Q&A: Putting U.S. Counterdrug Operations in the Caribbean in Context

During an April 1 press briefing on the U.S. response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump announced new deployments of ships and aircraft to the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific, describing the move as necessary amid the pandemic due to the “growing threat that cartels, criminals, terrorists, and other malign actors will try to exploit the situation for their own gain.”

Because the announcement is centered on the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific, the focus of these interdiction operations would be almost exclusively on cocaine, not heroin, synthetic opioids, or methamphetamine. Given the history of U.S. military intervention in the hemisphere, the announcement has fueled speculation and rumors about U.S. security policy towards Venezuela. We’ve prepared the following factsheet to place the announcement into perspective.

Is President Trump’s announcement of new deployments actually “new?”

The President’s announcement raised the profile of the operation, but the deployments themselves had been made public before. At a March 11 hearing on security challenges in the U.S. House of Representatives, Admiral Craig Faller of the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) outlined the strategy: “There will be an increase in U.S. military presence in the hemisphere later this year. This will include an enhanced presence of ships, aircraft, and security forces to reassure our partners, improve U.S. and partner readiness and interoperability, and counter a range of threats to include illicit narcoterrorism.”

What is new is the scale of the deployment in Latin America, and the sudden shift in Department of Defense strategy on counternarcotics. According to a graphic released by the Defense Department, the operation will involve an array of ships (Navy destroyers and littoral combat ships, and 10 Coast Guard cutters) and aircraft (helicopters on destroyers and cutters, Navy P-8 patrol aircraft, and Air Force E-3 and E-8 reconnaissance planes) previously unseen in Latin America. It will also involve a company (generally 80–150 troops) of ground forces belonging to the Security Force Assistance Brigade. Some of these assets are quite sophisticated: an E-3 AWACS plane, equipped with a 30-foot radar dome, cost $270 million in 1998 (about $430 million today) to obtain and costs $39,587 per hour to operate.

Drug interdiction has been a low-priority mission for the Department of Defense in recent years, despite insistent calls by SOUTHCOM for more resources to patrol the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific. The public summary of the Department’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, which emphasizes great-power conflict, makes no mention of drugs or “narcoterrorism,” and makes only one fleeting allusion to transnational organized crime. According to a source cited in an April 2 Foreign Policy article, the Department in fact opposed the current deployment and pushed back against it, but President Trump insisted.

Is this tied to the coronavirus outbreak?

The President made his announcement at the opening of his daily coronavirus briefing, implying a link between COVID-19 and the new deployment. But the fact that this operation was already in the works suggests otherwise. It takes many months to plan an operation like this, including much discussion within the Pentagon about how and when to shift naval assets from the Pacific and European commands. Planning almost certainly has been in the works for some time, probably since before the first patient began to show symptoms in Wuhan.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley told reporters at the White House, “We came upon some intelligence some time ago that the drug cartels, as a result of COVID-19, were going to try to take advantage of the situation and try to infiltrate additional drugs into our country.” However, he provided no evidence for these assertions. What we do know is the following:

  • About 90 percent of cocaine trafficked to the United States makes landfall in Central America or Mexico, then travels overland and crosses the U.S. border. Along the border, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) makes about 88 percent of its cocaine seizures at the land ports of entry. Today, those official border crossings are closed to “inessential” travel, so right now it is harder for traffickers to use this route. A reduction in cargo container transit also complicates illicit transshipment. For that reason, we find perplexing Gen. Milley’s indication that traffickers plan to take advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to move more of their product.
  • The DEA’s most recent annual National Drug Threat Assessment, published in January, speculated that a 2018 drop in U.S. border cocaine seizures “likely means there is a surplus of cocaine already in the United States, reducing the need for cocaine importation. This decrease also points to the possibility that domestic supply is outpacing current demand.” If this is accurate, it would make little sense for traffickers to be planning a COVID-19-related surge of an already glutted product.
  • Three weeks before the White House announcement, on March 11, Adm. Faller of Southern Command both testified and gave a lengthy briefing to reporters at the Pentagon. At neither appearance did he mention an anticipated COVID-19-related surge in drug trafficking.

Is this deployment linked to Venezuela’s crisis? 

The United States has endeavored to paint Venezuela as a “narcostate” in the last few weeks, so it’s hard not to see this announcement as part of a U.S. strategy to exert pressure on Nicolás Maduro and his allies. On March 26, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed indictments against Nicolás Maduro and 14 current and former Venezuelan officials, mostly for charges related to drug trafficking. As a result the heads of every institution controlled by Chavismo, including the executive (Maduro), the judiciary (Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno), the National Constituent Assembly (headed by Diosdado Cabello), and the military (Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez), all face criminal charges.

The allegations are serious, and involve years of DEA intelligence-gathering. But the decision to unseal indictments of these figures is part of a larger U.S. pressure campaign. WOLA has been concerned by this announcement as have others, including officials within the State Department and other international actors. In fact, this move may lower the already reduced incentives for individuals such as Cabello, Moreno, and Padrino Lopez to pressure internally for negotiations leading to new presidential elections in Venezuela.

How important is Venezuela to the transnational drug trade?

Venezuela remains a relatively minor player in the transnational drug trade. As WOLA has noted in a recent report, Venezuela is not a major transit country for drugs bound for the United States.

