Joint Task Force Supports Nation's War on Drugs
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
EL PASO, Texas, Aug. 22, 1996 Using night vision gear and thermal imaging equipment, U.S. service members man observation posts and patrol the rugged terrain along the 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico. Their job is simple: watch and listen.
Late one winter night, they spotted three men leading nine pack horses on a remote dirt road. Shortly after they radioed local law enforcement officers, a National Guard chopper swept in. U.S. Forest Service officials arrived and the jig was up.
Law enforcement officials seized the smugglers' 2,400 pounds of cocaine. The addictive white powder did not make it to U.S. streets thanks, in part, to the men and women of Joint Task Force 6.
Nearly 2,000 active duty and reserve component personnel currently help civil law enforcement officials stop the flow of illegal drugs. Task force troops, including many reservists who volunteer for 179-day active-duty tours, are deployed in 13 states on 136 missions, according to officials at task force headquarters at Fort Bliss, Texas.
About 120 service members and 40 DoD civilians at the post plan and coordinate military support requested by federal, state and local officials. The U.S. Customs Service, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Border Patrol and the FBI are among the federal agencies calling on DoD for assistance.
Since November 1989, U.S. forces have helped law officers in their counterdrug activities in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, an area covering about 580,000 square miles. By the end of 1995, the mission expanded to provide support throughout the continental United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Since DoD set up the task force, more than 56,000 military members have helped wage war against drugs. They have supported law enforcement officials from more than 300 agencies, completing more than 2,700 counterdrug missions, officials said.
Americans spend about $49 billion a year on drugs, according to President Clinton's National Drug Control Strategy 1996. That's about $7 billion more than DoD spends each year on new equipment, according to DoD officials. The government spends $15 billion each year on drug control. That's about $4 billion more than DoD spends on food, clothing, medical supplies, fuel and weapon systems spare parts, according to a Defense Logistics Agency spokesman.
An estimated 2.2 million Americans use cocaine and half a million use heroin, according to the national strategy report. About 9.8 million Americans use marijuana regularly. Each day, about 3,700 Americans are arrested for drug-related offenses.
"The drug situation is critical," said Larry Gallina of the El Paso Intelligence Center. "About 800 metric tons of cocaine are produced worldwide each year and much of it comes into the United States through Mexico. And heroin production is up." He is hopeful DoD's increased counterdrug support role will turn this situation around.
Smugglers use hundreds of illegal entry points along the southwestern U.S. border, task force officials said. They cross on foot lugging backpacks, on horseback, using all-terrain vehicles, as well as by boat and plane. The day after U.S. Forest Service officials confiscated the 2,400-pound cocaine shipment, task force officials said, they intercepted two other smugglers in the same area and netted 400 pounds of marijuana. Recently, officials discovered about $650,000 worth of marijuana growing on public land in a national forest, a task force spokesman said.
Congress has approved DoD support for counterdrug efforts, but service members do not search, seize or arrest, task force officials stressed. Laws prohibit that kind of military encroachment in civilian law enforcement functions.
DoD support roles include air and ground observation and reconnaissance, environmental assessments, intelligence analysts and linguists, transportation and engineering support. Mobile training teams teach civilian law enforcers such skills as combat lifesaving, advanced marksmanship and tactical police operations that can be used in counterdrug operations. The task force also features rapid support teams capable of responding within 72 hours.
Law enforcement agencies and DoD both benefit from the relationship, task force officials said. Police can request DoD resources, and the service members involved get to practice their military skills in challenging, real-world situations. Eighty-seven percent of the tasks involved directly relate to the wartime mission, an official said.
"This is a great training mechanism to keep up their skills," said Army Col. James Stone, task force director of intelligence.
About 20 percent of the task force budget goes for engineering support to improve roads, put in lights and fences, and set up training facilities and operations bases. Military engineers provide labor, equipment and know-how, while law enforcement agencies provide materials and supplies, officials said.
Military engineers have greatly enhanced safety for law enforcement agents in the field, according to Mike Connell, a senior Border Patrol coordinator. Improved roads allow agents to reach previously inaccessible areas, and better lighting and more fencing help protect agents working to stem the illegal drug flow.
DoD's support for the nation's counterdrug effort has been invaluable, Connell said. The 22-year Border Patrol veteran said officials have tried many different strategies over the years to combat drug runners, but nothing has worked as well as having the military on the scene.