JIS News

Protecting Jamaica’s borders is serious business for the Coast Guard, and as the island’s maritime defence arm, it continues to make a dent in drug running and other criminal activities.
Under its vigilant watch at sea over the last three years, the Coast Guard has played an integral hand, alongside the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) and international counterparts, in the seizure of some 54 vessels involved in narcotics activity, in excess of 700 kilograms of marijuana, and 10 kilograms of cocaine.
“Our specific role is area denial to people, who might want to come in and do horrible things to us and our country by providing a reasonably strong presence in our maritime areas,” Head of the Coast Guard, Commander Sydney Innis tells JIS News in an interview recently.
Commander Innis says that the Coast Guard’s presence is maintained by aggressive patrolling in the areas where, according to information or intelligence, there is heightened activity. He says that the maritime agency extends a stronger presence in areas identified as being potentially attractive to persons intent on carrying out criminal activity and its visibility is maintained at its various out-stations across the island.
There are five out-stations manned by the Coast Guard around the island at Montego Bay, Discovery Bay, Port Antonio, Black River, and the Pedro Cays.
Within its fleet, the Coast Guard has three large offshore vessels, with another due to arrive shortly. These offshore vessels, the Commander explains, “give us added capability especially in the further distant regions of our maritime areas of jurisdiction”. He says the vessels have the ability of extended ranges of close to 1,500 miles, and can stay at sea for several days.
Last year, the agency acquired three offshore vessels, refurbished an existing one (vessel), and trained personnel at a cost of some $1.864 billion (US$29.6 million).
In terms of median range vessels, there are seven in the Guard’s fleet. However, one is currently out of commission as it is being refitted in the United States, while another two are being repaired. The smallest class in the fleet is comprised of nine vessels, which are used for security in the island’s harbours in Montego Bay, Kingston, Ocho Rios and Port Antonio.
The Coast Guard’s specific areas of jurisdiction extend approximately 200 miles in the extreme southwest corner of Jamaica’s maritime areas. Nevertheless, based on the delimitation agreements with countries adjacent to the island such as Cuba and Colombia, “some of this distance is considerably less than 200 miles based on how the median lines are drawn, but in the south western corner, it extends close to this 200 mile limit,” Commander Innis informs.
While maritime patrolling is focused on the southern region of the island, where criminal activity is most prevalent, the Head of the Coast Guard explains that all directional regions around Jamaica are monitored.
He hastens to emphasise that policing the borders takes into account areas of heightened security interest. Commander Innis says on the north and western side of Jamaica, “we do a fair share of law enforcement on the north side especially traffickers moving whether it be marijuana or cocaine from Jamaica, which is being transshipped to the Bahamas or to North America”.
Asked how international counterparts view the general work of the Jamaican Coast Guard, he tells JIS News that based on feedback, there is respect and also favourable working relationships.
“They certainly have a high belief in our integrity, otherwise the kind of information sharing that takes place wouldn’t happen, which has led to the successes which we have. That is not peculiar, I think, to the Coast Guard as other parts of the JDF, especially the Air Wing and Intelligence Unit, share the same level of respect and trust with our international partners,” he states.
Citing elements of the partnerships Jamaica enjoys with foreign nations as the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom, the Commander says these countries facilitate training opportunities for local maritime officers in areas such as basic seamanship, mechanical engineering, communications, and specific courses as planning narcotics or search and rescue operations.
Furthermore, he says, strong alliances also exist with the US through the Maritime Cooperation Agreement, popularly called the Ship Rider Agreement. This agreement, he says, “has been expanded through a protocol agreement, so that for third party platforms like UK ships, French ships, Dutch ships operating in our area, with a US coast guard law enforcement team, we can put a ship rider team on board to do patrols in and around our waters to enhance capability”.
“We also work closely with the Colombian navy with intelligence sharing. They give us information if something has left their coastline and they think it is headed for us, they will call us. We also work with the Cuban border guards in that respect. We share information, either from us to them and them to us. The same with the US, Joint Inter-agency Taskforce South, which monitors the whole movement of drugs in this region of the world, we have direct linkages to them so that we can pass information in a real-time basis to pursue narcotics activities,” he points out.
Looking to the future development of the Coast Guard, Commander Innis shares that there are a number of projects in the pipeline, among them the expected acquisition of another offshore vessel to complete the fleet by year-end.
“We are refitting and upgrading our smaller vessel fleet at the same time. We are also looking at the out stations that we have, upgrading them so they can take more persons and have more flexibility. The more persons you have there, the longer they can operate on a sustained basis if there is an operation to come up so we are looking at upgrading the out stations,” he says.
In the case of the Pedro Cays, he says it is projected “to put in jetty facilities, refuelling facilities and so on. It’s a long way from mainland. Life is very difficult. We are trying to improve that out station to make it a lot more habitable”.
He highlights the lack of availability of spares to do repairs as a particular challenge. To this end, he advises that a workshop is currently under construction and due for completion by early next year. The workshop is intended to facilitate the removal of engines, electronic gear, radios, and their subsequent repair “to make them ready to go back on board vessels or at our stations”.