They enforce customs and immigration laws, conduct investigations, protect our borders and enhance national security. More than 20 Border Enforcement Security Task Forces (BESTs) 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 – and now, the newest BEST.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) formed the Hampton Roads BEST in January 2011. Like other BESTs across the country, the task force is comprised of representatives from a variety of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. Core partners include ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the U.S. Coast Guard and its criminal investigative service. Together, they identify, disrupt, and dismantle criminal organizations posing significant threats to border security.
"Traffic at the Port of Virginia is anticipated to grow significantly over the next several years. This is due in part to the completion of the Heartland (Rail) Corridor that runs from Hampton Roads to the Midwest and the upcoming expansion of the Panama Canal," said Mike Lamonea, ICE HSI assistant special agent in charge for the Norfolk, Va., office.
With those improvements to transportation routes, the port will see an increase in direct foreign traffic. This, in turn, will significantly increase the amount of containers, crews, and ships entering the United States via the Port of Virginia.
"We're preparing for the future," said Lamonea. "We're being proactive and expect that our efforts will have a positive impact throughout the Hampton Roads region now and for years to come."
"Ultimately we investigate any and all criminal activity related to seaports, airports, and related environments that threaten the overall security of the United States," said Lamonea.
Those investigations can focus on narcotics, illegal imports/exports, financial crimes, human smuggling, and numerous other federal violations.
"We are looking to develop a cadre of experts throughout the region that know and understand the border environments we work in," said Lamonea. "Even if an agency is not a core partner on the task force, we know we can reach out to that agency for specialized assistance if needed. Our relationships with federal, state, and local law enforcement partners are invaluable."
Thus far, the Hampton Roads BEST has led successful narcotics and child exploitation investigations. The task force discovered 55-kilograms of cocaine earlier this year. That investigation is ongoing. In addition, ICE HSI arrested a longshoreman on federal child pornography charges as a result of the task force's investigative efforts.
"BEST teams provide a collaborative environment not only for information sharing, but for the contribution of vast expertise in varying disciplines," said Lamonea. "Amazing things tend to happen when law enforcement partners with diverse authorities stand shoulder to shoulder to focus on specific missions."