Interagency Task Force Mounts Aggressive Counter-drug Effort
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Interagency Task Force Mounts Aggressive Counter-drug Effort

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

KEY WEST, Fla. , May 30, 2012 – The interdiction of a drug-trafficking speedboat carrying almost 5,000 pounds of cocaine with a street value of more than $363 million played out like a motion-picture thriller.

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Colombian naval forces arrest alleged drug traffickers May 6, 2012 and net 5,000 pounds of cocaine. U.S. Navy photo
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The action followed a carefully choreographed script, from the moment U.S. Customs and Border Protection pilots spotted the speedboat El Kike on May 6 from their P-3 Orion aircraft. They passed the mission to USS Nicholas, a guided-missile frigate patrolling the region with an embarked U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement team. Nicholas dispatched a helicopter to track the speedboat, while maneuvering into position to intercept.

El Kike’s crew, recognizing their plight, jettisoned half of their cargo, then adjusted course and hit the throttle toward Colombia.

Nicholas followed, while calling on the USS McClusky, an Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate, and the Colombian navy ship ARC 20 de Julio operating nearby for assistance. McClusky launched a helicopter to maintain surveillance, diverting El Kike it into Colombian territorial waters, where the Colombian navy intercepted it.

“With the help of some friends, we accomplished what we set out to do: disrupt the drug trade,” said Navy Cdr. Stephen Fuller, Nicholas’ commanding officer. “Interdictions are challenging, but with the help of McClusky, [U.S.] Customs and the Colombian navy, we executed a successful operation.”

It was latest in a recent string of operational successes for the Joint Interagency Task Force South and its regional partners since they kicked off an aggressive counterdrug effort earlier this year.

In a small, largely symbolic gesture of pride, the JIATF staff hoisted their “cocaine flag” outside their headquarters here to mark the second of many successful interdictions this month. Fluttering in the tropical breezes, it offered a tangible expression to members of what Coast Guard Rear Adm. Charles D. Michel, the task force commander, calls “the most effective and efficient counter-illicit trafficking, detection, monitoring and law enforcement organization the planet has ever known.”

Last year alone, JIATF South facilitated the interdiction of 117 metric tons of cocaine, Michel reported. That’s 58 percent of all cocaine seized in the East Pacific and Caribbean transit zones last year. It’s almost six times the net of all U.S. law enforcement border apprehensions -- the efforts of federal, state, city and tribal efforts combined, he noted. Collectively, they netted 20 metric tons.

“We are the most efficient cocaine removal organization that I am aware of, by far,” Michel said. “The taxpayer gets a huge bang for the buck down here, through the interdiction of cocaine, the protection of our neighbors, the stability of the hemisphere and the protection of our citizens on the street.”

Sitting with American Forces Press Service, Michel and his vice director, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agent John Murphy Jr., said they’re convinced these seizures still amount to just 25 percent of the cocaine trade trafficking through the region.

To put a greater squeeze on the traffickers, JIATF South launched Operation Martillo, which translated, means “Operation Hammer,” in January. The mission specifically targets illicit trafficking routes in coastal waters along the Central American Isthmus -- the route for more than 90 percent of the cocaine destined for the United States.

“Operation Martillo is designed to take pressure off these Central American countries,” Michel said. Particularly in the northern triangle area of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, “thousands of their citizens are being murdered,” he said. “Government officials are being corrupted. Institutions are being rotted from the inside out. Portions of their territory are no longer effectively under their control.”

“That is instability,” the admiral said, “and that is a national security threat, right in our backyard.”

Operation Martillo represents “a different way of doing business in employing this entire enterprise to achieve a strategic effect,” Michel said. “And that strategic effect is to protect Central America from these [drug] flows currently causing all the murder, death, destruction, corruption.”

While all trafficking causes concern, Michel called the lucrative cocaine trade the No. 1 threat. “Cocaine is king down here,” he said, with transnational criminal organizations running an $88 billion-a-year global market.

The incredibly high profit margin -- an estimated $84 billion -- funds everything these groups need to support their efforts: fleets of aircraft, go-fast boats, semi-submersible vessels and increasingly, fully submersible vessels, he said. It also allows them to operate with near impunity in many parts of the region as they buy off government officials and intimidate or kill anyone who stands in their way.

“There are tens of thousands of Central Americans being murdered each year because of drug trafficking,” Michel said. “It is a shocking statistic to me. And it’s also shocking because it doesn’t get the attention that it should.”

