Dropping The Hammer

Dropping The Hammer

By Dialogo
July 01, 2012

For drug traffickers, moving cocaine from South America to Central America is a
matter of exploiting weaknesses. By sea, go-fast boats and semisubmersibles race toward the
isthmus, hugging the coast until they find the opportunity to hand off their goods or an
opening to reach land. By air, prop planes fly in wide arcs around the airspace of countries
that can track them, destined for remote landing strips far out of range of security forces.
At the Central American Security Conference (CENTSEC), held from April 18-19, 2012, in San
Salvador, El Salvador, leaders from across the isthmus gatherted to discuss shared threats
and the strategies that are succeeding.
In support of the Central American Regional Security Initiative and the Central
American Integration System, Operation Martillo, or “hammer,” launched on January 15, 2012,
as one such successful strategy designed to stop drug traffickers from using Central
America’s littoral routes. The operation includes U.S. military participation through the
Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF-South), a component of SOUTHCOM.
Operation Martillo and other complimentary partner nations and interagency
operations have resulted in a 39 percent overall reduction in air flights, with a 49 percent
reduction of air flights into Central America. It has also caused noticeable changes to
maritime trafficking patterns, with participants seizing 30 vessels and detaining 102
suspected traffickers, with 52 metric tons seized or disrupted by June 2012.

“It’s the first time we tried to synchronize air, land and sea to counter
transnational criminal organization efforts across the entire isthmus,” JIATF-South
director, Rear Admiral Charles Michel, told Diálogo at CENTSEC 2012.
The new approach acknowledges that transnational criminal organizations cannot be
defeated by one nation. Rather, just as drug traffickers attempt to take advantage of
international boundaries, international partners must utilize effective and efficient
relationships to stop them. “Operation Martillo is a clear example of searching for
integration strategies of our countries,” General César Adonay Acosta, head of the Joint
General Staff of the Salvadoran Armed Forces, told Diálogo at CENTSEC. With drug sales
rivaling the GDPs of some countries in the region, state stability and citizen security are
at risk if countries in the hemisphere go it alone. “Narco-activity and drug trafficking
from the south to north in our countries generates incalculable levels of violence.”

Stopping Narco-Violence

Countries in what is known as the “Northern Tier” of Central America – El Salvador,
Guatemala and Honduras – are the most affected by drug trafficking according to the the 2012
International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, an annual report by the U.S. Department of
State. Nonetheless, the assessment shows that the repercussions impact every country on the
narcotrafficking corridor.

“Our countries, we all know, are transit countries that narcotraffickers are taking
advantage of to conduct their operations,” said General René Osorio, chairman of the Joint
Staff of the Honduran Armed Forces. Honduras has the distinction of having captured the
first drug trafficking semisubmersible in the Caribbean, with help from the U.S., retrieving
some 6.7 metric tons of cocaine in July 2011.
General Helmuth René Casados, chief of the Joint Staff of Guatemala, said his
country is focusing on bolstering citizen security by closing porous borders and
neutralizing another threat that has intensified in recent years, the drug trafficking
organization Los Zetas. Gen. Casados said that new ideas, new projects and creativity are
the mark of regional security plans discussed at CENTSEC 12, the Conference of Central
American Armed Forces (CFAC, for its Spanish acronym) and other international forums. “In
our planning process, we are always taking into account that plans are flexible, versatile,
and nothing is final,” he said.

Territorial Penetration

The drug-fighting strategy in Nicaragua, Central America’s largest country by land
mass, is known as “Muro de Contención” (Containment Wall). The whole-of-government approach
strives to prevent drug traffickers from penetrating national territory, whether by land or
sea, and put in place the legal mechanisms to imprison traffickers. To achieve this end,
Nicaragua has instituted new laws to strengthen its legal framework; its border commanders
meet regularly with their counterparts in border nations and its Navy communicates with the
U.S. Coast Guard to execute enhanced counter drug operations off its coasts. “In Operation
Martillo, we have had success. It has allowed us to develop joint operations principally in
the maritime realm, participating dynamically with [U.S.] Southern Command,” said Brigadier
General Adolfo Zepeda, director of military intelligence and counterintelligence of the
Nicaraguan Army.

Other nations, such as Honduras, have put into place operations focused on
destroying clandestine runways that have allowed traffickers departing from Venezuela and
Colombia to use their territory for drug storage and transit. Operation Armadillo identified
between 30 and 35 runways during its initial phase in February-March 2012. In that time
frame, and in cooperation with the U.S., it destroyed 13 through the use of helicopters
departing from forward operating bases, Special Forces and “Sappers,” or engineers
specialized in explosives. “This has brought about a reduction in narcotrafficking in this
area that has been seen positively by national authorities and cooperating nations,” said
Gen. Osorio.

Anticipating Change

Military leaders in Central America have another concern: If they don’t act
decisively and collaboratively, drug traffickers and gangs may unite and strengthen. Some
say this union has already started, calling the actors “baby cartels,” while others refer to
it as the “narco-gang” threat, and underscore the danger of having gangs evolve into
powerful, sophisticated cartels that can challenge state stability.
Armed forces in the region enjoy strong popular support, with militaries in
Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua ranking high in polls, according to military leaders. This
citizen support, backed by political will, gives the military the authority to take bold
action against transnational organized crime. “Traffickers are nimble, but they’re not
omnipotent,” JIATF-South’s Rear Adm. Michel said. “They’re businessmen. When enough pain is
enough for a businessman, I don’t know the answer to that.”
Sources: The Miami Herald, McClatchy Washington Bureau, http://nuevaya.com.ni