Operation Martillo: A year of hammering down narco-traffickers

Operation Martillo: A year of hammering down narco-traffickers

By Dialogo
January 08, 2013

MIAMI, U.S.A. – Almost a year after Operation Martillo embarked on cornering go-fasts, semi-submersibles, and even panga boats on the waters along the Central American isthmus, the multinational coalition effort spearheaded by U.S. Joint Interagency Task Force – South (JIATF-S) can boast of an impressive roster of figures that proves its success in hammering down illicit traffickers in our hemisphere. Still, during a recent interview with Infosurhoy, JIATF-S director Rear Admiral Charles D. Michel, opted to focus on what he considers the true beauty of Operation Martillo: the unparalleled cooperation between countries from different parts of the world, something that, he assured, he had never seen in his “30 years of working with this particular problem set.” During the interview, Rear Adm. Michel offered details on how this collaboration is actually achieved and what the next targets are for an operation that can’t afford to get stale.

Infosurhoy: Admiral, in figures, what would you say are the most important achievements of Operation Martillo during its first year of existence?

Rear Admiral Charles D. Michel, Director of JIATF-S: Actually, the number one success of Operation Martillo has been the increased cooperation of all the nations that are participating in combating this threat to national, regional, and international security. All the nations along the Central American isthmus, the United States, European partners, Canadians, etc., have been working more closely than ever in my 30 years or so working this particular problem set, as a direct result of Operation Martillo. Getting to the figures side of the house, since we started Operation Martillo on Jan. 15, participating nations have interdicted about 127 metric tons (279,987.07 pounds) of cocaine, which is a huge quantity of cocaine, most of that policed up in the air or on the water before even getting to the land masses of Central America where traffickers create the corruption, crime and gang problems that are associated with illicit trafficking. In addition, we have been able to take down 56 go-fast boats – typically those go-fast boats carry about a metric ton of cocaine each –, six pangas, two motor vessels, two semi-submersible vessels, two sailing vessels, six vehicles, seven fishing vessels and 12 aircraft, as well as all those individuals who were operating those crafts who are now witnesses and evidence that we can use to not only take down those individuals who were operating those crafts, but most importantly, the organizations that have been sending those crafts towards their neighbors in an attempt to get the drugs to the markets where they are consumed.

Infosurhoy: We talked about the figures, but how about changes in illicit traffic routes. Have you seen a change during this year?

Rear Adm. Michel: Yes, but we are not done yet. Operation Martillo is designed to deny or significantly hamper the ability of the traffickers to operate in the littoral routes along both sides of the Central American isthmus and force them into the deep-water routes. We have not achieved that on both sides of the isthmus. On the Caribbean side we have been able to change some of the trafficking patterns. We have seen strategic shifts in trafficking patterns in the Western Caribbean. In the Eastern Pacific side we are still working on that. We have seen some shifts but on the Pacific side we have a lot more challenges than we do on the Caribbean side in significantly changing those routes. One thing I will say about routes outside of Central America is that we have not yet been able to sense significant shifts into other routes, for example deeper into the Eastern Pacific or to Asia, or through the Central Caribbean or Eastern Caribbean. Those routes are essentially the same as they were before but we are constantly trying to sense those routes. We also have not seen shifts in conveyances yet, the traffickers still prefer to use about 80% maritime, about 20% air. I haven’t seen significant shifts to other things such as containers or other types of crafts yet, but we are constantly monitoring that. This is a very elusive adversary who does everything possible to hide things from us, so it remains challenging.

Infosurhoy: How are we planning to support these Caribbean nations, so we can create a no way out situation for the traffickers?

Rear Adm. Michel: The reason that I am here at SOUTHCOM is to participate in the Caribbean Nations Security Conference (CANSEC) where the Caribbean nations have come together to talk about regional security; and the number one security concern in the region is due to illicit trafficking. Here is what I reported to our Caribbean partners: we have not yet been able to sense significant shifts of those flows (of illicit drugs) from Central America, which constitutes over 90% of the flows that are moving in this particular region. The Caribbean still has flows, in the Eastern Caribbean primarily coming from Venezuela, and in the Central Caribbean coming from the north coast of Colombia and Venezuela up primarily Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic being the main area. They are still impacted by those threat streams, we work on those threat streams, not only with the partners in the area – and that’s the reason we are here in CANSEC – but also with regional partners… the French, the Dutch, the United Kingdom, who have significant presence in this area, as well as the Canadians. All trying to bring those scarce resources together to take and apply them against those threat streams. We have not yet seen significant shifts in the Central Caribbean or the Eastern Caribbean although we remain alert to those shifts because they could occur.

Infosurhoy: Although Operation Martillo is led by JIATF-S, under the direction of SOUTHCOM, it has become a great example of a successful regional collaboration among partner nations. Do you consider that these successes that we can count today are direct results of that collaboration? Can you provide examples?

