NASOC-Jacksonville surveillance unit targets drug smugglers
Mon, Nov 23, 2015
By Emelia Hitchner

After five decades of surveillance work, the inside of a P-3 Orion develops an aroma that Air Interdiction Agent Bill Walsh affectionately calls “earthy.”

He made the observation as he sat in the cockpit of the less-than-sleek four-engine turboprop parked at the Cecil Airport location of the National Air Security Operations Center.

“She’s not the most beautiful aircraft,” Walsh said, but “she gets the job done.”

That job is combating the smuggling of cocaine into the United States. In the past year, NASOC-Jacksonville has stopped 150,000 pounds of cocaine worth $9.5 billion from reaching its destination, said Air Indiction Agent William Schneider. In addition to cocaine interdictions, Schneider said, NASOC seized more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana and 30 vessels. It arrested 80 people.

As a local branch for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, NASOC-Jacksonville is tasked with patrolling popular smuggling routes from South America. Many drug runners transport cocaine in its purest form, and that is exactly what Schneider and his crew want.

“The goal is to target the guys with the biggest bang for the buck,” he said. “We get the drugs when they’re most profitable to those guys, when they’re most densely packaged.”

Some renovated P-3s perform long-range aerial patrols while others identify and intercept targets. Their radars and sensors can pick up suspicious activity such as fast-moving semi-submersibles and disguised fishing boats. Once the NASOC crew identifies a suspect, it works with the Defense Department, the Coast Guard, and partner nations to capture smugglers and seize the drugs.

Walsh admitted the most frustrating part of the job is knowing that smugglers will keep pushing through.

“Those guys have an enormous amount of motivation to succeed. It’s not like their bosses would be understanding if they didn’t,” Walsh said. “They’re really bad people, not just because they don’t care about anyone or anything. These guys are just worried about the profit.”

Walsh said smugglers are constantly changing their strategies, which further complicates NASOC’s task.

“We’re not going to stop the flow of drugs with six airplanes,” Walsh said. “But when we think of the damage this cocaine would do if it got to the streets, there’s a fair amount of satisfaction knowing we got to stop that.”

Emelia Hitchner: (904) 359-4538