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Operation Martillo (Hammer)

On Aug. 15, 2012, the frigate USS Carr (FFG 52) was patrolling the Caribbean Sea, awaiting a resupply airdrop of parts from a NAS Norfolk-based P-3C Orion patrol plane belonging to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). As the parts container landed in the sea, the frigate launched a Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB), along with her SH-60B Seahawk helicopter. As the RHIB retrieved the parts container, the Seahawk located a small boat over the horizon that appeared suspicious. Making best speed to intercept the boat, the Carr’s boarding crew went aboard and discovered 1,250 pounds (625 kilograms) of cocaine with an estimated street value of around $17 million.

A part of the administration’s Strategy to Combat Trans-National Organized Crime, Operation Martillo leverages several features of SOUTHCOM and its AOR as part of the U.S. Central America Regional Security Initiative.

The Carr’s intercept is just one of a series of successful seizures conducted under Operation Martillo (Spanish for “Hammer”), U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) wide ranging maritime interdiction operation. A part of the administration’s Strategy to Combat Trans-National Organized Crime, Operation Martillo leverages several features of SOUTHCOM and its AOR as part of the U.S. Central America Regional Security Initiative. Most nations in the SOUTHCOM AOR have maritime access, with strong routes for trade and transit. These, however, have also become the primary conduits for transnational organized crime (TOC) organizations to ship their various illegal products into North America, Africa, and Europe. The transport vessels these days normally come in several forms of small “go fast” boats and self-propelled semi-submersible vessels. Their favored routes usually run close to the Pacific and Gulf mouths of the Panama Canal, where they can easily mingle in the crowd of merchant ships normally located there.

Operation Martillo

The guided missile frigate USS Carr (FFG 52), not shown, receives mission-essential parts from a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol P-3 Orion patrol aircraft while supporting Operation Martillo, Aug. 15, 2012, in the U.S. 4th Fleet area of responsibility in the Caribbean Sea. During the exchange, Carr’s embarked SH-60B Seahawk helicopter identified a suspect vessel over the horizon. A U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement detachment boarded the vessel and seized 1,250 pounds of cocaine with an estimated street value of about $17 million. Operation Martillo is a joint, interagency and multinational collaborative effort to deny transnational criminal organizations air and maritime access to the littoral regions of the Central American isthmus. U.S. Navy photo by Logistics Specialist 1st Class Daniel Shelton

Operation Martillo is a multi-national, interagency, and joint military operation, with strong support from the Departments of Homeland Security (particularly the Coast Guard), Treasury, State, Justice, and Defense. SOUTHCOM itself provides two significant assets to Operation Martillo: the ships, sailors and aircraft of the U.S. 4th Fleet, and a unique unit known as the Joint Interagency Task Force – South (JIATF–S).

Headed by a Coast Guard rear admiral and based in Key West, Fla., JIATF–S exists to provide fusion of a wide range of intelligence sources, and then create pre-packaged maritime interdiction engagements for 4th Fleet, the Coast Guard, and partner nations to carry out. JIATF–S is very good at what it does.

Headed by a Coast Guard rear admiral and based in Key West, Fla., JIATF–S exists to provide fusion of a wide range of intelligence sources, and then create pre-packaged maritime interdiction engagements for 4th Fleet, the Coast Guard, and partner nations to carry out. JIATF–S is very good at what it does. So good in fact, that only about half of the cocaine presently shipped by sea to North America is getting through to the market, which has driven much of the transport route ashore into Central America and Mexico since 2007. The irony is that due to the limited maritime assets available to SOUTHCOM and its partners, if JIATF–S detects a TOC shipment of cocaine less than one ton, it does not normally try to set up an engagement for U.S. forces, but hands it off to partner nations or local law enforcement.

 Self-Propelled, Semi-Submersible

A sinking self-propelled, semi-submersible (SPSS) vessel was interdicted in the Western Caribbean Sea March 30, 2012, by the crews of Coast Guard Cutter Decisive, Coast Guard Cutter Pea Island, Joint Interagency Task Force South and the Honduran Navy. The SPSS sank during the interdiction in thousands of feet of water. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

So how does Operation Martillo work in practice? Consider this recent series of interdiction engagements by a sister ship of USS Carr, the Mayport, Fla.-based frigate USS Nicholas (FFG 47).

LEDETs also provide specialized law enforcement and maritime security capabilities across a full spectrum of maritime scenarios, including security augmentation and maritime interdiction anti-piracy operations.

During a 175-day deployment earlier in 2012, which included two transits of the Panama Canal and operations in the Atlantic, Caribbean, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico, Nicholas conducted six intercept/seizure missions. During her 2012 deployment, Nicholas embarked a U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Law Enforcement Detachment (LEDET) to provide boarding and inspection support. LDETs belong to Tactical Law Enforcement Team South, or the Pacific Tactical Law Enforcement Team, and are an armed expert force from the USCG Deployable Operations Group (DOG). They were created to support narcotics interdiction operations aboard U.S. Navy and allied ships and are capable of supporting DOD national defense operations. LEDETs also provide specialized law enforcement and maritime security capabilities across a full spectrum of maritime scenarios, including security augmentation and maritime interdiction anti-piracy operations.

 Operation Martillo

U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard personnel come alongside the guided-missile frigate USS Nicholas (FFG 47) to transfer contraband that was dumped from a vessel during drug interdiction operations in support of Operation Martillo off the Pacific coast of Colombia. The personnel recovered 112 bales of cocaine, weighing approximately 4,910 pounds, with an estimated street value of more than $367 million. U.S. Navy photo

Nicholas also conducted passing exercises and an officer exchange with the Colombian Navy, certified 22 pilots of Helicopter Anti Submarine Squadron Light 42 Detachment 9, accomplished four underway replenishments with a Chilean oiler, celebrated the anniversary of the War of 1812, and held a “Crossing the Line” ceremony when the ship crossed the equator. Patrol airplanes from Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 77 (VAW-77) and Patrol Squadron Eight (VP-8) operating from El Salvador, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection long range patrol aircraft operating from NAS Jacksonville, Fla. and NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, use sophisticated sensors to detect suspicious vessels and coordinate interdictions by the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and partner nations patrolling the region. When she returned to Mayport on July 17 from this very busy deployment, Nicholas offloaded 7,500 pounds (2,408 kilograms) of cocaine, along with 239 pounds (109 kilograms) of marijuana with a street value of $93 million.

While highly successful, Operation Martillo is hardly the ultimate solution to America’s “War on Drugs.” Although Operation Martillo and other SOUTHCOM efforts have intercepted close to 50 percent of the cocaine headed to North America in the past five years, they also have helped drive the remaining product in transit ashore, exacerbating the present-day bloody Cartel wars in Central America and Mexico.

While highly successful, Operation Martillo is hardly the ultimate solution to America’s “War on Drugs.” Although Operation Martillo and other SOUTHCOM efforts have intercepted close to 50 percent of the cocaine headed to North America in the past five years, they also have helped drive the remaining product in transit ashore, exacerbating the present-day bloody Cartel wars in Central America and Mexico. There is much ahead for SOUTHCOM to do in the war against TOC narcotics trafficking, and no end yet in sight.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...