Ordinarily, patrolling the waters near Central and South America for drug traffickers is a job largely left to the U.S. Coast Guard. But since April 1 of this year, the U.S. Navy has surged assets to the region to assist with the mission -- and helped reel in more than $2.5 billion worth of contraband to date.
The operation has gotten presidential attention and is ongoing, with the Navy destroyer Pinckney publicizing a recent major bust this week. The Pinckney, homeported in San Diego, executed a seizure with an embarked Coast Guard law enforcement detachment July 24, seizing more than 120 kilograms, or 265 pounds, of suspected cocaine from a single ship. In total, the haul was worth some $4.5 million.
"While on routine patrol, approximately 200 nautical miles southwest of Jamaica, a helicopter assigned to the 'Wolf Pack' of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 75 located the vessel and Pinckney soon arrived on scene," Navy officials said in a release. "After coordination with the Government of Colombia and Colombian Navy, the vessel was searched and six suspected drug smugglers detained. The mariners are now in Government of Colombia custody."
The crew of the Pinckney also secured medical evacuation for one detainee for whom treatment was deemed necessary for survival.
Heads of U.S. Southern Command have long expressed their wish for more U.S. Navy assets in the region to stop a drug trade tied to tens of thousands of U.S. deaths every year. Under the enhanced counternarcotics mission, those ships and aircraft are in place, at least for now.
Top officials say the $90 billion drug trade, which thrives in unstable regions, has taken advantage of the added instability of the global COVID-19 pandemic.
"Since the end of March, we have employed, in the U.S. Southern Command Area of Responsibility, 75% more surveillance aircraft and 65% more ships than normal for drug interdiction," Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a July 10 news conference from Doral, Florida. "These additional assets include four Navy destroyers, five Coast Guard cutters, and eight aircraft. Currently, nearly a dozen Navy and Coast Guard ships and over 15 aircraft from across the interagency are supporting our efforts, in addition to security forces deployed to the region."
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy's 4th Fleet, Cmdr. Katherine Meadows, said in a statement to Military.com that additional Defense Department capabilities added in the ramp-up include a continuous rotation of Navy destroyers and MH-60 Seahawk helicopters; Navy littoral combat ships; P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft; Air Force E-3 AWAC and E-8 JSTARS aircraft for reconnaissance; and an Army Security Forces Assistance Brigade company for advisory support. The Coast Guard has also increased its cutter and helicopter presence, and 22 partner nations have aided the effort.
"All of our ships have an embarked [Coast Guard] Law Enforcement Detachment onboard," Meadows said. "The Navy supports the detection, while the Coast Guard has the authorities to seize narcotics and detain illicit trafficking suspects."
To date, she said, the Navy has participated in the seizure of 16,396 kilograms of cocaine -- more than 36,000 pounds -- and 16,601 marijuana. The overall enhanced mission has "disrupted or seized" more than 38,000 pounds of marijuana and more than 98 metric tons of cocaine, she said.
"The operation has denied transnational criminal organizations more than $2.5 billion in criminal profits from the smuggling of narcotics that kill thousands of people every year and cause substantial human suffering in the U.S. and around the world," she added.
That's up from under $2 billion on July 10.
Meadows did not provide comparison figures for the same period last year, but Esper said the U.S. military had been able to increase targeting of known drug operations by 60%. And at the Doral news conference, SOUTHCOM Commander Adm. Craig Faller said drug "disruptions" had increased by 15%.
"And 60 percent more targeting is a big deal for us because that means we can put more assets on more targets. And the enemy has seen that," Faller said. "We've gotten information from our intelligence agencies that says the enemy has watched that and they're waiting, and they're stockpiling and they're trying to change their tactics."
-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.