In The War on Drugs, Even Small Victories Are Celebrated
It is a cat-and-mouse game here in a region rife with illicit narcotics trafficking by air and by sea. In 2006, an estimated 530 to 710 metric tons of cocaine departed South America toward the United States, the Interagency Assessment of Cocaine Movement reports. Even though the Defense Department regularly dispatches some of its most prized weapons systems — including this E-3 Sentry aircraft — to battle the problem, more often than not, the mice appear to be winning.
The United States for years has been fighting the $400 billion illicit drug trade, but despite its efforts, about 17,000 Americans continue to lose their lives to illegal drugs annually. “That’s equivalent to one World Trade Center event every two-and-a-half months,” says Lt. Gen. Norman Seip, 12th Air Force and Air Forces Southern commander, who oversees Air Force assets and civil and military engagements in Central and South America as well as the Caribbean.
Not only does the drug trade kill people but it also creates a great deal of corruption and undermines legitimate governments throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, says Coast Guard Rear Adm. Joseph Nimmich, director of the Joint Interagency Task Force-South, the U.S. counternarcotics command center based in Key West, Fla. “All these countries are embattled by drug cartels, primarily because of the demand for cocaine and the funds that are generated by cocaine,” he says. “Our responsibility to help them fight the narcotraffickers is a key one, because it’s our demand that allows these things to exist in the first place.”
Stopping the flow of drugs has been the focus of the task force’s counternarcotics endeavors here. An estimated 200 metric tons of cocaine travel annually through Venezuela en route to North America and to Europe. Because of its geographical location and lax counterdrug enforcement, Venezuela has become a focal point for drug cartels, says Nimmich.
Twenty percent of the narcotrafficking goes by air, while 80 percent transits by various maritime methods.
Drug runner flights depart daily from South America and head toward Central America, the Caribbean islands and even West Africa. More than 90 percent of these flights originate in Venezuela. A couple tons of cocaine easily are transported in aircraft ranging from luxury corporate jets to small propeller planes, officials say.
The Defense Department helps to detect and monitor illicit trafficking with aircraft and vessels traditionally flown or sailed in shooting wars. But in this battle, they aren’t allowed to fire a bullet. Any suspicious vehicles are reported to U.S. law enforcement agencies and local authorities, says Nimmich.
Only the law enforcement agencies of partner nations are authorized to prosecute drug smugglers, he says.
Aboard the E-3, the radar shows what appears to be typical evening air traffic in the region, the surveillance crew explains to a National Defense reporter. The plane, known as the airborne warning and control system, or AWACS, is headed into the Caribbean where the team will look at historical routes that narcotics runners favor. There, the crew will monitor hundreds of aircraft during its flight to see whether any exhibit traits commonly associated with drug traffickers.
“It’s a process of elimination,” says Capt. Kim McClain of the 970th Expeditionary Airborne Air Control Squadron.
The basic skills required for the mission are the same as what the crew would use in combat, but the flow and volume of tracking is different in counterdrug operations, says Lt. Col. Stephen Seaman, commander of the 513th Operations Support Flight, based at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. The crew of mostly reservists is nearing the end of its 120-day rotation at Curacao, where the Air Force maintains several small facilities and shares runways with the international airport.
“It’s been pretty busy. We have seen a lot of traffic,” says Master Sgt. Clifford Pigford, a surveillance technician.
An hour into the mission, the team spots an air track that is not “squawking,” or transmitting a normal signal to air traffic control. They flag it as a potential drug runner and relay the information to the command center. Within minutes, it is identified as another U.S. military plane, a P-3 Orion.
If it had been a suspected runner, the E-3 would have continued monitoring while the task force launched an interceptor, Senior Master Sgt. D.J. Hutton explains. He would help guide the interceptor in to tail the suspect aircraft. The command center would then either dispatch a helicopter from Puerto Rico or contact the appropriate partner nation to deploy a response team, Nimmich says.
“It’s pretty neat when the pieces fall into the puzzle,” Hutton says.
But a successful interdiction like that happens only 5 percent of the time. In most cases, there is great difficulty in having a response team interdict the drop in time, if at all.
