Special Report: CBP’s Air and Marine Branch busier than ever

Border Report Tour

SAN DIEGO (Border Report) — When most people think of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, they often think of the Border Patrol agents who wear green or the men and women in dark blue who work the ports of entry.

But within CBP, there is another branch called Air and Marine Operations whose agents are known for wearing khaki uniforms.

It only has about 900 members, much smaller when compared to the Border Patrol’s 22,000 agents, and CBP’s 20,000 referred to as Customs Officers.

“Air and Marine is the little brother of CBP,” said Brandon Tucker, Deputy Director of Air and Marine Ops in San Diego. “They’re our two big brothers, obviously, with considerably more people. But what Air and Marine has is very expensive assets, boats and airplanes — are not cheap. Do we need more? Yes, as expensive as they are, we’re allocated four maritime patrol aircraft, A-star helicopters and two Blackhawks as well.”

CBP’s Air and Marine Agent Mark M. flies a U.S. Customs and Border Protection A-Star helicopter along the border east of San Diego (Elliot Macias/KSWB)

The fix-wing planes can fly for multiple hours south along the Baja California coastline through international airspace and for hundreds of miles off the coast.

Crews use sophisticated equipment to zoom in on boats on the water and determine if it’s a smuggling attempt.

If so, they dispatch fast-moving boats to interdict the vessels that might be carrying undocumented migrants and/or drugs.

Brandon Tucker is the Deputy Director for CBP’s Air and Marine Branch in San Diego. (Salvador Rivera/Border Report)

“We’re providing nearly 100-thousand hours in the protection of Americans throughout the nation, so the majority of those flight hours are flown on the southern border to prevent migrants, non-citizens from entering the country,” Tucker said.

With the record-setting increase in maritime smuggling, where smugglers use all types of boats to smuggle migrants and drugs into the United States, Air and Marine agents are paying a lot more attention to the eastern Pacific Ocean along Southern and Central California.

“This is the most geographically diverse branch within CBP Air and Marine, we provide border security with helicopters and fix wing,” said Tucker. “We’re out seven days a week, 52 weeks at night looking for those conveyances on the water.”

But Tucker and the others will admit they can’t be everywhere all the time and some migrants and drugs do make it north of the border as far north as Central California.

Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Pilots flying multirole-enforcement aircraft. (Elliot Macias/KSWB)

“We’re constantly changing our tactics based on the threat. As we apply pressure here, they go there and
we follow them. We try to predict their next move, which can be difficult. Sometimes, we’ve been successful other times not so much,” Tucker said.

With more smuggling events taking place, more people are getting hurt and dying like in San Diego back in May when a boat crashed into the rocks after its engine failed and drifted toward the shoreline.

Three migrants died and more than two dozen were hurt. According to Tucker, one of the agency’s goals is preventing more tragedy while protecting the interests of the United States, doing a job that doesn’t get a lot of attention.

“A high percentage of pilots and mariners for CBP are former military members, many of us were trained to fly in the military and we have service ingrained in our DNA, there’s a sense of mission and selflessness involved in that, here we’re making a difference,” he said.

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