Generals from the U.S. and Guatemala Discuss Joint Actions against Drug Trafficking

Generals from the U.S. and Guatemala Discuss Joint Actions against Drug Trafficking

By Dialogo
June 04, 2014

In April Guatemala hosted the Central American Security Conference (CENTSEC) for the third time, jointly with the Unites States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). During the ninth meeting of this kind, there were thorough discussions and different presentations of Operation Martillo's successes, achieved thanks to the lessons learned analysis. The way forward towards success was also addressed. At the end, General Rudy Israel Ortiz-Ruiz, Guatemalan Chief of National Defense, and General John Kelly, Commander of SOUTHCOM, gave a press conference to respond to the journalists’ questions. The following are fragments of the conference compiled by Diálogo.

Question: What are the results of Operation Martillo, and what are this year's plans and goals regarding the fight against illegal action and drug trafficking?

GENERAL KELLY: Each country in the region has its own program to counter illicit trafficking, within their own laws and orders by their national authorities, their presidents or government. However, Operation Martillo is focused on the region encompassing Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico. Our partnership is the result of the joint work of nations coordinating their efforts. In reality, Martillo is a partnership with the United States, in which the U.S. and other partner nations' naval ships are used to conduct drug interdictions in large areas of open waters. Even during a time of reduced budgets for all countries, like the present, we are being efficient. And we could be even more efficient if we had additional resources, but true efficiency comes from this partnership.

MAJOR GEN. ORTIZ-RUIZ: In addition to General Kelly's response, I would say that due to interdictions conducted by Operation Martillo in 2012, 2013 and so far in 2014, drug trafficking towards the north of South America has been reduced by 62%. The other 20% goes to Europe and Africa, while 18% passes through the Caribbean, so this is one of the most important achievements since January 2012, with the implementation of Operation Martillo. For us, Operation Martillo has been operational in the Pacific and Atlantic coastlines. Our Atlantic coast is guarded by the Marine Brigade, the Naval Special Forces, and the Caribbean Naval Command. And on the Pacific coast, we have the Naval Special Forces and the Pacific Naval Command, in addition to the U.S. Marines, which are the force that has paved the way for the development of Operation Martillo.

Question: General Ortiz, you are saying there is a strategy behind all this, but I would like you to explain briefly how cooperation is conducted; is there any new instance of cooperation? Has the strategy of this activity changed? If so, are there any improvements or claims? Now, according to General Kelly there is a counter drug strategy that wasn't successful. You were saying that 40% of the drugs that arrive in the United States are seized. Do you think that this strategy should be continued? Or is it time to stop, to think and decide if it's worth doing other things within the strategy, such as the decriminalization promoted by Guatemala or other issues that might come up on the way?

MAJOR GEN. ORTIZ-RUIZ: Regarding the first part, there are important achievements for Guatemala in terms of cooperation. In fact, Telcumán Task Force was created as a product of Operation Martillo. Its aim is to conduct interdictions against the threats pose by, not only drug trafficking, but also smuggling in the western part of the country. Also, the Marine Brigade was created for the support of the Atlantic coastline. There was an alarming amount of illegal flights and landings in the northern part. However, with the creation of the Jungle Operations Special Brigade, which works circumstantially with Operation Martillo, there were seven flights last year, of which only one landed in Guatemala. We have detected two flights this year; one was interdicted by the Marine Infantry and the Naval Special Operations, resulting in a significant seizure. This means that illegal landing has been denied in the Guatemalan air space. This was also possible due to air interdiction support. In regards to land operation, Guatemala implemented an interdiction plan that aims at setting 156 control and check points to avoid the entry of threats through land. One of the examples I mentioned is that there was a 62% reduction because we are part of the bottleneck that starts with Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, and then includes Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador... That's where we rely on the United States' cooperation for maritime interdiction. Regarding land interdiction, Guatemala has done most of it.

GENERAL KELLY: Dealing with drugs is a process of multiple levels. You never reach a zero level. But it starts where drugs are produced. If we are talking about cocaine, it is mainly produced in Colombia and Peru. At the other end is the level where it moves from, where it is produced, towards what we call "transit zone," which is mainly from Central America to the United States. Here's where Operation Martillo comes into play. Due to all our combined efforts last year, we were able to take hundreds of tons of cocaine out of circulation. With Martillo, we have been able to seize hundreds of tons, almost with zero violence. Nobody lands in Central America, because the influx continues to countries like yours, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, which are all doing a great job. It is more difficult due to the nature of the influx of traffic. But it's a hard job which entails several dozens of tons seized. The use of cocaine has been drastically reduced in the United States, due to several information campaigns. Although this reduction might not be enough, it has decreased significantly. Due to the reduction in cocaine production and the amount that enters the country, costs have increased. Regarding availability, it is harder to obtain. Drug legalization is a matter of politics. The use of drugs is still illegal in my country by federal law. Some states have made their own decisions, but the proliferation of crime in each country does not stop, even if they have legalized drug use, or if drug influx and consumption have been ignored. In fact, it grows. Drug abuse is not reduced; it grows. Social costs, especially seen in the lack of proper medical care, are overwhelming. All those countries that have legalized drugs wish they didn't do so. But this is a matter of politics, and I am just a soldier; I am not allowed to comment on politics, so I will not do it.

Question: General Kelly, I would like to know your opinion on the contributions of regional nations to combating drug trafficking. I'm asking you because our president, Otto Pérez, was in Panama talking about decriminalization and about the 50 year struggle that has not contributed much. You were saying that countries that decriminalized consumption would regret having done it. So, what is your opinion regarding the contributions made by countries in the region?

GENERAL KELLY: First of all, in terms of efforts made by Central American countries, I can use one word: heroic. I disagree with those who say that after 55 years this has not been effective. It has been effective. I have just explained that drug use has decreased, at least in my country which is part of the problem posed by demand. Countries involved in this sometimes disagree in terms of politics. But in my opinion, any country would agree that drugs are like a cancer; it is a problem that needs to be addressed. As I've just explained, there is not just one solution to this problem. There are medical considerations, law enforcement considerations, and the assistance for coca growers - farmers - so they can use an alternative crop for their survival. It is a multi-sided problem. I disagree with people saying that this is a problem without solution, and that we should give up. Again, that is a political issue, on which I cannot make any comments.

Question: It was said that a new task force would be set on the border with Honduras; the Chortí Task Force. What kind of cooperation will be established with the Southern Command in this task force? Will it be only a team, as in the Teconomán Task Force?

MAJOR GEN. ORTIZ-RUIZ: The Chortí Task Force is going very well. Its goal is to have a presence along the 255-kilometer Honduran border. In defense, the initial goal was to build the force. We are going to cooperate with 100 soldiers; for which we are finalizing their preparation. Then, each one of these soldiers will be analyzed and, if everything goes well, it is estimated that their training will start at the 2nd Infantry Brigade in Zacapa. With regard to how the United States participates in terms of equipment? The U.S. will cooperate with 32 J-8 vehicles.

Question: What are the results of drug, human and weapons trafficking in Guatemala? How do you keep agents on your side and prevent them from becoming members of drug trafficking?

MAJOR GEN. ORTIZ-RUIZ: This is definitely a difficult threat, but I would say that, in the last 10 years, there were no indications in court martials that military members might have been part of this threat. And regarding retired personnel, I do not know if any of them has been involved in it. But I can assure you that our active personnel (us, within our internal rules, although it is not a fault) - has very strict controls against crimes, and I think this is why there are no cases of this nature. If any situation like this arises, we would be forced to take them where they can be investigated and legally judged.

Very good