“We’re lucky we have 5 percent,” Nimmich says. “We have very limited assets, and the coordination of those steps is extraordinarily time-sensitive and difficult … It really has to come together perfectly.”
Still, 5 percent is an increase in the success rate, he points out. Two years ago, the task force nabbed drug runners only 2 percent of the time.
The low success rate doesn’t seem to bother the AWACS crew. While the airmen like hearing that their work has led to a capture on the ground, they don’t view their unprosecuted targets as exercises in futility. Any information gathered is valuable, they say.
“We’re building that intelligence file,” says Hutton. “It’s still beneficial, even if we don’t catch them in the end.”
Most of the successful interdictions take place in Hispaniola — the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic — where the task force relies on nearby U.S. assets, such as a Customs and Border Protection helicopter that is made available to local officials, Nimmich says.
Nimmich adds that he’s trying to model other efforts on the successes they’ve had in the Dominican Republic, which is the only Caribbean nation that has adequate response capabilities in place to handle drug interdictions.
Having enough forces is only one problem. One of the toughest is figuring out where the aircraft will make the drop, says Nimmich. The drop zone is often in water near an awaiting vessel. “They also have more than one drop zone waiting for them, so if we’re moving toward one drop zone, they’ll go to their alternate drop zone,” he says.
Evading the authorities is something that the drug lords have become quite adept at.
“Drug trafficking organizations are very adaptive,” says Coast Guard Rear Adm. Robert Parker, director of security and intelligence at U.S. Southern Command, based in Miami. “As long as the demand signal is there, and there’s a high profit to be made, there’s a good chance we’re going to be a half a step behind it in reacting to that.”
Such has been the case on the ocean, where the bulk of drugs are transported. Seafaring drug traffickers have found plenty of ways to remain elusive.
One method is to transport the drugs underwater, in small submarine-like vessels. These so-called “semi-submersibles” can accommodate six to 10 tons of cocaine, much more than a single engine aircraft that carries only 450 to 500 kilos, or a half metric ton, of cocaine, or a go-fast boat that moves about 2,000 kilos, or two metric tons.
Constructed of fiberglass and even steel, semi-submersibles are built in the jungles of Colombia, where the triple-canopy foliage shields them from detection by the most sophisticated sensors. The vessels glide just beneath the surface of the water, like a snorkeling submarine, and evade radar.
“If you can’t see their wake, they’re very difficult to detect. You have to really be right on top of them to be able to see, and even then you might miss them altogether,” says Parker.
Often, pilots or aircrew must scan the water with their eyes to spot the semi-submersible’s wake. “They’re designed to thrive extraordinarily low in the water, so other than the wake, there’s little capability for sensors to detect them,” says Nimmich. “That’s why they use cocaine as ballast to get them low in the water.”
The number of semi-submersibles has been growing in recent years. The latest estimate puts the total count at 65 to 80 vessels worldwide. “We think that’s probably the maximum number they need to move the amount of cocaine that they intend to move by semi-submersible,” says Nimmich. Of that number, the Colombians destroyed eight during construction and the task force has interdicted another eight.
The vessels have extended range and they are being built to larger sizes. The average length is 85 feet, and some are thought to be 100 feet or longer, says Parker.
Last September, the task force interdicted two semi-submersibles off the coast of Costa Rica, says Nimmich. Authorities managed to seize one of the vessels, which was modeled upon a sailboat hull. The 65-foot long vessel carried seven tons of cocaine and four operators.
The U.S. Congress in October outlawed the use of semi-submersibles in international waters, unless they are registered with a state. The rule gives law enforcement agencies more authority to prosecute violators. That, however, will solve only part of the problem.
Semi-submersibles account for 30 percent of the flow of narcotics by sea, while go-fast boats account for 47 percent. The rest transit via shipping containers, or on bulk ships that pick up the loads at sea, says Nimmich.
“We’ve seen a slight increase in go-fasts going across the eastern Caribbean islands, originating from Venezuela, going up to Grenada and following the chain up to U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico,” he says. They are departing from many different countries and are running more frequently, with smaller, multiple loads.