Michel contrasted the huge resources available to drug traffickers with those of regional governments that seek to counter them. “Those guys are just outgunned and outspent by the traffickers,” Michel said. “These are organizations of such magnitude that they can actually challenge nation states.”

That makes these organizations and their drug trafficking operations a major national security threat, as reflected in President Barack Obama’s national strategy released in July, Michel said. “The No. 1 cause of regional instability throughout Central America, which is our closest neighbor, is the cocaine trade,” he said. “There is no question about it.”

As the stakes get ever-higher, Michel cited a clear realization that no single nation or agency can stand up to this scourge alone. Partner nations share that recognition, and have participated in 83 percent of all illicit trafficking disruptions since Operational Martillo kicked off in January, he noted.

JIATF South has embraced this inclusive approach since it initially stood up 23 years ago as Joint Task Force 4 as a new model of intergovernmental cooperation.

“This was not an overnight success,” Michel conceded. Members of different governmental organizations had to learn to overcome their different backgrounds, ways of doing business and their historical practices of competing for resources, authorities and responsibilities.

“The No. 1 ingredient that you need in order to make this work is trust, and that only gets built up with time,” he said. “I wish there was an easy way that you could just flash a magic wand and make people trust each other. But coworkers have to learn to work together, to trust that others are going to protect their information, are going to protect their equities and that others are actually going to act as team players.”

More than two decades later, Michel praised JIATF South’s evolution into what has been described as “the gold standard for interagency and international cooperation.”

“In all my travels and experiences working through the government in different forms, this is the best working model of the whole-of-government solution to a problem set I have ever seen that produces consistent results,” he said.

The staff includes representatives of all five armed services, including the National Guard and reserves, members of various federal law enforcement entities, the intelligence community and their counterparts from 13 partner nations.

This brings a wealth of experience to the effort, Michel said. “We can match any capability, competency, authority or partnership that is available in the national inventory to deal with this particular problem set,” he said. “Plus, by leveraging contributions from the international partners, we can make this all work together in this joint international interagency task force that we have put together.”

As JIATF South evolved, Michel said its staff has become “much smarter” about the way it operates. “We achieve results that are magnitudes better than we used to when this first started, with just a fraction of the assets in place,” he said. “And that’s because of the way we leverage all those international and interagency partnerships and capabilities that we bring to the table. That is the power of the whole-of-government approach.”

These capabilities are critical, he said, as traffickers employ increasingly sophisticated methods. Of particular concern is their use of low-profile semi-submersible vessels that are extremely difficult to detect and more recently, submersibles that operate completely underwater.

JIATF South and its partners have confiscated about 30 semi-submersibles so far, with one now positioned on the lawn outside its headquarters building here and another at the U.S. Southern Command headquarters in Miami.

Almost all were discovered operating in the Eastern Pacific. “But this summer, for the first time, we saw them on the Caribbean side, which is a disturbing trend,” Michel said. “That means they have exported that technology to another building area and other people are operating this type of craft.”

Michel reported signs that more evasive submersible vessels have come into favor. The only ones JIATF South has confiscated to date have been discovered on land, but Michel said he’s sure they’re operating underwater.

Looking ahead, Michel called traffickers’ deep pockets and adaptability one of JIATF South’s biggest challenges. “Their conveyances have gotten better, their security procedures are better, they dig themselves more and more into governments, they corrupt more and more and they have become more and more violent in their tactics,” he said. “Our adversary is incredibly nimble.”

But almost as daunting, Michel said, are budget realities that give these adversaries a leg up.

“My No. 2 challenge is the resource challenge, particularly for ships and aircraft,” he said. Michel cited cases when JIATF South had “high-confidence that drugs are moving,” but no law-enforcement assets available to interdict them.

“I can be as smart as I possibly can,” he said, “but if there is no ship or an aircraft to come up with an end game, the traffickers get a free pass.”

Michel said he’ll continue to press for more assets dedicated to the JIATF South mission. “If we had more assets, we would be able to make an even bigger dent into this effort,” he said. “You give me assets, and I’ll show you results.”

Meanwhile, JIATF South will continue to make the most of every capability made available to it.
“We have limited assets, but because of what we have built down here, we can use those limited assets very smartly and achieve results in a magnitude of what we used to get in the past, for just a fraction of the investment,” he said.

(Navy Lt. Matt Phillips from USS Nicholas contributed to this story.)

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