Small Wars Journal

Understanding Maritime Ratlines

Thu, 07/01/2010 - 4:03pm

Understanding Maritime Ratlines

On a balmy night in July 1927, armed only with revolver, three rounds, and some gumption, Coast Guard Ensign Charles Duke single-handedly boarded a rum-runner, took charge, and ran her aground in New York Harbor. This raid foiled the delivery of 150,000 gallons of booze with a street value of $50,000, no doubt disappointing speakeasy patrons throughout the five boroughs. Across their histories, America's maritime services have engaged in repeated and sometimes persistent efforts to stem the flow of illegal commerce on the high seas and inland waters. Daring interdictions such as Ensign Duke's demonstrated an audacious, albeit futile, approach to maritime law enforcement.

A more recent example of what appear to be futile maritime interdiction efforts involves the Navy's enforcement of UN sanctions against Iraq from 1991 to 2003. During this time, the Navy made over 40,000 queries, boarded over 17,000 ships, and diverted approximately 2,000 of them. Yet only a small percentage of smuggled contraband was actually stopped from these efforts, at a cost of millions of dollars a year to American taxpayers. Worse still, Iraq illegally earned over $10 billion from oil smuggling and kickbacks from a clandestine network of firms trading during the UN's Oil for Food Program between 1997 and 2002.

Similarly, Coast Guard and Navy interdiction operations to stem the flow of illegal narcotics transiting the Eastern Pacific and Caribbean appear to have made little impact into the overall amount of drugs flowing across US borders. According to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the amount of cocaine moving through these areas increased from 1,022 metric tons in 2006 to 1,421 metric tons in 2007. During the same time period, interdiction forces increased the amount of drugs seized from 256 metric tons to a record high of 316 metric tons. Despite this apparent increase in performance, the drugs actually taken off the street remain in the low twenty percent range.

Illicit ratlines thrive in sea lanes around the world today, although the stakes to America's national security and our international partners are potentially much higher than those involving bootlegged rum. In the worst cases, maritime ratlines support the nefarious activities of terrorists, insurgents, and rogue states against US and allied national security interests.

Understanding Maritime Ratlines

About the Author(s)

Chris Rawley is a civilian counter-terrorism planner at US Special Operations Command’s Interagency Task Force.  He is also a surface warfare officer in the United States Navy Reserve, having served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, the Persian Gulf, and Western Pacific. He writes on irregular warfare issues at the maritime strategy blog, Information Dissemination


Frank (not verified)

Tue, 07/06/2010 - 10:24am

Great reading!


Fri, 07/02/2010 - 2:16am

In some theaters, the US has been supplying partners with small "Defender" class patrol boats. These boats are cheap ($180,000), but can provide an effective solution to maritime crime in green waters. Hopefully, the US continues this strategy and considers providing a training service (or mentoring).

Good article.