CONROE, Texas – With more than 60,000 employees, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is one of the world’s largest law enforcement organizations. Its main goal is to keep us safe. The agency has three components-- Office of Field Operations, Border Patrol and Air and Marine Operations.
The Houston air branch in Conroe is the home base for all seven of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations DASH-8. The fixed-wing, medium-range patrol aircraft is equipped with a multi-mode radar and an electro-optical infrared camera that can detect and monitor targets on land and in water.
Todd Rowell is the director of Air and Marine Operations at U.S. Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations Houston Air and Marine Branch.
“Once they pick it up on radar, they will fly closer. They will then use the camera to identify a proper target they are looking for,” Rowell said.
Rowell walked us around the aircraft calling out different devices on the plane.
“Under the black dome is the radar system,” he explained.
Rowell said the radar is very precise and sensitive to small objects.
“(It can detect) homemade rafts coming out of Cuba, 2x4, and old fuel drums strapped together by tarps. Very small, precise,” explained Rowell.
Aboard the DASH-8, above the Gulf of Mexico agents or subject matter, experts examine the radar scanning the water’s surface. These men and women are the eyes in the sky, navigating altitudes to ensure a level of safety for all Americans.
For their safety, we are not naming or showing the identities of the SMEs working on the mission.
One SME explained, “He just sent all the information from radar to focus on one location, and it’s doing a scan of that vessel.”
From the air, it can be tough to decipher a threat from that of a boat.
“That comes with experience, the type of vessels we are looking for. It is a needle in the haystack, to say the least,” said another SME.
Proud of the work they do, Rowell explained, “It takes a lot of time and dedication from agents. They communicate with ground-based maritime forces, be it air and marine interdiction agents, U.S. Coast Guard, FWC, state police.”
From the sky to the water, we brought you aboard a Dash-8 aircraft to show how U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations intercepts threats in the air.
In Part II of this report, KPRC 2′s Zach Lashway finished the mission in the water with an exclusive interview aboard the agency’s new interceptor class vessel boat.
U.S Customs and Border Protection is one of the world’s largest law enforcement organizations, with some 60,000 employees. Of those, some 18,000 of them work within CBP’s Air and Marine Operations component.
Chris Valentine is Supervisor Marine Interdiction Agent with Air and Marine Operations CBP out of Galveston Bay. “The common mission is to always inspect vessels, keeping our waterways and Gulf of Mexico constantly safe. We start from Matagorda Bay which is all the south and then we cover all the way to Lake Charles, Louisiana.”
This is some 300 nautical miles of waterways these agents safeguard.
“Each day is unique, especially in the environment we are in. So here we have commercial, industrial, fishing vessels, recreational, we have seaports, we have different entities within the law enforcement region.” Explained Valentine
While that collaboration is key and routine, these agents are also working closely with their colleagues in the sky. These subject matter experts, at the controls of cameras and radar aboard the DASH-8, can and will call upon their agents aboard the CIV to intercept the target of interest.
Todd Rowell is director of Air and Marine Operations at US Customs and Border Protection Air and Marine Operations Houston Air and Marine Branch in Conroe. “Using our own marine agents, we go out, pick them up and they are either taken aboard a Coast Guard cutter for ID and reappreciation, or other decisions are made at that point. I am proud to be part of a team that we are enforcing the laws, we are keeping America safe.”
The CIV’s max speed can reach 58 knots, which is about 66 MPH.
Like the DASH-8 aircraft, the 41-foot CIV is also well equipped. It has marine surface radar and electro-optical and infrared sensors that help agents protect the US from incoming threats.
In 20-21, AMO enforcement seized or disrupted close to 325,000 pounds of cocaine, more than 779,000 pounds of marijuana, close to 12,000 pounds of fentanyl, 18,000 pounds of methamphetamine, 900 weapons, and $73.3 million dollars. These efforts led to more than 11,000 arrests and 122,000 apprehensions of undocumented people.
When asked what makes the job worth it, Valentine said, “Brotherhood, team, every day you know these guys are going to be here, and vice versa, you have their back and that is probably one of the most rewarding aspects of the job. Every day is unique, some days can be very difficult, through the team, and unity, we seem to overcome those challenges.”
Air and Marine Operations’ missions include search and rescue operations, natural disaster relief, and humanitarian relief. The AMO also works closely with foreign governments and foreign law enforcement agencies to keep America safe.