When Operation Martillo (Spanish for “hammer”) was launched in mid-January of 2012, it didn’t take long for the initiative – a multinational detection and interdiction effort targeting illegal trafficking routes in Central America’s coastal waters – to produce results. On March 3, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Northland intercepted a “go-fast” boat, or speedboat, loaded with 3,500 pounds of cocaine.
Operation Martillo represents a new level of collaboration between civilian and military personnel, both within the U.S. government and with international partners, in the fight against transnational organized crime. Led by Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S) from its headquarters in Key West, Fla., Operation Martillo involves military and law enforcement personnel and assets from the United States and partner nations including Belize, Canada, Costa Rica, El Salvador, France, Guatemala, Honduras, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Panama, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Chile has also contributed to the operation, which has focused people and assets on the littoral waters of the Central American isthmus – popular shipment routes used by transnational criminal organizations for the transport of illegal drugs and precursor chemicals, bulk cash, and weapons.
Since its Jan. 15, 2012 launch, according to JIATF-S spokesperson Jody Draves, Operation Martillo has seized 171 metric tons of cocaine and almost 28,000 pounds of marijuana; detained 411 international criminal suspects; recovered $7.4 million in laundered cash; and seized or destroyed 139 conveyances, including speedboats, fishing vessels, aircraft, pangas, and difficult-to-detect self-propelled semi-submersibles (SPSSs). By the DEA’s estimate, the wholesale value of the cocaine interdicted so far by Operation Martillo is nearly $4 billion.
When sequestration took effect on March 1, 2013, it stirred speculation that Operation Martillo would suffer serious setbacks: the Associated Press reported that surveillance flights conducted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP’s) P-3 Orion aircraft would be cut by nearly 40 percent, and the U.S. Navy announced its intention to suspend the deployment of two 4th Fleet frigates scheduled to support Operation Martillo.
In recent years, Navy assets have been valuable force multipliers for federal law enforcement personnel working in international waters. The agency assigned to interdict illegal drugs at sea – the Coast Guard – is kept extremely busy with missions ranging from port security to fisheries enforcement, and its aging fleet of medium endurance cutters (MEC) lacks several key capabilities needed for interdiction. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp, after sequestration went into effect, publicly reminded lawmakers that even with the Navy’s help, Operation Martillo’s footprint wasn’t large enough to interdict all the drugs headed into North America from the south. The withdrawal of Navy assets could be a crippling blow to the effort. According to Draves, a Navy or Coast Guard ship, operating in the Transit Zone for one man-year, helps interdict an average of twenty metric tons of cocaine.
To date, Navy frigates have played a significant role in Operation Martillo interdictions; On March 20, 2012, the USS Elrod, a 453-foot U.S. Navy guided missile frigate, and an embarked U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement detachment (LEDET) on patrol in the Caribbean, received notification from CBP that a surveillance aircraft had detected a suspicious vessel in the area. The vessel, interdicted by the Elrod and boarded by the Coast Guard LEDET personnel, was found to be carrying 18 bales of cocaine. A month later, the Elrod interdicted go-fast boats carrying 89 and 57 bales of cocaine, respectively. The USS Gary, a Navy frigate on patrol in the Eastern Pacific, interdicted drug-smuggling vessels in November 2012 and January 2013.
As of late April 2013, Navy assets were still participating in Operation Martillo, and hope remained that Congress would find a way to restore funding to prevent the pending deployment cancellations. With the FY 2013 continuing resolution, passed in late March, Congress was able to restore most of the CBP’s surveillance flight hours that had been cut under sequestration.
In the meantime, said Draves, Operation Martillo will continue to work with the assets it has – and while the Navy’s help is key, the assets of other partner nations are critical as well. About two-thirds of the operation’s interdictions have been supported by these partner nations, either through information, intelligence, or active involvement in the interdictions themselves.
Whether the Navy is there or not – and it’s likely that in the long run, the Navy will remain a crucial partner in targeting the Central American littorals – Operation Martillo has ushered a change in the way the United States and its partners operate in the Transit Zone. “The operation has really taken on a regional approach,” said Draves. “It’s not just each individual country operating independently – though we all continue to do that to an extent. But we used to conduct small operations in different areas – and now it’s a continuous focus on the littorals, the close-in areas along the east and west coasts of Central America, to try to force traffickers away from the shores and out into deeper waters.”