SOUTHCOM’s Counter-Drug Efforts Hit by Budget Cuts

Facing continuing budget cuts, the head of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) says he could dramatically reduce the cocaine traffic coming into the United States by stationing "13 or 14" Coast Guard cutters and Navy vessels off the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Central America.

SOUTHCOM, one of the Defense Department’s six joint regional combatant commands, is responsible for U.S. national security needs — particularly counter-narcotics operations — for all of Latin America south of Mexico.

Related: U.S. Border Authorities Eye Next Gen Mobile Surveillance

But mandatory budget cuts under sequestration and other spending constraints have trimmed SOUTHCOM’s fiscal 2013 operating budget by 26 percent. Funding cuts to the Navy’s budget also are expected to have a devastating effect on SOUTHCOM maritime activities.

Navy officials have warned they may halt all deployments in the Caribbean and South America if sequestration cuts continue into fiscal 2014.

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, SOUTHCOM’s commander, told a recent conference on countering transnational organized crime that over the past year there were five Navy and Coast Guard vessels on station either on the Pacific or Caribbean side of Central America, where high-speed vessels, called go-fast boats, can carry as much of three tons of cocaine between Colombia and transit points near Mexico for smuggling into the United States.

The key to stopping drugs from South America is to interdict them at sea before they came ashore in Central America, Kelly said April 23 at the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement conference. Last year, law enforcement authorities inside the United States spent nearly $26 billion to seize about 15 tons of drugs, he said.

Miami-based SOUTHCOM spent $600 million and seized 175 tons of cocaine with just five ships, Kelly said. "We estimate if we had about 13 or 14 ships on station in the Pacific and Caribbean on a daily basis, would could — not completely stop — but eliminate to a very, very large degree the flow of cocaine into the U.S.," he said. However, with anticipated budget cuts, Kelly said he would have access to only one ship in 2014.

In addition to the go-fast boats, Kelly noted drug cartels were building their own submarines in the jungles. The semi-submersibles can carry 4-6 tons of cocaine and have a range of up to 6,800 miles which, he said, could take them from the northern coast of Colombia to the Mediterranean or Alaska.

"I need ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] aircraft to find them and then I need Coast Guard cutters or Navy ships to stop them on the high seas, and seize them and their [illegal] product," Kelly said.

Related: Navy Unveils New Laser Weapon

He noted that nearly all the navies and maritime police units of U.S.-friendly nations in the region are cooperating in the battle against drug trafficking "but of all the partners we deal with, the Nicaraguans are probably our most effective allies in Central America," even though "we don’t like them and they don’t like us," Kelly said.

Despite the political and ideological differences between the two countries, Kelly said he wanted to "give a shout out" to the Nicaraguan Coast Guard and Navy for their aggressive policing of the littorals which forces drug dealers out on to the open sea where they are more vulnerable to U.S. surveillance.

This article first appeared on the Seapower magazine website: