U.S. Southern Command Wants More Ships for War on Drugs

By Dan Parsons

The amount of illegal drugs making their way to the United States from South America is on the rise, despite the military’s best efforts. Unless more ships are made available to help chase drug runners, it will become increasingly difficult to slow them down, said the commander of U.S. Southern Command Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser.
Fraser estimated that he spends about half his time helping partner nations fight “transnational organized crime,” he told reporters March 7 in Washington, D.C. While arms smuggling and human trafficking are key concerns, by far the fastest growing illegal activity is the traffic of narcotics such as cocaine and methamphetamines, he said.
“Do we have enough interceptor vessels? Right now, we do not,” Fraser said. “The capacity to intercept is where we’re really lacking.”
An estimated 1,200 to 1,500 metric tons of illegal drugs are produced in South and Central America each year, Fraser said. Of that, about 60 percent eventually makes it to the United States, the world’s largest consumer of illicit drugs, he said.
“We’re interdicting between 25 percent and 30 percent of what we know about,” Fraser said. Most of the interdiction is done in concert with law enforcement agencies from partner nations in the region, including Colombia, Brazil and Panama, among others. With U.S. forces tied up in the Middle East and supporting the war in Afghanistan, is has become harder for the Navy to supply ships for drug interdiction, he said.
“More [drugs are] getting through because of the availability of assets,” Fraser said. Additional patrol ships would help U.S. military units monitor most of the drug trafficking that crosses into the United States, he said. “We can only find them and follow them if we don’t have a ship to intercept them,” he said. “We are taking all the available assets that the international navies have.”
Further, there is a greater need for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems to hunt drug producers and smugglers. With much of the U.S. military’s ISR inventory supporting the Afghanistan war, Southern Command has access only fleetingly to Air Force Global Hawk aircraft.
In countries like Colombia and Honduras, criminals hide beneath a triple-canopy rain forest through which current sensors cannot penetrate, he Fraser said. “That’s really a [research and development] effort right now. ... We have not gotten to a penetrative capability yet.”
Fraser said he has been pushing regional partners to provide more resources to supplement U.S. efforts.
The ongoing "Operation Hammer" is one example of multi-national cooperation to combat drug smuggling. In 45 days, the operation netted 3.5 metric tons of cocaine, most of which travels to Mexico by boat from Central and South America, then overland into the United States. It has also intercepted about 10 vessels used for smuggling, he said.
“What we’re looking for is larger trends on how these organizations are moving product,” he said. “Our intent is to force the organizations to move differently … push them out into international waters where distances are greater” and more resources can be brought to bear to disrupt traffic.
Fraser pointed to the recent effort by Tehran to hire a Mexican drug cartel hit man to assassinate a Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington, D.C., as the sort of terrorist activity that concerns Southern Command leaders. Iran is known to have contacts with elements of Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which have established toeholds in South American nations. “All those routes offer an opportunity to come into the United States,” Fraser said.

Topics: Homeland Security

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