investment in cutter fleets alone could help take down 60 percent more criminal drug activity, the admiral said.
But increased monitoring at sea or even at both national border won't necessarily curb drug trade at other vulnerable openings, like airports.
Matt Allen, assistant director for investigative programs for the Department of Homeland Security, highlighted these vulnerabilities during his comment, but went on to say that an increase in the number of border enforcement security taskforces at the nation's airports could also help taken down traffickers.
With additional resources, Allen said, these same teams could also curb internal corruption among U.S. law enforcement and border patrol.
"They want to use commercial interstates for products and we now have four airports with BEST teams and one in Puerto Rico that is chartered to focus on internal conspiracies," Allen said. "Our goal is to expand the number of BESTs we have around the U.S. so we can better focus on physical land borders and other choke points."
As the two-hour panel wound down, Calif. Rep. J. Luis Correa urged the panel to consider the less obvious factors at play behind the drug war.
"During the Obama administration, we had a record number of deportations. Deportations under [former President Barack Obama] were more than the last few presidents combined," the Republican said. "And from my understanding, folks migrating north from Mexico has slowed down tremendously. How much of that is to do with a growing Mexican economy that provides folks to find a good living in Mexico?"
The panel went silent before Allen said that economics were not his "area of expertise."
"So everybody passes then?" Correa said.
"Well, it was an economics question," Correa said, but he said it was also a question whose answer is essential to winning the war on drugs.