US military expands its drug war in Latin America
More than US$20 billion dollars have been spent in the past decade — to what end?
by Martha Mendoza
The crew members aboard the USS Underwood could see through their night goggles what was happening on the fleeing go-fast boat: someone was dumping bales.
When the Navy guided-missile frigate later dropped anchor in Panamanian waters on a sunny August morning, Ensign Clarissa Carpio, a 23-year-old from San Francisco, climbed into the inflatable dinghy with four unarmed sailors and two Coast Guard officers like herself, carrying light submachine guns. It was her first deployment, but Carpio was ready for combat.
Fighting drugtraffickers was precisely what she’d trained for.
In the most expensive initiative in Latin America since the Cold War, the US has militarized the battle against the traffickers, spending more than US$20 billion in the past decade. US Army troops, Air Force pilots and Navy ships outfitted with Coast Guard counternarcotics teams are routinely deployed to chase, track and capture drug smugglers.
The sophistication and violence of the traffickers is so great that the US military is training not only law enforcement agents in Latin American nations, but their militaries as well, building a network of expensive hardware, radar, airplanes, ships, runways and refuelling stations to stem the tide of illegal drugs from South America to the US.
According to State Department and Pentagon officials, stopping drug-trafficking organizations has become a matter of national security because they spread corruption, undermine fledgling democracies and can potentially finance terrorists.
US drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, pointing to dramatic declines in violence and cocaine production in Colombia, says the strategy works. “The results are historic and have tremendous implications,” he said at a conference on drug policy last year.
The Associated Press examined US arms export authorizations, defence contracts, military aid, and exercises in the region, tracking a drug war strategy that began in Colombia, moved to Mexico and is now finding fresh focus in Central America, where brutal cartels mark an enemy motivated not by ideology but by cash.
The US authorized the sale of a record US$2.8 billion worth of guns, satellites, radar equipment and tear gas to Western Hemisphere nations in 2011, four times the authorized sales 10 years ago, according to the latest State Department reports.
Over the same decade, defence contracts jumped from US$119 million to US$629 million, supporting everything from Kevlar helmets for the Mexican army to airport runways in Aruba.
Last year US$830 million, almost US$9 out of every US$10 of US law enforcement and military aid spent in the region, went toward countering narcotics, up 30 percent in the past decade.
Many in the military and other law enforcement agencies — the Drug Enforcement Administration, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, FBI — applaud the US strategy, but critics say militarizing the drug war in a region fraught with tender democracies and long-corrupt institutions can stir political instability while barely touching what the UN estimates is a US$320 billion global illicit drug market.
Congressman Eliot Engel, who chaired the US House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere for the past four years, says the US-supported crackdown on Mexican cartels only left them “stronger and more violent.”
“Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent over the years,” he said. “In spite of our efforts, positive results are few and far between.”
TROOPS IN the AMERICAs
At any given moment, 4,000 US troops are deployed in Latin America and as many as four US Navy ships are plying the Caribbean and Pacific coastlines of Central America.
US pilots clocked more than 46,400 hours in 2011 flying anti-drug missions, and US agents from at least 10 law enforcement agencies spread across the continent.
The US trains thousands of Latin American troops, and employs its multibillion dollar radar equipment to gather intelligence to intercept traffickers and arrest cartel members.
These work in organized-crime networks that boast an estimated 11,000 flights annually and hundreds of boats and submersibles. They smuggle cocaine from the only place it’s produced, South America, to the land where it is most coveted, the US.
One persistent problem is that in many of the partner nations, police are so institutionally weak or corrupt that governments have turned to their militaries to fight drug-traffickers, often with violent results. Militaries are trained for combat, while police are trained to enforce laws.
“It is unfortunate that militaries have to be involved in what are essentially law enforcement engagements,” said Frank Mora, the outgoing deputy assistant secretary of defence for Western Hemisphere affairs. But he argues that many governments have little choice.
“We are not going to turn our backs on these governments or these institutions because... they have to use their militaries in this way,” Mora said.
Mora said the effort is not tantamount to militarizing the war on drugs. He said the Defence Department’s role is limited, by law, to monitoring and detection. Law enforcement agents, from the US Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection or other agencies are in charge of some of the busts, he said.
But the US is deploying its own military. Not only is the Fourth Fleet in the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Atlantic, but the Marines were sent to Guatemala last year and the National Guard is in Honduras.
The Obama Administration sees these deployments as important missions with a worthy payoff. Hundreds of thousands of kilogrammes of cocaine are seized every year, and the Defence Department estimates about 850 metric tons of cocaine departed South America last year toward the US, down 20 percent in just a year. A recent survey found cocaine use fell significantly, from 2.4 million people in 2006 to 1.4 million in 2011.
Aboard the Underwood, the crew of 260 was clear on the mission. The ship’s bridge wings bear 16 cocaine “snowflakes” and two marijuana “leaves,” awarded to the Underwood by the Coast Guard command to be “proudly displayed” for its successful interdictions.
Standing on the bridge, Carpio’s team spotted its first bale of cocaine. And then, after two and a half weeks plying the Caribbean in search of drug-traffickers, they spotted another, and then many more.