Drug runners who used to operate identifiable maritime support vessels have switched to the smaller, faster boats that can sprint up the coast to Central America, usually at night. “They’ll go from Colombia to Panama, Panama to Costa Rica, Costa Rica into Guatemala,” says Nimmich.
To chase down the go-fasts requires speed — something that law enforcement agencies lack, says Parker. The boats are able to outrun Coast Guard cutters, so officials have looked for other alternatives. They found a potential solution in an experimental M-shaped hull ship, called Stiletto, that the Defense Department has been testing. During a trial in Colombia, the crew happened upon a migrant-smuggling go-fast and gave chase. The smugglers zipped out across the keys to evade the ship but to no avail. They eventually surrendered, Parker says.
Maritime smuggling has officials worried for other reasons. Not being able to thwart drug traffickers raises concerns that others may begin exploiting similar methods for more nefarious purposes.
“The go-fasts we have interdicted have carried weapons, money, as well as cocaine,” says Nimmich. “These are avenues that drug cartels have proven are very successful, and there should be no reason for us not to think that terrorist organizations or others wouldn’t look at how they’ve operated … Semi-submersibles have never been seen carrying anything other than cocaine, but they certainly could carry something other than cocaine.”
The U.S. drug warriors are seeing some fruit from their labors. The task force in late 2008 was on a trend to seizing more drugs than it did in 2007.
“I attribute it to an effective use of the U.S. intelligence program, giving me better opportunities to understand what the drug cartels are doing, how they’re moving them, and even cueing information on when they’re moving,” says Nimmich.
There is further evidence of the effort making a dent in the war on drugs. U.S. demand has dropped in part because the price of cocaine and methamphetamine has increased dramatically in the past two years while the purity of the drugs has decreased, reports the Drug Enforcement Administration. The price per pure gram of cocaine from January 2007 to September 2008 increased 89 percent, from $96.61 to $182.73 while purity decreased 32 percent, from 67 to 46 percent.
“These price and purity trends are not just an immediate reaction from a single enforcement operation, but the result of continuous and persistent progress DEA is making in concert with our international and domestic partners,” says acting administrator Michele M. Leonhart. “We are crippling the world’s leading drug networks, and these prolonged trends confirm that we have disrupted the illicit drug supply chain and U.S. market for cocaine and meth.”
However, the statistics may not be a reflection of the elimination of drug flow into the United States. It could just mean that the drugs are flowing to different markets — primarily to Europe and Asia, where demand has been on the increase.
Spain has surpassed the United States as the highest per capita user of cocaine. In London, a kilo of cocaine fetches $60,000 and in the Middle East the price can reach as high as $90,000 to $100,000.
“The unfortunate trend is [that] there is a growing amount of cocaine making its way across the Atlantic and into Europe,” says Parker.
Because there is the perception of anti-drug measures not making enough of a difference to merit the investment, some are questioning why the U.S. military is being burdened with these tasks when there are more pressing crises in the world.
“The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a rising China, a resurgent Russia, you name it — there are so many challenges that this doesn’t always rise to the highest levels,” agrees Nimmich. “That said, by ignoring it, it will rise to the highest levels, and with a little bit of continued focus, we can continue to have success and not let it grow to become one of those challenges that become overwhelming.”
Some critics argue against allowing assets, such as the E-3, to fight the war on drugs when they are needed elsewhere. But proponents say that if the aircraft are available, then they ought to be used.
“If the military has the skills and the ability to contribute to a national priority, then it makes sense to use the military,” says William L. Nash, adjunct senior fellow for military affairs and director of the military fellows program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Air Force says that it can provide the necessary platforms without sapping other operations. “We have to prioritize and take risk out there, but I will tell you that the AWACS is fine,” says Seip.
Sixty percent of the task force’s aviation assets come from the Department of Homeland Security, not the Defense Department, points out Nimmich. But because most of the DHS assets are maritime patrol aircraft, he must rely on the military to provide additional resources to fill in the gaps.
