Destroyer Missile Launchers Used in the War against Drug Trafficking
By Dialogo April 04, 2013
At almost 20 knots per hour, the guided-missile frigate USS Thach sails through the equatorial Pacific, a calm sea which is almost a cobalt color at dawn.
Eight days ago, the Thach left Balboa, Panama, with a 240-member crew and an AFP journalists’ team on a new mission of Operation Martillo, the counter drug multinational maneuver launched in January 2012 by the United States, European, Caribbean and Central American countries.
Suddenly the general alarm goes off: gunners take their positions and a Coast Guard special team prepares a rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) to intercept a boat suspected of carrying cocaine.
Men under Eric Watkins’ orders, the Coast Guard chief onboard the warship are tense. From the command position, an officer gives brief orders through loudspeakers. The team reviews their radio equipment and their 9-mm pistols on their waists.
Only the Coast Guard can search intercepted boats: sometimes freighters, sometimes pleasure cruises, fishing boats, or even home-made submersibles made by cartels.
“We board these ships and try to determine if they are carrying smuggled cargo. We search every corner and we try to confirm that there are no secret compartments, since drugs are generally hidden there,” Watkins said.
Time may go by slowly for Sailors at sea; long navigation journeys with nothing to do but patrol. To pass the time the crew performs rescue exercises, tests weapons or follows the old military recipe of painting the boat, which is bashed by saltwater, over and over again.
However, when the “phase 1 alert” signal goes off, the ship goes into war alert in less than half an hour.
Then we feel “less anxious about being away from home, because we know we are doing something positive to protect our families,” James Holm, who has just signed his second four-year contract in the (war) Navy, states.
The suspicious vessel was detected a few hours earlier by patrol aircraft. As the Thach approached, the smugglers threw the drugs overboard and escaped into international waters. The Navy had the consolation of intercepting another 70 kilos of cocaine.
“It makes sense to have such a strong presence south [of the Pacific]”, states Commander Hans Lynch, officer in charge aboard the Thach. He explains that the goal is to intercept the drugs from its departure before it is lost in regional routes.
Among other military assistance programs in Central America – where 90% of the cocaine consumed in the United States comes from -, Operation Martillo is one of the most ambitious efforts ever put forward by Washington in the fight against cartels.
The fight against drug trafficking is considered a “crucial element for the 21st century” by Washington’s Joint Staff, while generals advocate for their budgets in Congress.
General John Kelly, Commander of the U.S. Southern Command, explained that in 2012, just the naval operations that intercepted 200 tons of cocaine cost the U.S. $600 million, a fraction of the money spent during the fiscal year’s exercises in the regional fight against drug trafficking.
With the budget cuts, “all those drugs will reach U.S. shores,” said Kelly.
Since 2006, Mexican cartels changed their modus operandi: they are now using Central America as a stopover, where the weather and some corrupt authorities, allow them to keep several safe havens.
“They use fishing speedboats or ultra fast vessels with one or two engines, capable of transporting up to a ton of cargo. They come from Ecuador or Colombia and make routine stops on the littoral on their way north,” Coast Guard Officer Watkins said.
The Pacific and the Caribbean are under the surveillance of four U.S. ships and six aircraft, as well as units from other countries, especially from Europe (France, Great Britain, and the Netherlands) in Caribbean waters.
Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), thinks that operations like Martillo are a “good tactic: the closer to the sources the drugs are intercepted, the higher the seized amounts,” he concluded.