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SouthCom Pushes for More Anti-Drug Ships

The frigate USS Rentz (Source: Navy)

Budget cuts and the support of just one Navy ship for the entire U.S. Southern Command have been a boon for the Latin American drug cartels shipping narcotics to the U.S., the SouthCom commander said.

"I simply sit and watch it go by," Marine Gen. John Kelly said of the cocaine aboard the cartels'30-foot  "go fast" boats heading north through the Caribbean and along Central America's Pacific coast.

"Because of asset shortfalls, we're unable to get after 74 percent of suspected maritime drug smuggling," Kelly said.

"I can see it, figuratively speaking" through surveillance and reconnaissance across the region, Kelly said of the drug traffic. "I can see the flow.  I just don't have end-game assets," Kelly said.

The shortage of ships and planes in his area was the result of the downgrading of the strategic importance of SouthCom among the Combatant Commands, Kelly said at a Pentagon briefing and in earlier testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

SouthCom only gets the resources that the military services can render, Kelly said.

"So if the services are hurting -- which they are for assets -- then I'm hurting," Kelly said. "Of the five overseas Combatant Commands, I am certainly the least priority and have been for some time.  I'm not complaining.  I'm not criticizing. That's just  the way it is," he said.

Kelly's striking candor on SouthCom's anti-drug operations was a revelation to at least one senator. Kelly said he has a mandate from President Obama to cut the drug flow by 40 percent, but only five percent of the assets needed to accomplish the mission.

"I would say five percent is jaw-dropping, frankly, in terms of the threats that you've just talked about," Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H, told Kelly. "I think this is something that we better address as a committee," Ayotte said.

Kelly said that the amount of drugs interdicted was directly related to the number of ships available to SouthCom. "Last year, we got 132 tons of cocaine on the high seas," down from about 153 tons in 2012, Kelly said.  "It's almost a scientific equation – more assets, more tonnage," Kelly said.

The frigate Rentz out of San Diego is the sole Navy ship assigned to SouthCome. It is due to return to its homeport in San Diego later this spring, Kelly said.

 "I'm lucky to have one Navy ship. I have four Coast Guard cutters," Kelly said, but his real need was for 16 ships and he wasn't particular about the type of ship or the flag it served under.

"I don't need a warship. I need a ship, something that floats, with a helicopter" on board, Kelly said. He pointed to the Dutch oiler with a helicopter pad that worked for SouthCom last year. The Dutch ship "did great work for us, working under our direction -- not command, but direction," Kelly said.

"We think it takes 16 of those things to accomplish the 40 percent mission. That includes Coast Guard -- anything that floats with a helicopter on it," Kelly said, to cut into the huge profits of the cartels that he estimated at $85 billion annually.

The drug trade is so profitable for the cartels that "their biggest problem is not getting drugs into the United States," Kelly said. "Their biggest problem is -- how do you launder $85 billion in profits?"

There is so much cash that when SouthCom intercepts it, "we just weigh it. We don't even count it, turn it over to the government agency, and then they'll count it," Kelly said.

To boost profits, the cartels have increasingly targeted Puerto Rico as a trans-shipment point to the U.S. mainland, Kelly said.

"It's priceless to them if it can get into Puerto Rico," Kelly said. As a Commonwealth of the U.S., Puerto Rico is not subject to the usual customs regulations and the cartels can send it by mail or they can ship it anywhere they want once the drugs reach Puerto Rico, Kelly said.

The focus of the cartels on Puerto Rico has also led to growing drug trafficking on the island. Last week, federal authorities announced the arrest and indictment of 63 suspects on charges of consipiracy and intent to distribute involving a trafficking operation allegedly run out of the La Ceiba housing project in the city of Ponce.

Vito Salvatore Guarino, the Special Agent in Charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration's Caribbean Division, pledged that anti-drug operations "will continue across the Island as we continue bringing to justice other violent drug trafficking organizations regardless in what part of the island they operate."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@monster.com

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