In an effort to increase its capacity to crack down on Latin American drug syndicates, the U.S. government has set up a handful of DEA commando teams to carry out attacks across Central America and the Caribbean.
As The New York Times reported earlier this week, the so-called FAST teams, which is short for Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team, were initially established in 2008 to go after drug traffickers in Afghanistan, but have since been deployed much closer to home.
“The DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] now has five commando-style squads it has been quietly deploying for the past several years to Western Hemisphere nations — including Haiti, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Belize — that are battling drug cartels, according to documents and interviews with law enforcement officials,” the newspaper writes.
The role of the groups, which each number ten agents, is not one of passive observation. As the Times reports, one of the FAST teams participated in a recent gunfight in Honduras in which two alleged drug traffickers were killed, and one Honduran security official was wounded.
The U.S. government has long played a direct, though covert, role in combating drug traffickers in their home countries, and the FAST teams are in many ways the heir to that tradition.
As Mark Bowden documented in his book Killing Pablo, soldiers with the U.S. Army were instrumental in the effort to track down and ultimately kill Pablo Escobar, the erstwhile head of Colombia’s Medellin Cartel and considered by many to be the most powerful drug trafficker in history. More recently, the DEA played a significant role in the tracking of Mexican boss Arturo Beltran Leyva, who was killed in a shootout with Mexican marines in December 2009. Additionally, a program similar to FAST was used in Peru and Bolivia in the 1980s.
Despite the long history of similar efforts, the deployment of the FAST teams is not without its risks. One is that of a nationalist backlash. While the nations mentioned may not be as automatically suspicious of American designs as Mexico, reports of U.S. agents running around the country are likely to inspire resentment, especially if there is any collateral damage.
U.S. security agencies also have a long history of abuse in Central America. The U.S. military was instrumental in training the death squads that terrorized much of the isthmus during the 1980s, but the widespread ill repute of the gringo empire extends back far longer; American troops carried out scores of occupations of different Central American nations during the 20th century. In one of the more recently disclosed examples of American misconduct, government scientists infected more than 700 Guatemalans with syphilis during the 1940s. The lingering cloud of such a history could make local populations more suspicious of the FAST teams.
Since the FAST teams are also carrying out a training function, it’s worth asking what kind of vetting process will accompany the enhanced skills imparted to the local agents. In the past, U.S.-trained units in Mexico and elsewhere have subsequently deserted so as to work for illegal gangs. The Times report offers no indication of any defections, but nor does it say that there haven’t been any such incidents. Furthermore, the program has only been in place for three years, so this is a problem that could emerge well into the future.
It’s also not clear that the FAST teams represent a significant attempt to address the deeper defects in state function that allow the drug trade to flourish in Central America. While the ability to track a wanted trafficker or win a firefight against superior numbers is both exciting and useful, these are ultimately insignificant compared to the larger obstacles, such as an inefficient trial system, a dysfunctional prison network, a weak labor market, and paltry tax collection. The FAST teams’ training could play a role in creating marginally more capable local security forces, but even in a best-case scenario, with such small teams, the overall impact would be negligible.
Finally, as analysts like James Boswell have pointed out, the lack of openness of the FAST program continues an unfortunate pattern. Time and again in recent years, official schemes to crack down on organized crime have been initiated in a veil of secrecy that is eventually breached, leaving everyone involved with egg on their face. Sometimes, the plan itself is not so horribly conceived–the U.S. drone flights over Mexican territory, which were made public earlier this year, is a good example of that. In other cases, such as the ongoing Fast and Furious scandal, the programs were ill-planned, and the secrecy allowed a poor idea to become a reality.
But in all of the cases, the fallout is worse because the governments initially tried to keep them secret. A bit of secrecy is certainly required in counter-drug operations, but too often, the clandestine nature of a given program stems more from habit than necessity.