WASHINGTON – Officials at Joint Interagency Task Force South are welcoming the contributions that a 200-member Marine Corps detachment is making toward tracking drug traffickers and other transnational criminals.
The Marines -- mostly from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Marine Forces South in Miami -- deployed to Guatemala City at the Guatemalan government’s request Aug. 11, reported Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Earnest Barnes, Marine Forces South spokesman.
Since their arrival, they have been patrolling the skies over Guatemala’s littoral waters with four UH-1N Huey helicopters, reporting suspicious activity as part of Joint Interagency Task Force South’s Operation Martillo mission, which kicked off in January.
Detachment Martillo also is using enhanced communications to increase the task force’s monitoring and detection capabilities to help Guatemalan authorities quickly apprehend and prosecute illicit traffickers, and seize their shipments, Barnes said.
Barnes emphasized that the Marines are not directly involved in apprehending traffickers and are serving only in a supporting role.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Steven J. DePalmer, Joint Interagency Task Force South’s deputy director, praised the Marines’ contributions. “Our Marines are well-suited to work with the Guatemalans against transnational organized crime. With their aerial surveillance helicopters and communication support, the U.S. Marine detachment deployed in support of Operation Martillo provides an enhanced capability to partner-nation efforts.”
Operation Martillo, which translated, means “Operation Hammer,” specifically targets illicit trafficking routes in coastal waters along the Central American Isthmus -- the route for more than 90 percent of the cocaine destined for the United States.
The goal, explained Coast Guard Rear Adm. Charles D. Michel, the task force commander, is to “take pressure off these Central American countries.”
Particularly in the northern triangle area of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, “thousands of their citizens are being murdered,” Michel told American Forces Press Service. “Government officials are being corrupted. Institutions are being rotted from the inside out. Portions of their territory are no longer effectively under their control.”
“That is instability,” the admiral said, “and that is a national security threat, right in our backyard.”
Operation Martillo is showing progress in working with partner nations to address that threat. Since Jan. 15, law enforcement and Coast Guard members operating under its umbrella seized or disrupted shipments that included more than 108 tons of cocaine, almost 8 tons of marijuana and $3.5 million in laundered money, reported Jody Draves, the task force’s public affairs officer.
Michel had high praise for the interagency and international teamwork that has made Joint Interagency Task Force South “the most effective and efficient counter-illicit trafficking, detection, monitoring and law enforcement organization the planet has ever known.”
The task force stood up 23 years ago as Joint Task Force 4 as a new model of intergovernmental cooperation in dealing with drug trafficking. The staff includes representatives of all five armed services, including the National Guard and reserves, members of various federal law enforcement entities, the intelligence community and their counterparts from 13 partner nations.
Even as the Marines tentatively plan to wrap up their support mission Oct. 31, Michel said, he’ll continue to press for more assets – particularly ships and aircraft – to support the task force’s mission.
“If we had more assets, we would be able to make an even bigger dent into this effort,” he said. “You give me assets, and I’ll show you results.”