Rear Adm. Michel: No question about it! Over two third of the interdictions that we have been able to put together with Operation Martillo have been done with partner nations. That is the highest figure in history and frankly, I want to continue to build that out because this is truly a coalition effort. Just last week, an international effort took down a semi-submersible craft near the border of Costa Rica and Panama. That craft, which is virtually undetectable, had an estimated 6,000 kilograms of cocaine on board, that’s a wholesale value of about $150 million, and street value of about two or three times that amount. It would have been devastating if that craft had made it to its intended destination, which was the eastern area of Honduras. Honduras is already the most violent country on Earth, largely because the cocaine trade works its way across there. Another six metric tons of that would have been devastating. But that semi-submersible craft was taken down by an international effort consisting of Costa Rican Coast Guard vessels, Panamanian SENAN [National Aeronaval Service], a Canadian P-3, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (P-3), U.S. Navy (P-3), a Coast Guard aircraft and a Coast Guard cutter, all working together to take down that target. That’s an example of the type of international cooperation that is unprecedented and a direct result of Operation Martillo. And that resulted in six metric tons of cocaine been taken down, as well as the witnesses and the evidences that will allow us to ultimately to take down the network that started these activities.

Infosurhoy: Working with so many countries could be testing. Can you explain to us how you are resolving those challenges?

Rear Adm. Michel: Operation Martillo is owned by all the partners and stakeholders who contribute to this enterprise. JIATF-S plays an important role because we facilitate things, but many of these assets don’t work for JIATF-S. For example, in this semi-submersible takedown (…) the Costa Rican Coast Guard, the Panamanian Aeronaval Service that participated, they don’t work for JIATF-S, they work for their countries but they were able to contribute their assets in a unity of effort format to take advantage of all the other international, U.S. and partner nation assets that were out there, as well as the intelligence capabilities, in order to take down that semi-submersible vessel. Is that hard? Darn right, that’s hard! But Operation Martillo has created that framework to provide for a true unity of effort, coalition, interagency, whole of government operations, and that is a level of difficulty that is unprecedented in my opinion anywhere else on the planet, for this type of target set. And I would include even some of the kinetic theaters that are going on overseas because the difficulty of dealing with these guys is that you have to take them down, you have to collect evidence, you have to put them in the judicial system, you have to get these guys in jail, and that adds another whole level of complexity and difficulty on coalition operations.

Infosurhoy: Can you elaborate on any new techniques or procedures developed in countering illicit trafficking in the air or maritime domains as a result of Operation Martillo?

Rear Adm. Michel: The takedown of this semi-submersible vessel is an example of the ability to develop a high-caliber intelligence to be able to get these very dark, highly mobile asymmetric targets, and the operational procedures in place to be able to deal with every type of partner, from partners like the Canadians and their P-3s which are high-end equipment, to partners who have more challenges on resources such as the Costa Rican Coast Guard which has very small vessels with very little detection and monitoring capabilities. The operational procedures, the command and control backbone, the information sharing ability to do that on a tactical actionable basis where you may only have a short time available to work, our target set, all that type of stuff is what we want to build on the future and it is exportable to other realms. That, coincidentally was one of the things that I brought to the group at CANSEC for the Caribbean nations to be able to try to replicate those types of procedures and successes we have in Operation Martillo (…) in order to achieve a truly regional, strategic effect.

Infosurhoy: Looking at 2013, what are the main goals for Operation Martillo?

Rear Adm. Michel: We are actually in the process of looking at Operation Martillo. We don’t want to become stale; we want to make sure we are adjusting things. The reality of what we are going to have to do with Operation Martillo is, number one, we are going to have to deal with the resource challenges that all of us have. Unfortunately from the United States side, we are in a very difficult budget and resource environment. We are going to have to adjust to that downrange. We are going to make our assets even smarter that they are today, even more capable than they are today. We are going to have to increase our cooperation and capacity building with partner nations, all that type stuff we are going to have to do. But the maturation of Operation Martillo is going to take us beyond where we are right now. Right now we have been dealing with the go-fast and semi-submersible, but we are going to – in the next iteration of Operation Martillo – add on things like a container initiative. So we stood up a container intelligence cell at JIATF-S that is going to focus on container movements through the area and try to synchronize that with Operation Martillo. We are also going to try to synchronize our counter threat financing efforts, which deals with bulk movements of cash sometimes by the same go fast boats that deliver products up north and bring bulk cash down south. These organizations also have to finance their operations which create vulnerabilities that we can track their financial flows. So we are going to bolt those things on Operation Martillo and try to bring them into the fight. We are also going to try to work some sensing operations with non-core Martillo partners, these are partners that primarily because of geography are not in the threat stream, but we are going to try to work closely with them. For example, Peru, Chile, Brazil are examples of countries with which we are running some sensing operations around the flanks to make sure that while we have been focused on the Central American isthmus there is nothing we are missing on our flanks. So we are going to try to bolt on some operations there, in a very resource-challenged environment, so we are going to have to be really smart with the way we are doing things, but we are going to take Operation Martillo to another level beyond where it is now.