“Only the DoD has the capability of giving me a picture of the sky, and that’s how we are able to do some of our tracking of air targets,” he says.
The E-3 is “a very capable asset that’s a critical part of our fight,” he adds. “While it’s an expensive piece of equipment, it does suit a niche in here that’s valuable to us.”
Though only 20 percent of the cocaine is moving by air, the more success the drug runners have flying, the more likely they’re going to pursue that path, Nimmich reasons.
But he also recognizes that these military aircraft are high-demand assets that could be taken away from the mission at any time.
“We’re working heavily to try to find ways to utilize other capabilities,” he says. “If I can get better at harnessing some of the information the intelligence community has, I might not need to fly as many hours to be able to find what I’m looking for.”
That in part is why U.S. officials increasingly are turning to international partners to fight the narcotrafficking.
“It’s an international problem that requires an international solution,” says the State Department’s Timothy Dunn, U.S. chief of mission to the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba. Speaking to reporters at the U.S. consulate in Curacao, he says that drugs are problematic in the region and that all the nations, whether they have the right types of assets, are obligated to help counter drug trafficking. “We can’t do it alone. It’s a global problem.”
Despite an open invitation for liaison officers at the task force headquarters in Florida, cooperation from Venezuela on counterdrug missions is near zero, officials say.
“They’re not being particularly helpful right now,” says Parker. “Our military-to-military relations with Venezuela are very strained.” Three years ago, the country’s president, Hugo Chavez, booted the DEA from its borders, which has made the counternarcotics missions problematic. “It’s making a very permissive environment down there for drugs,” Parker says.
Though Venezuela reports that its authorities are interdicting more narcotics traffickers and destroying illicit airfields in the southwestern part of the country, any evidence of that remains to be seen.
“They may be more active than we realize, but we have not seen a reduction in the number of flights coming out of Venezuela,” says Nimmich.
Colombia, on the other hand, is a huge success story, Parker points out. There, government officials have cracked down on cocaine labs, seized drugs and set forth measures to eradicate coca, the plant from which cocaine is derived. “It clearly has a long way to go, and the problem is far from gone. But now is not the time to abandon our best friend in the region down there,” he says.
European nations have stepped up to the plate to help out. “They realize that this is an international issue. This isn’t just stopping the drugs from going into the United States. This is stopping drugs coming out of the Caribbean,” says Lt. Col. Otto Habedank, commander of the 429th Expeditionary Operations Squadron at Forward Operating Location Curacao, where the United States has based surveillance aircraft since an agreement was signed in 2000.
Forces from France and the United Kingdom, along with the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard, rotate units through for counternarcotics missions. Last year, they collectively helped to interdict $4.1 billion worth of cocaine, marijuana and heroin and intercepted more than 200 metric tons of cocaine, he says.
The cooperative security location is ideal for the mission and when its lease is up in 2011, officials hope that it will be renewed. “I get more on-scene flight time there than I would in Puerto Rico,” says Nimmich. A similar forward operating location in Manta, Ecuador, is closing this year because the lease was not renewed. It, too, hosted surveillance aircraft for counternarcotics missions. “The reach that you get from there, out to the deep east Pacific is hard to get from anywhere else, just because of the geography and distances involved. So making that up is going to be hard,” Parker says.
Curacao might be able to compensate, but it’s not the ideal location for covering the eastern Pacific because four hours of a 12-hour mission would be wasted in transit, says Habedank. Part of the lengthy travel time is because there is a no-fly zone over Venezuela. “If we were better friends with Venezuela, we might be able to cut an hour off,” he says.
There has been growing anti-American sentiment in some areas of Latin America. In recognition of that, U.S. officials have adopted a policy to tread softly and continue bolstering those nations’ counternarcotics programs. “These are sovereign countries. We should not dictate how they go about it, but we should help them where we can,” says Nimmich.
He intends to boost the helicopter lift capability out of Puerto Rico with additional aircraft in an effort to help partner nations interdict more drugs. But he also wants to help them create their own capabilities so they don’t have to rely so much on U.S. forces.