Joint Interagency Group Working to Stop Flow of Drugs Into U.S.
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 22, 2006 Agents and experts from many different government agencies are working together out of a headquarters in Key West, Fla., to stem the flow of drugs and other contraband into the U.S. from Latin America.
The Joint Interagency Task Force South is “a model for interagency cooperation,” Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock told Pentagon reporters here Sept. 20. Craddock is the outgoing commander of U.S. Southern Command, which maintains operational control of the task force.
Military assets are often best suited for finding and tracking means by which criminal gangs move drugs, weapons and illegal immigrants into the United States. However, the military can’t arrest people in domestic operations. This is where interagency cooperation is vital.
Craddock explained that military assets within JIATF South detect and monitor drug traffickers moving from Latin America into the U.S. That’s the point in the process where representatives of law enforcement agencies step in.
“Every time there is an end game on the high seas or on land, there has to be a duly-authorized law enforcement detachment there,” Craddock said.
Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Agency, or Customs and Border Protection agents work closely with the military to be on hand to make arrests. “JIATF South has a very mature, established process to be able to ensure that out on the seas, where we have grey-hulled Navy ships that can’t do arrests, there is a law enforcement detachment consisting of one or more of those agencies on board,” Craddock said.
In addition to the Defense Department, Coast Guard, DEA and Customs, other agencies represented at JIATF are: Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, National Security Agency, and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
Interagency cooperation is the only way to bring well-funded drug traffickers to justice, Craddock said. The key to that is to figure out what tactics they’ll use next. “These narcotrafficking organizations are very smart, obviously well-funded, (and) they watch closely what we do,” he said. “They respond; they’re agile; sometimes they can get inside of our response cycle.”
In 2004, U.S. officials interdicted 220 tons of cocaine coming into the U.S. In 2005, that figure went up to 252 tons. But the pace is down so far in 2006, Craddock said, explaining that narcotraffickers lost so much that they changed the way they do business.
Craddock explained that drug runners used to carry their loads in large boats, but these were easy for U.S. government assets to find and catch. Several years ago, narcotraffickers began using hard-to-find, faster boats -- 40-foot boats with four 240-horsepower motors. “They move across the calm seas of the eastern Pacific or Caribbean at 60 knots,” Craddock said.
“So we changed some techniques,” he added. JIATF began using helicopters on Coast Guard ships as a way to keep up with the drug traffickers. This way of doing business is very effective in finding and catching these fast boats, he said.
“Now, we think, based upon what we’re seeing, that because of our effectiveness in the maritime arena, they may be going back to more air transport,” Craddock said.
“The challenge we’ve got is not to catch them. We’ll catch them,” the general said. “The challenge is to get in front of their next step and be waiting to make sure that their changed mode of operation isn’t effective and we keep them off balance. When they’re taken out of their game plan, they’re very vulnerable.”
Another reason the mission of the Joint Interagency Task Force South is vital to the U.S. is because it helps Latin American nations better police their own waters and airspace and cuts down on ungoverned areas in the Western Hemisphere. The task force has forged relationships with the governments of several nations and has many interdiction and information-sharing agreements throughout the region. Eleven foreign officers are permanent members of the JIATF South staff.
The United States is concerned about ungoverned areas because they can become breeding grounds for extremism or safe havens for terrorists, Craddock said. “It’s the hole-in-the-wall gang,” he said. “If one’s safe, a bunch more are going to show up because they feed off each other.”
Officials also are concerned that narcotrafficking funds terrorism. “Narcotrafficking is extremely lucrative. Look at Afghanistan, at the poppy cultivation there; it feeds al Qaeda,” Craddock said. “We believe that there are inroads, contacts, relationships, funds being raised in Latin America from the narcotraffickers that are moving into extremist organizations and migrating out of the region.”