This article is a part of our 2021 Series on Caribbean Maritime Security. Read the Series Introduction at this link.
The US deployment of several warships and high-end naval platforms as part of the Enhanced Counter Narcotics Operations is not only about interdicting illicit narcotics but also about deterring geopolitical rivals in the region like Venezuela and its foreign backers. The surge of U.S. Navy vessels for counternarcotics in the Caribbean since 2020 asks for some questions about the nature of the U.S. maritime footprint in both the Caribbean and the Pacific. This post argues that the Enhanced Counter Narcotics Operations may be setting a trend in how the U.S. may deal with specific geopolitical tensions also felt in Latin America: on behalf of the War on Drugs.
The U.S. Navy in counternarcotics in the Caribbean
US Navy vessels patrol the Caribbean as part of counter narcotics operations in “ebbs and flows,” and routinely pass through the Caribbean enroute to other missions around the world. When naval vessels pass through the Caribbean they often embark Coast Guard detachments which can perform law enforcement duties. This allows the ‘grey hull’ Navy vessels to help supporting ongoing deployments of the US Coast Guard’s ‘white hulls,’ but generally they are not dedicated to law enforcement missions.
The Coast Guard is the lead for counter narcotics because they are the U.S. maritime law enforcement agency, not only do they have law enforcement authorities, but they also have much more affordable platforms optimized for this type of work. They are also specialized in less-than-lethal tactics and are optimized for dealing with the challenges of maritime policing.
Since the late 1980s when the US military was directed to help support other agencies in counter narcotics as part of the War on Drugs, it has not been unusual to see military assets supporting the Coast Guard, particularly with surveillance and intelligence. Usually this is contingent upon the Navy having assets to enforce counter narcotics operations that are free from other missions but on occasion military assets have supported counter narcotics like the B-1 ‘Lancer’ bomber and even a Virginia-class attack submarine.
The Enhanced Counter Narcotic Operations: What changed in 2020?
The scale of the military presence in the recent over the last year is unprecedented. On April 1, the Trump administration announced the beginning of Enhanced Counter Narcotics Operations which rised the military and civilian assets allocated to ongoing counter narcotics operations in the Caribbean. The arrival of additional equipment increased the size of US aerial and naval forces in the region by at least 60%. US Southern Command received an unspecified number of Navy destroyers, littoral combat ships, and a variety of surveillance aircraft as well as additional Coast Guard cutters. All of this was coordinated with increased efforts by US allies and partners in the region, further enhancing the impact.
Officially, the increased presence has two goals – it responds to the increase in drug smuggling during the coronavirus pandemic and it targets the network of traffickers operating from Venezuelan territory, which help finance the Maduro regime. Southern Command has been vocal in pointing out the increasing Iranian, Russian and Cuban presence in Venezuela and the need to counter their influence in the Western Hemisphere. US intelligence agencies have tracked flights of gold, drugs, cash, arms and even troops between Russia, Iran and Venezuela. And precisely this geopolitical anxiety makes the case for increased counter narcotics operations noteworthy. Counter narcotics operations in Latin America have usually been a tool for the United States to to strengthen allies and partners in the region against insurgencies and transnational drug organizations. Plan Colombia supported the Colombian government in their fight against drug cartels and the long-running FARC insurgency, and the Mérida Initiative still supports Mexico and other Central American countries to counter cartels operating in the region. In contrast, Enhanced Counter Narcotics Operations are being used as a tool against a Latin American government and their international backers.
But the presence of warships in the Caribbean has had in praxis another, more prominent target than narco-traffickers. The deployment directly targeted the Venezuelan state itself, in spite of previous statements by the Southern Command to the contrary. This focus on Venezuela can be seen in how the United States supported Guyana in the territorial dispute over the Esequibo region. On June 23, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, the USS Nitze, conducted a so-called “freedom of navigation operation” in Esequibo waters close to Venezuela’s shores, a clear challenge to Venezuelan claims over the area. On July 15, another Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, USS Pinckney, repeated the same exercise outside of Venezuela’s 12 nautical-mile territorial waters in the Caribbean.
So far, no US warships in the region have been involved in seizing fuel shipments from Iran to Venezuela, but as long as the United States has capable assets positioned in the Caribbean it sends a strong message that this is possibility as already seen at the example of the US Justice Department has seizing tankers bound for Venezuela in the Strait of Hormuz.
In other words, counter narcotics is a façade to deter rivals in the region. However, stopping drugs still represents a powerful driver for the militarization of Caribbean waters, even before the Venezuelan crisis started. Southern Command has, since 2007, repeatedly requested more naval assets because “the sheer volume of illicit trafficking events far outmatches the force packages available to deal with them.” In 2020, the command reported some local successes in the form of million-dollar drug busts by both the Coast Guard and Navy vessels. Guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd seized US$30 million worth of drugs in September and three months later, the Independence-class littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords seized a shipment worth US$106 million. But apart from an increase in seizures, it is not clear that the surge is countering trafficking networks or is on the way to achieving long-term measures of success.
A model for future threats in the region?
What is clear is that the demands by Southern Command for additional assets were not only met, but even exceeded. In 2018, former Southern Command Admiral Kurt W. Tidd requested a force package should include “a non-ballistic missile capable US Navy Destroyer or Littoral Combat Ship, or a US Coast Guard Cutter.” With the Enhanced Counter Narcotics Operations in 2020 Southern Command got all three plus an array of surveillance aircraft from the Navy and Air Force. And those assets have been instrumental not only to stop drug-trafficking, but to exert pressure directly on the Venezuelan state without any need to call it even ‘pressure’. Enhanced Counter Narcotics Operations as executed in the Caribbean may become a model for exerting diplomatic pressure under the guise of maritime law enforcement. A strategy that could come into fruition specifically against China by claiming a link between drug trafficking and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing near the Galapagos archipelago. By resorting to this argument -and the huge assets the U.S. and its regional allies devotes to the the mission-, Southern Command may be in the capacity to counter another “malign” presence. All of this, however, comes at the cost of undermining the very normative claim of the War on Drugs: the saving of American lives.