Multi-national force cranks up pressure on smugglers

U.S. Coast Guard photo U.S. Coast Guard team captures a cocaine-laden semi-submersible in the eastern Pacific last April 15.

Four U.S. Navy frigates are among those vessels patrolling the Central American coastal waters as part of a stepped-up U.S., European, and Western Hemisphere effort against drug trafficking.

In addition, U.S. patrol planes from Whidbey Island, Washington, have been based in El Salvador to watch the sea lanes. The Royal Netherlands Navy also is patrolling with aircraft.

According to the U.S. southern Command, the U.S. contribution to the multinational detection, monitoring and interdiction operation includes U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels, aircraft from U.S. federal law enforcement agencies, and military and law enforcement units from various nations working together. The goal is to deny transnational criminal organizations the ability to exploit these transshipment routes for the movement of narcotics, precursor chemicals, bulk cash, and weapons along Central American shipping routes, the command said.

The effort, called Operation Martillo, began earlier this month. It represents an increase in law enforcement presence in both oceans. Martillo is Spanish for hammer.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, in charge of the Southern Command, said that 80 percent of the cocaine destined for U.S. markets is transported via sea lanes, primarily using littoral routes through Central America.

Costa Rica is not participating in the operation. In addition to the United States, 12 countries are participating: Britain, Canada, Belize, Colombia, El Salvador, France, Guatemala, Honduras, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Panamá, and Spain.

Joint Interagency Task Force South, a component of the U.S. Southern Command, was able to stop 119 metric tons of cocaine before it reached the United States last year. Elements of the task force also were able to stop $21 million in cash headed into Central and South America as well as $16 million in black market goods, said the Southern Command. The U.S. frigates assigned to the operation are the Ingraham, Elrod, McClusky and the Nicholas, said the command and the U.S. 4th Fleet. The ships are patrolling both in the Pacific and the Caribbean.

Typically, U.S. military personnel are involved in supporting maritime operations in international waters, where U.S. Navy ships and helicopters patrol and intercept suspected traffickers, the command pointed out.

The actual boarding, searching, seizures and arrests are conducted by U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement detachments or law enforcement agencies from other nations.

There have been no encounters reported with drug traffickers yet during the operation.

Costa Rica is in the middle of the drug trafficking routes. Smugglers use several techniques. One involves landing drugs on both Costa Rican coasts and then arranging for this shipment north by truck. That requires getting by the checkpoint at Peñas Blancas and other border crossings further north.

With beefed up security on land, more and more smuggling operations are using semi-submersible craft and true submarines. These are hard to detect. Military units in Colombia sometimes find partly constructed submarines in isolated jungle areas. They cost in excess of $2 million, although some may make more than one trip. Others are abandoned at the end of the voyage or sunk.

Costa Rica’s Servicio Nacional de Guardacostas does not really have vessels for prolonged ocean patrols. Recent acquisitions include two fast boats that are supposed to be equal to the surface boats being used by smugglers.

The stepped up effort in both oceans comes at a time when leaders in some Central American countries are debating the decriminalization of drugs, something the United States strongly opposes. Costa Rica’s legislature has declined to give routine permission for U.S. Navy vessels to enter the nation’s ports for shore leave and resupply.

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