Alperen’s argument against The Fence

Naval Postgraduate School
Center for Homeland Defense and Security
CHDS 0403

This paper was originally prepared for:


September 23, 2005
Martin J. Alperen
12107 Hansen Bay
St. John, VI 00830-9535
(831) 588-5612
[email protected]

Candidate for Master of Arts, Homeland Security, expected March 2006.
Naval Postgraduate School, Center For Homeland Defense and Security
Monterey, CA 93943. www.chds.us

My work is an academic research effort conducted as a graduate student, not an official project conducted in my capacity as a USVI Government employee. Therefore, this is not an official document, and its conclusions are my own, not those of the US or USVI Governments.

Martin Alperen

INTRODUCTION. On July 1, 2004, and pursuant to the Maritime Security Act, the VI Government Port Authority installed a chain link and barbed wire fence approximately 1/3rd of the way out the passenger ferry dock on St. John preventing people from walking from the land on to the ferry boats that take them to and from St. Thomas. (Locals refer to it as “The Fence” and it spawned the bumper sticker, “St. John – A Gated Community.”) Before The Fence, free access to the boats and the ability to sit on the dock of the bay had been the way here for generations.

Given the geography of the Virgin Islands and the current state of both federal and local law enforcement, any effort towards non-suspicion based, non-pinpoint inspection is useless. The Fence is completely ineffective, wasteful of resources and a public relations disaster. It should be removed.

BACKGROUND.  Since The Fence was installed, ferryboat tickets are taken at The Fence gate instead of further down the dock at the actual boats. New Homeland “Security Guards” have new jobs but do not do anything except sometimes open and close the gate. The guards do not search anyone or anything. They do not look in bags, boxes or containers. They do, however, enforce the ferry boats’ regulations against eating on board.

Title 33 of the Code of Federal Regulations establishes their duties. At the lowest alert level, called MARSEC 1, they are supposed to: ‘screen persons, baggage, personal effects and check identification or examine passenger tickets.’ (33 CFR 105.255(e)). They do not. There is absolutely no meaningful scrutiny.


The Fence is ineffective for many reasons. The 85-degree Caribbean water is less than 2 feet deep at this point and one only has to walk through warm, clean, knee-deep water and climb back on the pier on the other side of the fence. Many people here wear only shorts and flip-flops and have sand on their feet so one wouldn’t even look out of place after having done this.

Because The Fence was not well designed or implemented, another way around it is to simply climb out the unscreened window in the seating area and walk along the 2-foot wide ledge to the other side of the fence and then back on the pier. Or, one could simply purchase a ticket ($3.00 or $7.00 depending on destination).

Driving and taking the car ferry between St. Thomas and St. John can avoid The Fence. Several hundred vehicles every day come and go a block away at the car ferry dock without any inspection. No security is mandated at the car ferry because both the car ferry and the car ferry dock are exempt from the statute. They are not a “Passenger vessel certificated to carry more than 150 passengers,” (33 CFR 104.105(a)(6)) and the dock is not a “Facility that receives vessels certificated to carry more than 150 passengers…” (33 CFR 105.105(a)(2)). This is not the fault of the VI Port Authority who is valiantly trying to comply with the regulations. It is the fault of one-size-fits-all regulations that do not make sense in this situation.  Private boats (pleasure craft) are also uninspected. Perhaps one thousand private boats are anchored or moored around St. John on any given day and hundreds come and go daily, uninspected.

Unofficial estimates are that of the legitimate, non-contraband, non-smuggling traffic, 70% of the people coming to St. John arrive by passenger ferry from St. Thomas. This includes the tourists and their baggage. Another 25% come with the cars and trucks on the uninspected car ferries and the remaining 5% on the also uninspected private boats.  Approximately 95% of the goods and merchandise comes to St. John on the uninspected car ferries with the remaining 5% coming on the uninspected private boats. The end result is that 70% of the legitimate people must pass through a meaningless inspection process while 100% of the legitimate goods and merchandise and the remaining 30% of legitimate people are uninspected. Given these numbers, spending government money on The Fence is useless because criminals and terrorists will utilize one of the unlimited numbers of uninspected or illegitimate entry points.

BAD PUBLIC RELATIONS. Equally as important as its ineffectiveness is that The Fence and potato chip confiscating security guards alienate people. Citizens see this and believe their tax dollars are being wasted. They lose confidence. Whether the mere perception of security is a valid measure of success (as opposed to actual security) is an open question, but this fence does not even provide the mere perception of security.