According to the U.S. interagency Consolidated Counterdrug Database (CCDB), 210 metric tons of cocaine passed through Venezuela in 2018. By comparison, in the same year about 10 times as much cocaine (2,370 metric tons) passed through Colombia, and seven times as much cocaine (1,400 metric tons) passed through Guatemala. Even when CCDB data shows drug trafficking through Venezuela peaked in 2017, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reported that no more than seven percent of total cocaine movement passed through the Eastern Caribbean, which includes Venezuela.

Though it occupies a relatively minor role in the transnational drug trade, there are real concerns about the Venezuelan state being penetrated by drug trafficking networks. Yet, rather than address these concerns directly, the U.S strategy has been to paint this dynamic as a serious, unitary threat.

Perhaps the most sensational aspect of the indictments is that one of them names Nicolás Maduro as the leader of a drug trafficking organization called the “Cartel of the Suns.” Journalists specializing in organized crime have for years called into question the existence of such an organization.

In 2015, when it was Diosdado Cabello who was said to be the head of this cartel, Javier Mayorca, who has carefully researched the issue, said, “I doubt the existence of a Cartel of the Suns.” The term, he suggested, has become “a sort of urban legend developing in Venezuela, which, over time, has been used to describe varying actors.” As Insight Crime has suggested, “The drug trafficking structures in the Venezuelan state are not a cartel, they are a series of often competing networks buried deep within the Chavista regime, with ties going back almost two decades.“

While there is little doubt drug trafficking runs through the Maduro regime, the metaphor “Cartel of the Suns” overestimates its coherence and its articulation with Maduro himself. It is a dubious strategy that effectively provides a unitary name to a complex set of phenomena and helps portray it as a serious threat to U.S. security.

How have other countries reacted to the news of the U.S. deployment?

Defense Secretary Mark Esper claimed that “22 partner nations have joined us in this fight, bringing with them a variety of intelligence and operations capabilities.” There is no list of these partners, although Southern Command’s 2019 Posture Statement noted, “The United Kingdom, Canada, France, and the Netherlands lead multiple interdiction operations in the Caribbean, while we focus U.S. assets on the Eastern Pacific. Last year [2018], 17 international partners conducted nearly half of the interdictions supported by Joint Interagency Task Force-South.”

Meanwhile Russia, which maintains military cooperation with the Maduro regime, has criticized the announcement. In remarks to reporters on April 2, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, “We are seeing how certain countries—we should say, not the countries as a whole, but certain political forces there—are still being driven…by the desire to exploit the difficult situation in the world, the grave epidemiological situation in Venezuela to achieve their political goals.”

Venezuelan National Assembly President Juan Guaidó supported the announcement. In a statement, he claimed that “these joint efforts of the US and the allied governments of the region, in the matter of combating drug terrorism, undoubtedly pave the way for a free Venezuela.” Predictably, the Maduro government has criticized the move as a “desperate attempt to divert attention away from the tragic humanitarian crisis.”

How is geopolitics involved?

For the Trump administration, great-power rivalry is an important factor. Adm. Faller said in March, “The neighborhood’s becoming increasingly contested strategic space in the global competition with China and Russia and we do maintain our positional advantage here,” adding, “Hundreds of Russians, including Russian Spetsnaz and Russian technical advisors, [are] fixing [Venezuela’s] air defense systems and advising on upgrading their SU-30s. And then unfortunately to a lesser extent, Chinese, and they’re helping Maduro control his population.”

Just so far in 2020, Southern Command has carried out other, smaller operations and exercises intended to send signals to Venezuela and, by extension, to Russia and China. These include a January “freedom of navigation” operation near Venezuela’s territorial waters of the U.S.S. Detroit, a littoral combat ship, and two high-profile exercises in Colombia: an 82nd Airborne paratrooper event and a highly promoted and mostly humanitarian exercise in the border department of La Guajira.

Is the U.S. government preparing for an invasion like in Panama 1989?

In 1988 the U.S. government indicted General Manuel Noriega, then the de facto ruler of Panama. After negotiations fell through and the situation deteriorated, the United States invaded Panama in December 1989. Protecting the United States against drug trafficking and restoring democracy were the justifications of “Operation Just Cause,” so there is some precedent for the argument that indictments of leaders on drug charges can be a prelude to military action to remove a leader that the U.S. opposes.

However, the situations are undeniably different. Not only did Noriega’s Panama have less than three million people and 15,000 troops, the United States had military bases all around the capital. Venezuela, in contrast, is a country of 30 million people with at least 115,000 troops, in addition to tanks and fighter jets. What is more, Venezuela is significantly larger than Panama and has vast ungoverned spaces dominated by insurgent and organized-crime groups, some of them Colombian. An invasion or other military regime-change operation would be an enormous and complicated undertaking.

Though an invasion is unlikely, this deployment no doubt is an effort to signal military resolve and rattle sabers at Venezuela.

What are the risks associated with this policy?

The principal risk is the “tripwire” scenario. With U.S. assets and personnel operating very close to (and perhaps occasionally within) Venezuela’s territorial waters and airspace, there is a possibility that an incident could escalate. In a worst-case scenario, such an incident might even involve Russian advisors. As recent history has shown, military intervention is extremely costly and destructive and rarely achieves its intended goals. As WOLA has noted, a “targeted” foreign military intervention in Venezuela could very easily lead to an armed insurgency that could last decades and complicate regional stability. Ultimately, any such operation would be devastating for the human rights of the Venezuelan people.