NORFOLK, Va. — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), Virginia Port Authority, and other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies today announced the launch of the Hampton Roads Border Enforcement Security Task Force (BEST), which is dedicated to security at the Port of Virginia.
The Hampton Roads BEST is comprised of officers and agents from 10 federal, state and local agencies — responsible for identifying, interdicting and investigating a wide variety of maritime-related crime including trade fraud, cargo theft, and the illegal smuggling of drugs, persons, currency and weapons smuggling.
"Previously established seaport-based BEST teams in places like Los Angeles, New York, and Miami have already had an impact on smuggling and other criminal activity in their regions," said John P. Torres, special agent in charge of ICE HSI in Washington, D.C. "We expect to replicate that success here in Hampton Roads and will work with our partners to combat the criminal and terrorist organizations that might seek to exploit the Port of Virginia's large cargo volumes to commit maritime-related crimes such as smuggling."
"CBP welcomes the establishment of the Hampton Roads BEST, which will leverage the talent, skills and experience of our team members in a joint effort to dismantle criminal organizations that pose significant threats to our borders," said Mark Laria, area port director for CBP.
"With the large volume of ships, people and cargo passing through this international port and the expansion of the Panama Canal expected to significantly increase traffic in the next 3 years, all of our agencies have recognized that resources will be tight, and we must be as effective and efficient as possible," said CAPT Mark Ogle, commander of U.S. Coast Guard Sector Hampton Roads. "The Coast Guard with its cutters, boats, aircraft, inspectors and boarding teams are the eyes and ears on the waterfront and are a primary intelligence provider to the investigative effort of the BEST. We were happy to initially house this interagency team led by ICE HSI in Coast Guard spaces. This joint effort has taken great cooperation to the next level."
Twenty-one BESTs currently exist throughout the country at major gateways to the United States like the Miami Seaport, the Southwest Border and the New York Seaport/Canadian Border. Virginia's Hampton Roads region is home to the third largest port on the East Coast — the Port of Virginia.
In 2010, container terminals in Norfolk and Portsmouth, Va., handled 87,000 cargo containers on average. Due in part to the completion of the Heartland Corridor that runs through the Midwest and the expansion of the Panama Canal, the port is likely to see an increase in direct foreign traffic, including super freighters. This will significantly increase the amount of containers, crews and ships entering the United States via the Port of Virginia.
"The Port of Virginia is an economic engine that is critical to the Commonwealth and ensuring the security of the cargo moving in and out of our port is a vital component to keeping that engine healthy and operational," said Jerry A. Bridges, Virginia Port Authority executive director. "We welcome BEST task force and the added layer of security it will provide; we look forward to working with its members."
The first early success of the BEST came in April 2011 with the seizure of 55 kilograms of cocaine found in a vessel that transited the Panama Canal and docked at the Port of Virginia.
Agencies participating in the Hampton Roads BEST include: ICE HSI; CBP; USCG; Virginia Port Authority Police Department; Virginia State Police; Transportation Security Administration; Norfolk Airport Authority Police Department; Food and Drug Administration; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Drug Enforcement Administration; and the Internal Revenue Service.
Since 2008, the BESTs nationwide accounted for more than 8,591 arrests, including more than 4,800 criminal arrests. Additionally, BEST officers interdicted more than 32,400 pounds of cocaine, nearly 400,000 pounds of marijuana and 2,900 pounds of ecstasy. Other notable BEST successes during the last year include the seizure of more than 3,500 weapons and more than $53 million in U.S. currency and monetary instruments.
ICE will continue to establish new BEST teams in areas where transnational criminal organizations seek to exploit security vulnerabilities. The new task forces will focus on all aspects of the enforcement process, from interdiction to prosecution and removal. The goal of the expansion is to strengthen the ability of the program to dismantle the leadership and supporting infrastructure of the criminal organizations responsible for perpetrating violence and illegal activity along our borders and in the interior of our nation.