Special response teams prep for worst

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent plays a terrorist and holds a ship crewman hostage during an anti-terrorism exercise held on a small cruise ship on Biscayne Bay July 6.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent plays a terrorist and holds a ship crewman hostage during an anti-terrorism exercise held on a small cruise ship on Biscayne Bay July 6. for The Reporter

Our world has unfortunately become one where our safety in public spaces depends largely on the whim of evil people.

People who’ve made cities and towns like Orlando, Paris, San Bernardino, Istanbul and Dallas synonymous with violence, the enormity of which used to be seen, felt and delivered only on the battlefield. They’ve made it so an uneasy pall seeps over us when we’re in the movie theater, or at a club, or at the departure kiosk at the airport or when we drop our children off at school in the morning.

In recent terrorist attacks and mass shootings, the carnage was lessened by the swift reaction of police special response teams, their elite training and their heavy weaponry. In South Florida this week, a large drill was coordinated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations to gauge how well federal, state and local agencies can react together to an evolving terrorist attack — and one in which hostages are taken.

A maritime venue was chosen as the setting — a large charter yacht that caters weddings, parties and other special events. This was picked in response to an attack in Tunisia in March 2015 in which terrorists shot dead 20 tourists as they exited buses on their way to board cruise ships.

“We ended up concluding that now they’re targeting the cruise industry,” said Miami-Dade County Police Department Lt. Francis Rego. “We’re the cruise capital of the world. It’s the same possibility of having two planes crash into the World Trade Center.”

Agent Alejandro Rodriguez, marine standardization evaluator with Customs Air and Marine Operations, said all law enforcement and first-responder agencies have to work in tandem more than ever to meet the types of threats plaguing public safety today.

“The genesis of this exercise was to see how well we can merge to neutralize a threat to our homeland,” Rodriguez said.

The July 6 drill was aboard the Biscayne Lady, a 115-foot catamaran day cruiser yacht docked at the Bayside Marketplace marina in downtown Miami. On the big boat were at least three federal agents roll-playing as terrorists and the vessel’s actual crew standing in as hostages.

“It was an invigorating experience,” said crewman and make-believe hostage Harley Sofge. “It’s very important to be aware, especially with all that is going on now.”

At sea in smaller vessels were four sets of special response teams — three from Miami-Dade PD and one joint team made up of officers with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Customs and Border Protection agents.

In four separate drills, the teams took turns storming the Biscayne Lady. “Everyone has to work together,” Rego. “Everyone is coming to the show.”

The officers and agents boarded the vessel’s back catwalk and carefully walked through the first-story doors. Out of the galley came the first bad guy, who was quickly felled by a hail of bullets — actually simulation rounds tipped with a soapy wax. They are non-lethal but tend to leave a healthy welt on their targets’ skin.

The teams next cleared the second floor of the ship, sweeping a lounge area before spraying another terrorist with rounds in the wheelhouse.

Finally, the teams moved to the top deck. There, they were aided by snipers with laser scopes hovering above in a Customs Marine and Air Operations Blackhawk helicopter. The terrorist here also had a hostage and was firing back at the assault team. But the rush of agents, officers and rounds accurately raining down from above were too much for the roll-playing terrorist.

This isn’t to say the ship was taken without cost to the good guys. Several officers and agents ended the day with the tell-tale sign they’ve been shot — waxy red marks on their helmets, facemasks and clothing. But to Rodriguez, Rego and the other SRT trainers, the faux wounds are useful indicators for what areas need improvement in their respective operations.

“You can only be critical and get better by looking from the outside in,” Rego said.