U.S. Customs And Border Protection Uses New High Tech Aircraft To Zero In On Atlantic Smugglers

U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses new high-tech aircraft to zero in on Atlantic smugglers
Scan, point, click, zoom, identify and reel in the bad guys

By Luis F. Perez
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale), May 13, 2009

Somewhere over the Atlantic — They can spot the smile on a smuggler's face from 10,000 feet in the air; record real-time, full-color video of his run for shore; and simultaneously track 5,000 ships spread over a 193-mile swath of ocean.

Flying high above the Atlantic Ocean about halfway between Florida and the Bahamas, the latest addition to the government's anti-smuggling arsenal can track the trajectory of a boat leaving Cuba and compare it in seconds to every filed course plan for vessels on the water. And, if the boat seems suspicious, the computer will race through the complicated calculations of course, speed and relative positions to tell the nearest Coast Guard vessel the bearings to follow to intercept it.

'With the old system, you were looking through a straw for a quarter on a card table,' said Michael Ringgold, an air interdiction agent who worked with the engineers to develop the system. 'Now you're looking with your eyes open at the whole room.'

Only two airplanes in the world carry this cutting-edge combination of smuggler-spotting equipment and computer software. One belongs to the Miami office of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It already has the smugglers running scared.

'They're heading toward the Yucatan Peninsula,' said Alvin Arroyo, acting air interdiction agent supervisor.

The new computer can identify and filter out hundreds of legitimate cargo ships or boats within minutes. With the old system, it could take up to 10 minutes for a radar operator to manually identify a single vessel. The computer also does its own version of profiling, matching the outline of any unidentified craft against its database to determine what type of vessel it is a freighter, a sailboat, or a yacht, for instance. The time saved allows operators to concentrate on more suspicious targets.

'In a sense, you have an air traffic control system for the ocean,' said Blake Page, a Dallas-based radar expert.

The system proved itself even while it was still in development, flying test missions aboard a customs service twin-engine turboprop Bombardier Dash 8 while engineers worked out the kinks in the computer code. Last May, Ringgold used the system's powerful camera to spot and record a 'suspicious' tarp covering the back of a boat near Cay Sal, Bahamas. With three clicks of a mouse, he was able to give the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Chandeleur the coordinates to intercept the boat and its 20 Cuban migrants. On April 14, a Key West federal jury convicted Ricardo Espildora on 22 counts of human smuggling charges in the case.

Eventually, the new anti-smuggling system will go in four more Dash 8s that are replacing smaller King Air 200s in the Customs fleet. The new planes can fly longer missions, up to 8 hours, compared with the 4 1/2 hours of the smaller King Airs. The Dash 8s, which cost about $28 million each, also come with an improved satellite and camera system, officials said.

'It gives us a lot more capabilities,' said Sanjeev Shinde, supervisor of the Dash 8 program.

The U.S. Department of Defense paid $15 million to develop the software and has the only other plane with it installed, officials said.

On a flight out of Homestead Air Reserve Base last week, Ringgold studied a 20-inch computer screen as two Coast Guard observers watched. One window showed a map of Florida's east coast and dozens of small squares representing potential targets spread across the water. At 1,500 feet up, he was looking at a 44-mile radius of ocean. At 10,500 feet the radar the coverage increases to a 193-mile radius, officials said. That's a giant improvement over the 32-mile effective range of the previous system.

Ringgold placed the cursor over a square. With a click of a mouse, another window popped open, identifying the course of the Velopoula, a 748-foot ship moving at about 9 knots. Nothing to worry about.

With a joystick he maneuvered the airplane's camera to zoom in on another smaller vessel. A yacht floating near Andros Island, Bahamas appeared in yet another window on the computer screen.

A 20-foot boat going fast far out in the water caught the crew's attention.

'There's usually not pleasure boats out this far,' Ringgold said.

Within seconds, though, he realized it was a Bahamian lobster fisherman with a bigger support vessel in the area.

On Sept. 23, it was a different story. Interdiction agents spotted a boat with a 'large number of people' on board floating next to another boat about 30 miles west of Andros, agency officials said. The agents watched and recorded as a third boat pulled alongside them. By the time the boats started heading toward the United States the Coast Guard already had three cutters heading to intercept them.

The decoy and refueling boats stopped. The three-engine smuggling boat fled. During the chase, a migrant on board hit his head and later died. The smugglers didn't get away.

The captain and crewman on the boat, Alexis Cervantes and Elieten Mendoza Zaldivar, pleaded guilty to a charge of human smuggling conspiracy that resulted in a death. On April 13, a federal judge sentenced them to nine years and nearly six years in prison, respectively.

Michel Lopez, Brainer Gomez-Cruz, Humberto Carrazana and Arley Ceballo-Gonzalez fought human smuggling conspiracy charges. They claimed they were out fishing and didn't know any other boat was nearby. A federal jury found them guilty and a judge sentenced each of them to 10 years in prison.

They couldn't escape the video recording and satellite information, agency officials said.