Why is US Sending Navy Warships to Thwart Drug Smugglers?

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Though described as a strategy to keep traffickers from exploiting the coronavirus pandemic, the US Navy’s recent deployment of warships to the Caribbean was a long time in the making — and is a huge show of firepower to catch cocaine smugglers.

The top US military commander for Latin America said in an April 19 news conference that the deployment of warships and aircraft to the region for anti-narcotics operations is aimed at disrupting transnational criminal organizations and should not be seen as a move against Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro.

But Venezuela’s involvement in drug smuggling will be a focus of interdiction efforts, said Adm. Craig Faller, head of US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). Though he did not provide specific numbers, Faller said drugs transiting Venezuela had increased 50 percent in recent years.

SEE ALSO: Venezuela News and Profile

“That makes the narcotraffickers who work in and out of Venezuela a target for our disruption, dismantlement, and defeat operations like any other transnational criminal organization,” he said.

The deployment was first announced at an April 1 White House briefing. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said then that the naval deployment would double SOUTHCOM’s capacity to conduct anti-drug operations in the region. The phalanx of naval assets that will take part in the mission include destroyers, littoral combat ships, Coast Guard cutters, P-8 patrol aircraft, helicopters, and surveillance drones.

“Transnational criminal organizations continue to threaten our security by smuggling cocaine, fentanyl, methamphetamines and other narcotics across our borders,” Esper said, adding that “corrupt actors, like the illegitimate Maduro regime in Venezuela, rely on the profits derived from the sale of narcotics to maintain their oppressive hold on power.”

Maduro and other high-ranking Venezuelan officials have been indicted on charges of narco-terrorism, conspiracy, drug trafficking and corruption.

At the April 1 briefing, President Donald Trump said the deployment was necessary to prevent international traffickers from using the pandemic to smuggle drugs into the United States. Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley echoed the commander-in-chief, saying that intelligence had shown that drug cartels were “going to try to take advantage of the situation,” though he did not specify how.

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While in line with SOUTHCOM officials’ longstanding call for the Navy to beef up its presence in Latin America, the kind of firepower now being deployed is expensive for counterdrug operations — and is not the most effective, either.

The Navy gets involved in counterdrug operations largely when its ships are free from its usual missions of providing wartime assistance, protecting the United States, and maintaining a presence against bad actors at sea.

In the late 1980s, as the Cold War wound down, the US Navy first directed submarines and frigates to the Caribbean, said Bryan Clark, a naval operations expert and senior fellow at Hudson Institute, a DC-based think tank. The ships — no longer needed to monitor Russian fleets — were repurposed to interdict maritime drug traffickers at a time when Colombian cartels were moving huge amounts of cocaine to the United States.

In the past two decades, though, deployments of naval ships to the region have decreased severely because of stretched military budgets and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Navy’s involvement in Latin America “ebbs and flows,” Clark said.

It last provided frigates for anti-drug missions in 2015. In December 2017, however, then-Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer wrote a memo to Adm. John Richardson arguing that Navy ships had a deterrent effect on drug transportation and that they must be restored “now,” according to a Navy Times report.

Two years later, Faller told Congress in a 2019 statement that only six percent of known maritime drug movements were interdicted, and that achieving better results required “additional ships and maritime patrol aircraft.”

Faller and others high-ranking officials have touted the Navy’s newly constructed fleet of littoral combat ships — vessels capable of reaching speeds of 40 knots and of hosting helicopters, as well as military-grade drones — as being a fit for anti-drug missions in Latin America.

These ships and other newer vessels — such as Spearhead-class expeditionary fast transport vessels — are useful for command operations and providing surveillance, Clark said. But the vessels were built for much more than counterdrug missions. Costing $655 million each — triple the budgeted cost — the littoral combat ships are designed for surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, mine warfare and ship defense. Their rocky history includes the Pentagon’s top tester telling Congress that the fleet of eight ships was incapable of completing a 30-day mission, the Washington Examiner reported.

The expeditionary fast transport vessels cost about $130 million each and are meant to move marines and aircraft around in combat environments.

“Using them in the Caribbean is sort of overkill,” Clark said. “They are military-grade and that makes them more expensive. It also makes them more survivable but you are not expecting drug runners to have torpedoes.”

SOUTHCOM assets deploying to the Caribbean

The benefit of deploying Navy ships in counterdrug operations is they can react quickly to intelligence, such as information about a large shipment of cocaine or weapons, Clark said.

But as a deterrent to typical drug smuggling in go-fast boats, they are less effective. A single ship with a helicopter can likely cover a radius of 50 miles, or at most 100 miles, he added.

Clark also pointed out that the ships are also expensive to operate, and deployments must be short because of fueling and other constraints. Operating a destroyer for three months — the typical length of these missions — costs at least $15 million.

“That’s a significant chunk of money to spend to have one ship to go down to SOUTHCOM for drug interdiction for a few months,” he said. “They will probably capture some stuff but it’s not going to be a huge impact.”

With discussion of the Maduro regime profiting from drug trafficking at the April 1 briefing, officials seemed to imply that that the Navy deployment was to combat smuggling in the Caribbean Sea off Venezuela’s coast. Gen. Milley even said that ships were in the “Caribbean right now.”

Drug smuggling in the Caribbean has surged in recent years, jumping from 39 metric tons in 2011 to 185 metric tons in 2017, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s 2019 National Drug Threat Assessment.

SEE ALSO: Caribbean News and Profile

Still, the majority of drugs smuggled to the United States by sea move along the Pacific, not the Caribbean. In its previous threat assessment, the DEA reported that at least 84 percent of cocaine departing South America transited the Pacific in 2017.

Since announcing the deployment, Trump and other officials have lauded drug seizures in the Pacific as part of the operation, including the seizure of 1,700 pounds of cocaine by the Coast Guard. Guardsmen captured the drugs when they intercepted a fishing boat off Costa Rica’s coast. This type of interdiction effort, using high-speed cutters, has occurred for years.

Adm. Faller spoke little about drug trafficking in his annual posture statement to Congress in January, though he did mention that successful interdiction of maritime drug movements had increased to nine percent.

He mostly spoke about China’s and Russia’s growing influence in the region and warned that “Maduro and his cronies in Venezuela pose one of the most direct threats to security and peace in the Western Hemisphere.” He also mentioned that a littoral combat ship had conducted a “freedom-of-navigation” operation close to Venezuela’s coastline in January.

“These will be gamechangers,” he said.

According to Clark, SOUTHCOM officials’ press for naval ships is partly to project US presence in Latin America and is not a signal that the US is planning a military attack on Venezuela.

“In theory, they could launch Tomahawk (missiles) but there doesn’t seem to be any reason to do that. They couldn’t really mount an invasion because they don’t have anybody on board to do the invading,” he said.

Adam Isacson, director of the Washington Office on Latin America’s Defense Oversight Program, told InSight Crime that while Trump and defense officials took “pains to portray this as drug traffickers responding to the coronavirus, which is just wacky,” it’s more about saber-rattling at Maduro. He pointed to the long period for which the Navy had not had ships permanently based in the region.

“The only thing that is different now is Venezuela and the desire to put the screws on them,” he explained.

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