US military expands its drug war in Latin America
| Martha Mendoza |
NEW YORK (AP) – 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 that 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 drug traffickers was precisely what she’d trained for.
In the most expensive initiative in Latin America since the Cold War, the US has militarised 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, not just for the United States and the Western Hemisphere, but for the world,” he said at a conference on drug policy last year.
The Associated Press examined US arms export authorisations, defense 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 authorised 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 authorised 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, according to federal contract data.
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 per cent 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 militarising 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”.
He intends to reintroduce a proposal for a Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission to evaluate antinarcotics efforts.
“Billions upon billions of US taxpayer dollars have been spent over the years to combat the drug trade in Latin America and the Caribbean,” he said. “In spite of our efforts, the positive results are few and far between.”
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 organised-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 United States.
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’ve found themselves in such a situation that they have to use their militaries in this way,” Mora said.
Mora said the effort is not tantamount to militarising the war on drugs. He said the Defense 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 (pounds) of cocaine are seized en route to the US every year, and the Defense Department estimates about 850 metric tons of cocaine departed South America last year toward the US, down 20 per cent in just a year. The most recent US 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. “It was very impressive to see the bales popping along the water in a row.”
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.