JIATF South: Hub for International Cooperation on Drug Interdiction

JIATF South: Hub for International Cooperation on Drug Interdiction

By Geraldine Cook
February 06, 2020

Bigfoot, a 53-foot, self-propelled semi-submersible (SPSS) traveled full speed on the Eastern Pacific waters. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Steadfast interdicted it off the west coast of Costa Rica in November 2006 and found 4.1 tons of cocaine. The Costa Rican Coast Guard towed the vessel into port and later transported it to the U.S. as evidence. Two Colombians, one Guatemalan, and one Sri Lankan were also taken into custody and sent to the U.S. to face prosecution.

Bigfoot is now a symbol of the mission’s success docked outside of the headquarters of Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF South), the multi-agency and international coalition that made its apprehension possible. The SPSS is one of more than 45 vessels JIATF South’s partners interdicted since November 2006, demonstrating that with intelligence, information sharing, real-time communications, and combined tactical operations, countering illicit trafficking in the Western Hemisphere is possible.

JIATF South, located at Naval Air Station Key West, Florida, comprises U.S. military, federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and international partner nations. They work side-by-side to detect and monitor illicit trafficking operations in the air and maritime domains, predominantly throughout U.S. Southern Command’s area of operations.

“JIATF South is built upon the strength of our relationships. We bring a trusted and established organization that works together to address global threat networks. We have 20 countries that are stakeholders in JIATF South [from Central and South America, the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada, and several European countries], and we work with 16 U.S. agencies,” said U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Pat DeQuattro, JIATF South director. “Our interagency efforts promote security in the Western Hemisphere because we are targeting threat networks responsible for violence, criminal activity, corruption, and the breakdown of the rule of law.”

JIATF South was known as Joint Task Force Four in 1989 and renamed Joint Interagency Task Force East in 1994. It received its current name in 2003. Its objective, since its inception, is to support U.S. and partner nations’ law enforcement in the fight against the illegal drug trade.

“Trust is the bedrock of how we operate. We have evolved over 30 years and our strength is that we bring together a unique organization of U.S. agencies and partner countries with their respected authorities, jurisdictions, and knowledge of the threat network we are addressing,” Rear Adm. DeQuattro said. “As a U.S. Department of Defense organization, we are in charge of supporting law enforcement by our U.S. and partner nations that use their authorities to interdict, disrupt, and defeat the networks responsible for the flow of illicit narcotics in the region.”

U.S. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Pat DeQuattro (center), JIATF South director, with foreign liaison officers at the organization’s headquarters. (Photo: Geraldine Cook / Diálogo)

Strong partnership
Partner nation foreign liaison officers (FLO) and U.S. agencies play an invaluable role in JIATF South’s efforts. As of August 2019, the interagency organization supported law enforcement operations that confiscated 246 tons of cocaine and made 684 arrests of suspected members of drug trafficking organizations.

“The ability of our FLOs and U.S. agencies — embedded here every day, providing and sharing information — is what makes us better aware of the threat that is happening,” said U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Ajamian, chief of the Strategic Initiatives Group at JIATF South. “FLOs are critical for our organization. They provide the flow of information about criminal activity that is impacting not only the U.S., but their countries as well.”

According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2019 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, 22 countries worldwide are major illicit drug producing and/or drug-transit countries; of those, 16 are in Latin America and the Caribbean. The drug trafficking market generates high profits, violence, corruption, and causes national and regional instability. To confront the security threat, countries and agencies recognize they must work together.

“Our Joint Operations Center [JOC] has the ability to talk directly to partner nation JOCs, whether digitally, by looking at the same common operating picture, coordinating an operation in conjunction with each other, or in support of each other,” said Lt. Col. Ajamian. “We work together, passing the information quickly, to enable interdiction operations, whether in the air or maritime domain.”

Interagency teamwork
JIATF South works around the clock. On its JOC’s watch floor, every minute counts, day or night. The staff keep eyes on their monitors to find illicit drug routes. Carefully, they examine a daily average of 1,000 targets and select specific ones based on matrix tools. Their priority is to stop the flow of drugs before they reach land. This information is then passed along to maritime patrol aircraft that detect and monitor the suspect smugglers.

International partners also recognize the threat caused by the illicit traffickers, and have increasingly shown their commitment in the shared fight. FLOs communicate with their respective commands, which will use their assets to track down the go-fast boat, or semi-submersible vessel. Then, military and law enforcement personnel from their respective jurisdictions step in to carry out the interdictions and arrests.

Ecuadorean Navy Captain Pedro Costales Cabezas, a JIATF South’s FLO, joined the interdiction mission team in May 2019. He understood immediately that the interagency model works through cooperation.

“The resources provided by the U.S, through JIATF South, enlighten our operations. They give us intelligence, they are the eyes of the mission for all the countries that participate here, which help us perform interdictions and stop the people involved in illicit activities,” said Capt. Costales. “We, FLOs, are a link in the chain to coordinate as quickly as possible with our countries the means necessary to find drug traffickers at sea. We have a relationship of trust and a network of interaction, information, and intelligence.”

Jamaican Defence Force Major Elon Clarke. He is the first FLO representing his country at JIATF South. He knows firsthand the interagency work necessary to counter illicit activities, particularly in the Caribbean.

“It takes a network to defeat a network. Building strong positive networks is something JIATF South does extremely well,” said Maj. Clarke. “Jamaica views JIATF South as a critical partner. Our efforts must be shouldered jointly if we are to successfully address the supply and demand for narcotics, the associated cash transfers, and the flow of weapons fueling the violent attacks leaving hundreds of people dead in our countries.”

“By sharing information and experiences, JIATF South integrates and multiplies the countries’ regional efforts in their fight against drug trafficking,” said Guatemalan Navy Captain Oscar Gómez, a JIATF South FLO. “JIATF South provides the setting to share information and coordination to carry out combined, joint, or parallel operations with neighboring countries, ensuring the information is timely, reliable, and at the same time, respecting intelligence property rights of the agency or institution that generates it.”

For Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander Kele-Ann Bourne, a JIATF South’s FLO, drugs and human trafficking, illegal arms trade, terrorist attacks, and corruption must be defeated. Coordination, synchronization, and exchange of best practices help in the fight against traffickers.

“We are challenged by common transnational threats. Joint efforts to counter trafficking tend to strengthen bonds through deepening partnerships between my country and the U.S., for both military and civilian components. We coordinate bilateral responses on strategic, operational, and tactical levels,” said Lt. Cmdr. Bourne.

Rear Adm. DeQuattro shared Lt. Cmdr. Bourne’s opinion on the importance of multi-agency coordination. During its three decades of operation, JIATF South has embraced an inclusive, intergovernmental, cooperation approach.

“JIATF South is a 30-year old organization built as an interagency task force within an incredibly diverse organization,” said Rear Adm. DeQuattro. “We need to bring in new partner countries or agencies that can assist and work collaboratively, because we are more effective (as a collective team) at countering threats and building hemispheric security.”