Did you know the Coast Guard has its own island, sandwiched between Oakland and Alameda? That it has more than 3,000 personnel in the Bay Area? That it directs all commercial traffic in San Francisco Bay from a control center on Yerba Buena Island?

Welcome to the least understood branch of the U.S. military, which has among its missions search and rescue, boating safety, homeland security, resource preservation and narcotics interdiction.

It was a lot to absorb during a recent tour of District 11 headquarters, where multi-tasking is part of the job and law enforcement duties distinguish it from the Army, Air Force and Navy.

Commander Claudia Camp, a 27-year veteran, is chief of the enforcement division, responsible for an area that reaches from Oregon to Peru. Her division polices maritime smuggling -- "anything from human beings to Gucci bags," she said -- but its foremost target is illegal drugs, which usually means cocaine.

Drug trafficking organizations -- DTOs in Coast Guard lingo -- are well financed and shrewdly run. Sometimes they "leapfrog" up the coast from Colombia, docking in a new country each day. Sometimes they navigate hundreds of miles at sea, refueling at supply ships along the way.

"They're very adaptable," Camp said. "They'll do whatever works."


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That makes the Coast Guard's success noteworthy -- more than 120,000 pounds of cocaine seized in the past three years and a lot more dumped at sea. Traffickers rarely resist when confronted; they dump weapons and evidence to skirt harsher penalties.

They travel in low-profile "go-fast" boats, 30 to 50 feet long, propelled by outboard motors capable of exceeding 45 knots; in "mother ships" disguised to look like fishing vessels; or in semi-submersibles that barely bob above the surface.

Intelligence gathering -- from informants and listening devices -- is the first step to interdiction. Then an intercept course is plotted, and the race is on.

Executive Officer Ross Stroebel said his 418-foot Cutter Waesche can cut through choppy waves at 30 knots. On calm seas, its over-the-horizon chase boat can hit 45. If more speed is needed, the two helicopters onboard have yet to find a boat they can't catch. A marksman can quickly end a chase by shooting out enemy engines.

"Surprise is our best ally," Stroebel said, noting that cameras atop the ship's mast can zoom in on vessels as far as 10 miles away.

Patience is another ally. During a recent mission, a trafficker dumped contraband (and locator beacons) before being boarded. He planned to retrieve it days later. Because the Waesche can stay at sea for a month without refueling, it cruised nearby until the bad guys returned and caught them in the act.

"We have to catch them in control of the contraband or photograph them throwing it overboard to prosecute," Stroebel said.

Agreements with Central American countries allow the Coast Guard to board vessels outside international waters. Guatemala is so rife with drug trafficking it's even turned over prosecution to the U.S.

Camp concedes some drugs get through -- the Pacific Ocean is a big place -- but every thwarted shipment is a win. She sees her enforcers as a lid on a pot of boiling water.

"If you remove the lid," she said, "the pot will boil over, get into the stove and burn down the house."

Tomorrow: Protecting the ports and directing traffic.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.