U.S. Coast Guard crews detain personnel aboard a self-propelled semi-submersible captured in the Eastern Pacific off the coast of Central America in 2009. The Air Force works with the Navy, Coast Guard and federal law enforcement agencies to monitor drug smuggling routes in Central America, according to U.S. Southern Command's website. (Coast Guard)
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Master Sgt. Martin Gonzales recently became a casualty in a quiet war that has largely been overshadowed by U.S. efforts to fight terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Gonzales, 39, was killed Oct. 5 when his U.S.-contracted DH-8 airplane crashed near the Colombian-Panamanian border while conducting an operation targeting drug traffickers.
U.S. Southern Command is in charge of trying to thwart drug trafficking from Central and South America as well as the Caribbean, but as its budget has gotten leaner, it has had to make do with fewer people and resources. About 230 airmen are currently deployed to the SOUTHCOM theater of operations, compared with 380 in June 2003.
Gonzales, an interpreter, worked directly for SOUTHCOM. Most other airmen serving in Latin America and the Caribbean fall under SOUTHCOM’s air arm, Headquarters 12th Air Force (Air Forces Southern) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. Airmen who work under Air Forces Southern serve in units that are part of the 612th Theater Operations Group, also at the base near Tucson.
In addition to fighting criminal organizations, airmen have been sent to Latin America and the Caribbean as part of mobile training teams, said Col. Jonathan VanNoord, commander of the 612th Theater Operations Group.
“We’ve had small training teams in the past; we’ve had larger exercises, one of them specifically is New Horizons, which is a great exercise with civil engineers as well as medical [teams], and they go down and they work together and they share expertise and they build schools and they build medical clinics,” VanNoord said.
To counter drug traffickers, the Air Force has a forward operating location in Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles, to where E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System planes and aircraft from other services deploy, he said.
“We provide them places to have the aircraft and we refuel the aircraft, and we give them areas to mission plan and we provide a place for them to stay,” VanNoord said.
Gonzales was killed while taking part in Operation Martillo (Hammer), an effort that also involves the Navy, Coast Guard and federal law enforcement agencies to monitor drug smuggling routes in Central America, according to SOUTHCOM’s website. In 2012, the operation prevented 152 metric tons of cocaine and 21 metric tons of marijuana, worth a total of $3 billion, from reaching the U.S.
The effort began in January 2012 when Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser was head of SOUTHCOM.
“As I looked at how we were conducting the counter-network activity and trafficking activity in the Caribbean, it was in my view that we had gotten pretty routine in our operations,” Fraser, now retired, told Air Force Times. “So it was fairly easy for the trafficking organizations to know when and where we would be and with what kind of capability.”
That’s why Fraser focused SOUTHCOM’s limited assets off the north and west coasts of Colombia, which were the areas of most concern, he said. U.S. personnel were tasked with trailing drug smuggling planes until they landed so that host nation forces could capture the smugglers on the ground.
The Air Force’s mission in Latin America and the Caribbean has focused on tracking and intercepting drug smugglers since the end of the Cold War, Fraser said. In the late 1990s, the Air Force installed radar systems for the Colombian military to track drug smugglers, Fraser said. Maintainers also take care of helicopters used by the Drug Enforcement Agency and sustain an airfield in Honduras used for disaster relief.
The criminal gangs in Latin America traffic in more than drugs, and that made Fraser worry that they could join forces with terrorist groups.
“If there are these open networks that can come and bring people and drugs and weapons and move money across our border, they could move other capabilities as well, primarily terrorist opportunities,” he said. “I never saw that come to fruition.”
Fraser said SOUTHCOM could use more surveillance aircraft so that U.S. officials can better understand how drugs flow into the U.S. through the Caribbean. Partner nations also need more help developing the capability to intercept drug smuggling planes.
“Their assets aren’t capable right now of really doing that on a broad scale,” he said.