In addition to passing the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction law, the U.S. government has negotiated bilateral agreements with a range of countries. According to the recent INCSR, the United States has 28 bilateral agreements with its Caribbean, Central American, and South American partners. The U.S. government will not, however, name those partners, describing the agreements as classified.
The greatest anti-SPSS efforts, however, are reserved for Colombia, where the vessels are built, said Nicholas J. Kolen, section chief for Latin America and the Caribbean for the DEA’s Office of Global Enforcement, speaking at the Maritime Security Expo. DEA agents working in Colombia use every method at their disposal—confidential sources, undercover operations, wire intercepts, lead sharing, and grand juries—to fight this new drug-trafficking technology. Intelligence-gathering activities between Colombia and the DEA also expanded in 2008, according to the INCSR.
In addition, the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard are providing training and assistance to the Colombian Navy. For example, the Coast Guard has participated in combined counterdrug operations with the Colombian Navy. The United States ranks Colombia as its number one extradition partner, Payne says.
Last November, the United States and Colombia agreed in principle to create an International Center for Maritime and Riverine Interdiction of Drug Trafficking and Other Illicit Activity; it is headquartered in Cartagena, Colombia. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen announced the agreement on the U.S. Southern Command’s blog after returning from the First Maritime Counter Drug Symposium of the Americas late last year. The center will function as a regional analysis and intelligence-fusion center and an international school for maritime interdiction training.
The United States has been helping Colombia fight the war on drugs and battle left-wing insurgencies since the 2000 passage of Plan Colombia. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the U.S. government has spent over $6 billion funding Bogotá’s internal war.
The Colombian government has had some successes fighting SPSS construction. In 2007, the Colombian Navy raided a clandestine jungle shipyard near the port of Buenaventura, a hub of the country’s drug trade. Two SPSSs were discovered. One was ready to launch, while the other was 70 percent complete. Colombian security forces also raided at least two more construction sites in 2008.
“We’re working very hard [with Colombia] on looking for SPSS-building locations, locating the SPSSs when they are out to sea, working on catching the guys that design them,” says the U.S. counternarcotics official.
The Mexican government is also cooperating; it has interdicted an unidentified number of SPSSs, Espinoza says, although he could not provide specifics. The INCSR reports that the Coast Guard has participated in combined maritime counterdrug operations with Mexico as well.
These efforts come as the Mexican government finds itself in a pitched battle with the country’s drug cartels. The violence has risen to epidemic proportions, creating concerns on the U.S. border.
For all Washington’s efforts to stop drug smuggling by SPSSs—as well as its other initiatives in aiding Mexico and other Southern neighbors in battlingnarcotraffickers—the war is not going well. As noted earlier, the State Department’s 2009 INCSR report that SPSSs alone are estimated to have hauled 423 metric tons of cocaine in 2008. Of that combined load, only 71 metric tons were prevented from getting to the street.
In February, the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, led by three former heads of state—Cesar Gaviria of Colombia, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil—called Washington’s counternarcotics strategies a “failed war” and said “we are farther than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs.”
The commission recommends that the government shift its strategy to one that mirrors the European Union’s emphasis on curtailing the demand for drugs among the user population. That, they say, would be more productive than focusing so narrowly on the elusive goal of reducing the narcotic supply.
Matthew Harwood is an associate editor at Security Management.