KEY WEST, Fla., March 9, 2016 —
When a watch stander for the Joint Interagency Task Force South here directs an aircraft or ship to stop a craft carrying cocaine, that person gets to ring the bell in the joint operations center.
Yesterday, a noncommissioned officer who had earned that right offered Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. the opportunity to ring the bell to mark a successful interdiction.
“I couldn’t do it,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said with a laugh. “I could tell … he really, really wanted to do it.”
The chairman said he was impressed by the professionalism, expertise and dedication exhibited by the members of the task force’s joint operations center during his visit.
The task force is dedicated to interdicting the flow of cocaine from the coca-producing nations of South America.
“They have got some young guys on the watch floor that are making decisions about airplanes and ships with no other senior leadership engagement required,” the chairman said in an interview with reporters traveling with him. “They’ve got the information, it’s time-sensitive, and they are redirecting a P-3 [Orion aircraft] or a ship, and they are pumped up about what they do. I made a joke that unlike me, they actually know what … they are doing, and they can quantify what they do, which is pretty impressive.”
The task force has a huge area to cover and a well-financed opposition to confront, Dunford said.
The task force is an interagency and international effort under the command of U.S. Southern Command. The task force director is Coast Guard Rear Adm. Christopher J. Tomney. The deputy director is Navy Rear Adm. Cedric Pringle. The vice director comes from Customs and Border Patrol. The operations chief is a Coast Guard commander. The task force also has members from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, the intelligence community, the State and Treasury Departments and many other U.S. government agencies.
A Coalition of Nations
The anti-drug effort involves representatives from 15 nations who work together to share information and act on intelligence to interdict cocaine. The United States has overwatch in the Pacific region ranging from Colombia up to Mexico. It also has the area closest to the isthmus on the eastern side. The Dutch oversee the area just a bit further east based in Curacoa, and the French a bit further east in Martinique. All ships and aircraft in these areas receive their intelligence from JIATF South.
Dunford said he observed the bonds of trust exhibited among the task force’s watch standers, and he commented on the effectiveness of the interagency and international cooperation.
“There are 15 liaison officers in the room, and those 15 are connected back to their countries, not only from a military-to-military perspective, but they are able to reach into the interagency in their countries,” he said. “For example, the Canadian [liaison officer] deals with the Ministry of Defense and also the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, so he passes information to the RCMP and they are able to act on the information when they get it.”
The task force is an effective international response to a transregional challenge, Dunford said, noting the task force has Europeans and North, South and Central Americans all working together on the single problem of interdicting cocaine. Cocaine not only is moved into the United States, it also is being smuggled into Europe, and it is increasingly being used in Brazil and other nations in South America.
Stemming the Flow of Cocaine
The task force interdicts roughly 20 percent of the cocaine being shipped out of the three cocaine producing nations -- Colombia, Peru and Bolivia -- task force officials said, noting they could interdict more if they had more resources.
“The organizational construct they have here, the information sharing that’s taking place and the processes and procedures that they are using, have applicability elsewhere,” Dunford said. “If you look at what we are doing with foreign fighters or resources for counterterrorism -- the kind of information sharing, intelligence sharing, trust, cooperation that you see here at JIATF is, I think, a model.”
Established in 1989, the JIATF has been able to work through issues over time. Its operations are based on trust, the general said, and this has enabled cooperation and collaboration to increase producing increased results.
“The actionable information they are getting has actually grown over the past couple of years, and it’s grown in a way that is commensurate with the increased partnerships they have developed over time,” he said.
The model has proven effective for the drug-interdiction mission, Dunford said. It could be a whole-of-government model for dealing with foreign fighters or for sharing counterterrorism intelligence, he added.
Before arriving at Key West, Dunford attended meetings yesterday in Miami with U.S. Southern Command leaders.
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)