THE REALITY OF THE SITUATION. Passenger ferries are the island equivalent of a cross-town bus and holding them to the mandated level of security is purely cosmetic and a waste of resources. Every day thousands of residents, day workers (many of them known illegal aliens), tourists, business owners, shop keepers, students of all ages, etc., come and go from the larger island of St. Thomas to St. John as if they were taking a city bus. It is a 20 or 45 minute ride depending on which boat is taken. As a nation we have not implemented security inspections on inter-city busses and subways. And there remain the uninspected car ferries and private boats.

If the purpose of the inspections is to prevent a terrorist from commandeering or blowing up a passenger ferry then they need to do a better job at inspecting. If the purpose of the inspections is to prevent a terrorist from smuggling themselves and or weapons on to the island, then the cursory 70% of the passenger-only inspections are useless.

Meaningful security is logical. However, anything approaching meaningful security on the level of inspecting baggage, parcels and identification, the requirements of MARSEC1, is only possible here if the car ferries are inspected too. If car ferries were included in inspections, then approximately 95% of people and approximately 95% of goods arriving on St. John would be inspected. Anything or anyone else would enter with the thousand or so boats coming and going to the thousand or so beaches, coves, bays, harbors, hurricane holes, etc.

Searching the car ferry is plainly not practical because it would add hours to a 45 minute trip and would stifle inter-island commerce. It would be the equivalent of inspecting cars and trucks traveling between any two stateside towns or cities. Because St. John is an island, everything is brought here from St. Thomas by a truck on the car ferry or a container on a truck on the car ferry. St. John businesses would be crippled by this sort of inspection. (The VI could, at least in theory, implement the same sort of preferred shipper pre-approved security lists utilized by the USCG.)

CONSEQUENCES. If implemented, meaningful inspection of the passenger ferries and meaningful inspection of the car ferries, would logically steer illegal activity to the remaining 5% of private boats discussed above, or to uncounted criminals and terrorists. The thousand or so beaches, coves, bays, harbors, hurricane holes, etc., are already used by drug, gun and people smugglers with impunity. At least we would be fairly certain the bad guys would come in the uninspected route and know where the weak link is. Only a drastically increased federal border protection presence combined with a drastically improved local police department can stop this and neither of these is happening.

ALTERNATIVES. The solution is much easier to describe than to implement. It requires a dramatically increased federal border patrol presence (highly mobile teams on each island with land, near shore and far shore marine and helicopter and surveillance capability) combined with timely intelligence and dramatically improved local law enforcement. (The New VIPD; Caring, involved and highly motivated officers who have an excellent rapport with all segments of the community and the New VIPD Terrorism Fusion Center with its own intelligence officers with several foreign language capabilities representing the many groups who live here…that works closely with all the federal agencies and organized local groups and regularly relays information about real time alien, potential terrorist, border and transportation security to the CBP Task Force Teams who, with the willing and highly motivated assistance of The New VIPD, intercept and arrest).

WAIVER. The VI Government should save the money spent on maintaining The Fence and the security personnel by utilizing the waiver provision in the statute. “Any facility owner or operator may apply for a waiver of any requirement … that the facility owner or operator considers unnecessary in light of the nature or operating conditions of the facility…” 33 CFR 105.130. A similar provision is in 33 CFR 104.130. St. John clearly meets the “unnecessary in light of the nature or operating conditions” requirement.

“A request for a waiver must be submitted in writing with justification to the Commandant … Washington, DC … The Commandant …may grant [it] only if the waiver will not reduce the overall security of the facility, its employees, visiting vessels, or ports”

CONCLUSION. Given the futility of passenger ferry inspection alone, the impracticality of adding car ferry inspection and the complete lack of scrutiny of the remaining 5%, it is wasteful and impractical to even conduct the passenger ferry inspections and to have The Fence. The VI Government should apply for the waiver, remove The Fence and put the Security Guard money to other use.

Decision:  Recommendation that the Virgin Islands Port Authority investigate the effectiveness of security personnel and fences at Red Hook, St. Thomas and Cruz Bay, St. John, US Virgin Islands, and to take action within six months to either improve security or eliminate ineffective spending.
Yes __________  No __________  Refer to ________

Leave a Comment