CentAm Drug Initiative Boasts Questionable Victories in 5th Year

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The US-backed anti-drug initiative Operation Martillo has been hammering away at drug traffic in Central American waters for over four years, but it is unclear how much of a dent its reported successes have made in organized crime.

Operation Martillo (Spanish for “Hammer”) has been targeting maritime drug trafficking routes along Central America’s coasts since January 15, 2012. It has contributed to the seizure of 693 metric tons of cocaine, $25 million in cash, 581 vessels and aircraft, and has facilitated the arrest of 1,863 people, according to a press release from US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) — the US military’s Combatant Command responsible for Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean.

Led by the Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) South, a component of SOUTHCOM, Operation Martillo involves the permanent presence of ships and aircraft in specific maritime zones “to stop illicit trafficking routes in the coastal waters along the Central American isthmus.” It is a joint effort between US, European and Western Hemisphere nations.

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US Coast Guard Rear Admiral Christopher J. Tomney, the director of JIATF South, said: “The successful whole-of-region approach to halt the flow of cocaine, heroin and other drugs into the region promotes stability, security and well-being of citizens of every country.”

Tomney said Operation Martillo has led to a rise in drug seizures, but added that the most positive outcome has been increased participation of partner nation forces in the fight against transnational organized crime, according to the press release.

InSight Crime Analysis

Portraying seizure statistics as the measure of Operation Martillo’s success presents a limited picture of drug trafficking dynamics in Central America and the Caribbean.

According to the UNODC’s 2015 World Drug Report, cocaine seizures in this region did in fact increase following the launch of Operation Martillo, rising from 78 tons in 2012 to 162 tons in 2013.

Increased drug interdiction frequently leads to a phenomenon known as the “balloon effect” — whereby pressure in one area prompts traffickers to shift their activities to another region. Indeed, US officials have consistently warned that stepped up enforcement along the Central American isthmus could result in a revival of Caribbean trafficking routes favored in the 1980s.

Yet it appears that prediction has not panned out. The US State Department’s latest drug report estimated the percentage of cocaine trafficked to the United States through Central America actually increased in recent years, moving from 80 percent in 2012 to 90 percent in 2015.

Costa Rica’s Security Ministry has also predicted a huge increase in the quantity of cocaine trafficked through the country during 2016, although its estimate of 1,700 tons is questionably high, given the UNODC estimated total global cocaine production in 2013 at between 660 and 900 metric tons.

Identifying efforts to improve partner nation capacity under Operation Martillo, perhaps a more sustainable if less tangible measure of success, are also problematic.

In a recent interview, the head of the Honduras’ Armed Forces, General Isaías Álvarez, said criminal tactics in the country have evolved in response to anti-drug efforts, with traffickers moving into less monitored Pacific routes. Álvarez added that authorities’ “meager” resources mean they cannot efficiently monitor Honduras’ waters.

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Ultimately, defining Operation Martillo’s success in terms of drug interdiction statistics — and the building of Central American and Caribbean nations’ capacity to conduct a greater share of seizures — is inadequate. This is perhaps a consequence of the State Department’s broader Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) — which funds Operation Martillo — and which some regional experts have suggested has not been achieving its desired aims. Skeptics argue that an excessive focus on military power and drug seizures has meant that other root factors that facilitate drug trafficking, such as corruption, have been overlooked.

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