The silent eyes in the sky: the mission of Customs and Border Protection

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The mission of Customs and Border Protection is to protect the U.S. That battle is often fought far from home by a group of men and women based right here in Jacksonville.

They are the silent eyes in the sky. “Primarily we’re taking the fight to the bad guys,” says Martin Wade, the Director of the National Air and Security Operations Center in Jacksonville- otherwise known as NASOC Jax. It’s a special office in the Air and Marine Operations of Customs and Border Protection.

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It’s charged with stopping unlawful people and cargo from getting into our country. That mission mostly covers the illegal drug trade. “Primarily we do drugs and addiction down off the coast of South America,” says Wade.

But after 9/11 that mission expanded. Customs and Border Protection became a part of the newly created Department of Homeland security. After the attacks, NASOC Jax used its high tech equipment to fill holes in the country’s radar systems.

Bill Walsh is an Air Interdiction Agent. He says, “we were up there flying missions along the northern border- not because we were afraid of Canada- because the command division wanted a 100% picture of that border to make sure no one was sneaking in.”

Walsh says he’s glad those radar gaps are now closed and NASOC Jax was able to get back to their bread and butter: chasing bad guys on the water — from the air.

“The people involved the trafficking organizations,” Walsh says, “are not well-intentioned businesses. They are absolutely gangsters. And they don’t care who they have to hurt or who they have to kill or what they leave in their wake as long as they can get some money out of it. And those kind of people need to be stopped.”

When out on a detachment, Walsh flies one of CBP’s seven airplanes. Eighty members rotate through trips to the south, and so far this year, Jacksonville’s crews have stopped 130,000 pounds of cocaine from reaching the U.S.

“All of that cocaine is not headed to Guatemala,” Walsh says. “It’s all coming here. And if I don’t catch it off the coast of Columbia, 5 to 10 days later it’s somewhere in the United States. And then it’s very much everybody’s problem.”

The smugglers travel by fishing boat, speed boat and partially submerged vessels in radar reflective paint. But with high tech radar and camera equipment, they light up brightly on the screens in these P3 airplanes.

But NASOC Jax still chips in on other national security missions. In this post 9/11 world, teamwork and resource sharing is paramount, Walsh adds.

The same top-notch equipment to catch smugglers also keeps us safe during major events, like the Super Bowl, by securing the airspace over crowds of tens of thousands.

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It flies missions after hurricanes to help FEMA identify damage and fill in for air traffic control when the storm has knocked out local capability. And they also help out here at home, working closely with local law enforcement when air support is needed.

“This agency has been far more committed to the idea of working holistically,” Walsh says. “Working with everybody who’s got some stake in this game and trying to do it more efficiently.”