Budget cuts at the Coast Guard are coming at an unfortunate time. As the service, like other branches of the military, makes do with less, drug smugglers are increasingly turning to the high seas -- and challenging the Coast Guard's already strained resources.
Officials tell Fox News that drug smugglers are moving some of their operations away from the U.S.-Mexico land border and out into the ocean where it's easier to avoid law enforcement.
And for U.S. patrollers, that theater is becoming harder and harder to defend.
"As the Department of Homeland Security became more effective at stopping smuggling across the land borders, the cartels shifted some of the traffic to the maritime, so that is why we saw an increase in smuggling by boats," said Capt. Jim Jenkins, Coast Guard commander for Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Casey Hehr, chief of law enforcement for the same sector, told Fox News that tracking the traffickers is like "finding a needle in the haystack."
The Coast Guard patrols 95,000 miles of coastline, covering 4.5 million square miles of maritime area.
"There's thousands of ... square miles of water that we are actually responsible for securing," Hehr said.
Overall, federal spending cuts have forced the Coast Guard to reduce its operating costs by 25 percent. While helping the government reach deficit reduction targets, this is also threatening efforts to reach President Obama's goal of intercepting 40 percent of illicit drug shipments by 2015.
"We deal with the assets and the hours that we have, and we try to use them as best we can to stop the smuggling," Hehr said.
Over the last several years, the cartels have moved further offshore as their boats have gotten more sophisticated. The area they operate in has tripled in size in just the last year -- and is now roughly the size of Montana.
Some of the modern smuggling boats have three engines and can hold up to 20 tons of drugs. Plus, they can travel hundreds of miles north of the border.
"A huge part to the puzzle is the interdiction of these vessels before they reach shore," said Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Claude Arnold. "So if resources are cut, that's going to have an effect, and our investigations are largely based upon those interdictions."