“In all we found 49 bales,” Carpio said in an interview aboard the ship.
Wrapped in black and white tarp, they were so heavy she could barely pull one out of the water. Later, officials said they’d collected US$27 million worth of cocaine.
The current US strategy began in Colombia in 2000, with an eight-year effort that cost more than US$7 billion to stop the flow from the world’s top cocaine producer. During Plan Colombia, the national police force, working with DEA agents, successfully locked up top drug-traffickers.
But then came “the balloon effect.”
As a result of Plan Colombia’s pressure, traffickers were forced to find new coca-growing lands in Peru and Bolivia, and trafficking routes shifted as well from Florida to the US-Mexico border. Thus the US$1.6-billion, four-year Merida Initiative was launched in 2008. Once more, drug kingpins were caught or killed, and as cartels fought to control trafficking routes, increasingly gruesome killings topped 70,000 in six years.
Mexican cartel bosses, feeling the squeeze, turned to Central America as the first stop for South American cocaine, attracted by weaker governments and corrupt authorities.
“Now, all of a sudden, the tide has turned,” said Brick Scoggins, who manages the Defence Department’s counter-narcotics programmes in the region. “I’d say northern tier countries of El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize have become a key focus area.”
The latest iteration is the US$165 million Central America Regional Security Initiative, which includes Operation Martillo (Hammer), a year-old US-led mission. The operation has no end date and is focused on the seas off Central America’s beach-lined coasts, key shipping routes for 90 percent of the estimated 850 metric tons of cocaine headed to the US.
As part of the operation, 200 US Marines began patrolling Guatemala’s western coast in August, their helicopters soaring above villages at night as they headed out to sea to find “narco-submarines” and shiploads of drugs. The troops also brought millions of dollars’ worth of computers and intelligence-gathering technology to analyze communications between suspected drug dealers.
Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield predicts the balloon effect will play out in Central America before moving to the Caribbean.
The goal, he said, is to make it so hard for traffickers to move drugs to the US that they will eventually opt out of North America, where cocaine use is falling. Traffickers would likely look for easier, more expanding markets, shifting sales to a growing customer base in Europe, Africa and elsewhere in the world.
Brownfield said almost all Peruvian and Bolivian cocaine goes east through Brazil and Argentina and then to Western Europe. Cocaine that reaches North America mostly comes from Colombia, he said, with US figures showing production falling sharply, from 700 metric tons in 2001 to 195 metric tons today — though estimates vary widely.
When the drug war turns bloody, he said, the strategy is working.
“The bloodshed tends to occur and increase when these trafficking organizations, which are large, powerful, rich, extremely violent and potentially bloody... come under some degree of pressure,” he said.
Yet the strategy has often backfired when foreign partners proved too inexperienced to fight drug-traffickers or so corrupt they switched sides.
In Mexico, for example, the US focused on improving the professionalism of the police. But the effort’s success was openly questioned after federal police at Mexico City’s Benito Juárez International Airport opened fire at each other, killing three.
In August critics were even more concerned when two CIA officers riding in a US Embassy SUV were ambushed by Mexican federal police allegedly working for an organized crime group. The police riddled the armoured SUV with 152 bullets, wounding both officers.
The new strategy in Honduras has had its own fits and starts.
Last year, the US Defence Department spent a record US$67.4 million on military contracts in Honduras, triple the 2002 defence contracts there and well above the US$45.6 million spent in neighbouring Guatemala in 2012. The US also spent about US$2 million training Honduran military personnel in 2011, and US$89 million to maintain Joint Task Force Bravo, a 600-member US unit based at Soto Cano Air Base.
Further, neither the State Department nor the Pentagon could provide details explaining a 2011 US$1.3 billion authorization for exports of military electronics to Honduras — although that would amount to almost half of all US arms exports for the entire Western Hemisphere.
In May, on the other side of the country, Honduran national police rappelled from US helicopters to bust drug-traffickers near the remote village of Ahuas, killing four allegedly innocent civilians and scattering locals who were loading some 450 kilogrammes of cocaine into a boat.
The incident drew international attention and demands for an investigation when the DEA confirmed it had agents aboard the helicopters. Villagers spoke of English-speaking commandos kicking in doors and handcuffing locals just after the shooting, searching for drug-traffickers.
Six weeks later, townspeople watched in shock as labourers exhumed the four muddy graves. At each burial site, workers pulled out the decomposing bodies of two women and two young men, and laid them on tarps. Forensic scientists conducted their graveside autopsies in the open air, probing for bullet wounds and searching for signs the women had been pregnant, as villagers had claimed.
Government investigators concluded there was no wrongdoing in the raid. In the subsequent months, DEA agents shot and killed suspects they said threatened them in two separate incidents. Support was also withheld for the national police after it was learned that its new director had been tied to death squads.
As the new year begins, Congress is still withholding an estimated US$30 million in aid to Honduras, about a third of all the US aid slotted for this year.
But there are no plans to rethink the strategy.
Scoggins, the Defence Department’s counter-narcotics manager, said operations in Central America are expected to grow for the next five years.
“It’s not for me to say if it’s the correct strategy. It’s the strategy we are using,” said Scoggins. “I don’t know what the alternative is.”