UERTO CORTÉS, Honduras – “Right there,” said Manuel Pereira, a security guard here at the largest shipping port in the Caribbean, pointing to the ground beneath his feet. “That’s the new border of the United States.”
Since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, American officials have spoken of “pushing back the borders” of the United States in the name of national security. Now they are doing it across the seas.
The threat they envision is a catastrophic attack on a major American port by a ship bearing a bomb. Al Qaeda has sought for seven years to use commercial ships to attack the United States at home and abroad, public records show.
A seaborne terrorist attack could cost thousands of lives and inflict billions of dollars in damage, maritime security experts say, while closing major American ports at a cost to world trade measured in tens or hundreds of billions of dollars.
“Their ultimate goal is attacking our economy,” said Adm. James M. Loy, deputy secretary of homeland security and retired commandant of the Coast Guard. “Our link to the global economy is by water – 95 percent of what comes and goes to this country comes and goes by ships.”
The response to this threat is a new law of the sea, spurred by Admiral Loy, passed by Congress and signed by President Bush 16 months ago. A parallel global code was adopted days later under American pressure by the United Nations’s International Maritime Organization.
The law and the code set a July 1 deadline for all of the world’s ships and ports to create counterterrorism systems – computers, communications gear, surveillance cameras, security patrols – to help secure America against an attack.
The cost of compliance at home and abroad will be many billions of dollars. Many American and foreign ports lack the funds to comply. But the cost of not complying could be steeper still. The law’s demands create a stark confrontation between world trade and national security.
If a ship, or any one of the last 10 ports it visited, does not meet the new security standards, it can be turned away from American waters. If a port falls short, no ship leaving it can enter American harbors. That means ports, and their nations, can be barred from trading with the United States.
“We’re dead serious about this,” said Rear Adm. Larry L. Hereth, director of port security for the Coast Guard. The law holds “some very harsh economic consequences,” he said, like banning ships and blacklisting ports, “and we’re prepared to do that.” Enforcement will largely fall to the United States.
The high costs and the tight deadline have created a scramble in the world’s major ports – especially in poor ones like Puerto Cortés, a sprawling, run-down harbor crucial to the livelihood of Honduras and its neighbors in Central America.
Some say the price is too high, the task too huge and the time too short to comply.
“The developing world is saying that the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world is exporting the cost of protecting itself onto some of the world’s poorest countries,” said Stephen E. Flynn, a retired Coast Guard commander and a maritime security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
American officials contend that the costs are outweighed by the benefits: higher security against terrorism will also cut cargo thefts and the smuggling of drugs, guns and people. But if the United States cannot balance the competing demands of national security and global trade, “we are playing with fire,” Mr. Flynn said. “If the U.S. locks down its ports for more than two weeks, the entire global trade system crashes.”
Policing the sea is daunting: the maritime system is bigger, more complex and far less controlled than international aviation. Ninety percent of world commerce moves on water, though, in 46,000 ships plying 3,000 ports. They carry millions of containers with billions of tons of goods. Roughly half of all international shipping is carried out under “flags of convenience” – registries based in countries like Liberia, often intended to disguise a vessel’s true ownership.
Here in Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, the economy depends on Puerto Cortés, which is about 350 miles south of Cancún, Mexico. More than 100 ships a month leave the port for the United States, carrying everything from bluejeans to bananas, returning with American exports.
If the United States were to bar ships from the port for even a week, “our national economy would collapse,” said Mauro Membreño, chief of Honduras’s new National Commission on Port Security.
The port was a wide-open place, protected mainly by a rusting five-foot-high chain-link fence and a poorly paid police force, until the Honduran government began trying to secure it three months ago. Under an emergency decree, Honduras is spending $4 million to buy computer systems, patrol boats, police cars, cameras and other security gear for Puerto Cortés. “We have gotten moral support from the United States,” said the national port director, Fernando Álvarez. “Nothing concrete.”
A United States official in Honduras says American pressure to secure Puerto Cortés is intense, but notes that the United States is not paying for security, as it did when it gave Honduras more than $250 million during Central America’s anti-communist campaigns in the 1980’s.
“We’ve got a gun to their heads,” the official said. “If this is the war on terrorism – well, this is not how we fought the war on Communism.”
Dennis Chinchilla, Honduras’s new national port security officer, said “the people who work in Puerto Cortés will have to completely change their way of life” to adapt to the American law. Once the commercial harbor is secured, he said, the law demands that Honduras fix its main tourist port, on the island of Roatán, where 250,000 travelers a year disembark from cruise ships. The security there today is a dollar-an-hour guard in a shack without a phone.
In the United States, many ports and ships missed a Dec. 31 deadline for submitting security plans. Port authorities note that President Bush’s budget for port security in the coming year is $46 million, while the costs of compliance in the United States alone will reach $7 billion.
The Coast Guard, which must enforce the law, has three people assigned to international compliance, Mr. Flynn said. They confront a tradition of secrecy and deception that makes the maritime trade a tempting target for terrorists.
Roughly half of the world’s commercial ships fly flags of convenience registered in more than two dozen nations, including tiny tax havens and money-laundering centers like the Cayman Islands and Vanuatu. The tradition, which began with United Fruit Company vessels in Honduras in the 1920’s, was devised to cut costs and, in many cases, evade taxes.
“It’s a bit like Swiss banks,” Mr. Flynn said.
Flags of convenience “allow shippers to function with a high degree of anonymity,” said Rupert Herbert Burns, a senior analyst at the Maritime Intelligence Group, a security firm in Washington.
Maritime security officials say an American port could be struck in several ways. A cargo ship filled with fuel oil and ammonium nitrate fertilizer could become a waterborne fireball; a ship could carry a radiological “dirty bomb” into a harbor; a speedboat carrying explosives could blow up a tanker laden with oil or delivering liquefied natural gas.
Admiral Loy, citing court testimony and government reports, warned two years ago in the military journal Defense Horizons that Osama bin Laden, through associates using flags of convenience, controlled a fleet of cargo ships, including the vessel that delivered the explosives that blew up American Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
He noted that a month after the Sept. 11 attacks, Italian inspectors found an Egyptian on a ship bound for Canada. The Egyptian, hiding in a shipping container, had a false Canadian passport, a satellite phone, two computers, forged security passes for airports in three countries and papers identifying him as an aircraft mechanic.
Uncovering such a suspect is like finding a particular shark in a boundless sea. United States officials say the threat of an attack demands that nations like Honduras do their part. But Carl Bentzel, a Democratic counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee, said most of the world’s ships and ports “have so far to go and the costs are so high that most will not be in compliance” by July 1.
If that happens, the United States has three choices, maritime security experts say. It can enforce the law, creating potential economic chaos abroad; bend the law, saying economic imperatives make full enforcement impossible; or apply the law selectively, creating a two-tier system in which rich ports in Europe and Asia trump poor Caribbean ones like Puerto Cortés.
At Puerto Cortés, Fermin Chong Wong, an American-educated computer expert working for the national port authority, is trying to track 400,000 containers and more than 2,000 ships a year.
“I don’t think there will be enough time to meet the United States requirements everywhere in the world,” he said. “I don’t think U.S. ports can meet them. Here, we are going to try – and we might. But the time’s too short and the money’s too scarce to do all this.”
“We want to protect our borders,” said Kim Petersen, who runs one of the world’s biggest maritime consultancies, SeaSecure. “But what happens when we cripple the economy of a developing country and create a breeding ground for the very problems we’re trying to prevent?”