U.S. President Donald Trump, flanked by top officials including Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced a massive new “counter-narcotics operation” in the Latin America and Caribbean region.
“As nations around the world focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a growing threat that cartels, criminals, terrorists, and other malign actors will try to exploit the situation for their own gain,” said Trump on April 1. “We must not let that happen.”
The president announced that Navy destroyers, combat ships, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, elements of an Army Security Force Assistance Brigade and Special Operations Forces were being deployed to the region, adding to the U.S. Coast Guard drug patrols already on the scene.
“In cooperation with the 22 partner nations, the U.S. Southern Command will increase surveillance, disruption, and seizures of drug shipments, and provide additional support for eradication efforts which are going on right now at a record pace,” Trump added.
This new operation had been months in the making, but has taken on greater urgency following the March 26 indictment of Nicolás Maduro, for which a $15 million reward for information leading to his capture was announced.
“The Venezuelan people continue to suffer tremendously due to Maduro and his criminal control over the country, and drug traffickers are seizing on this lawlessness,” Esper said after the president’s announcement.
“Corrupt actors, like the illegitimate Maduro regime rely on the profits derived from the sale of narcotics to maintain their oppressive hold on power,” Esper said, alluding to Maduro’s alleged cooperation with Colombian cartels to push hundreds of tons of cocaine and other drugs northward by air and sea.
Elaborating on the new mission, Gen. Milley said he had received new intelligence reports showing drug cartels that saw the Covid-19 outbreak as an opportunity to try to ship more drugs to the United States.
“We are at war with terrorists, we are at war with Covid-19, and we are at war with the drug cartels as well,” Milley said. “This is the United States military. You will not penetrate this country,” Milley went on to warn.