WASHINGTON — Late on a moonless night last March, a plane smuggling nearly half a ton of cocaine touched down at a remote airstrip in Honduras. A heavily armed ground crew was waiting for it — as were Honduran security forces. After a 20-minute firefight, a Honduran officer was wounded and two drug traffickers lay dead.
Several news outlets briefly reported the episode, mentioning that a Honduran official said the United States Drug Enforcement Administration had provided support. But none of the reports included a striking detail: that support consisted of an elite detachment of military-trained D.E.A. special agents who joined in the shootout, according to a person familiar with the episode.
The D.E.A. now has five commando-style squads it has been quietly deploying for the past several years to Western Hemisphere nations — including Haiti, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Belize — that are battling drug cartels, according to documents and interviews with law enforcement officials.
The program — called FAST, for Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team — was created during the George W. Bush administration to investigate Taliban-linked drug traffickers in Afghanistan. Beginning in 2008 and continuing under President Obama, it has expanded far beyond the war zone.
“You have got to have special skills and equipment to be able to operate effectively and safely in environments like this,” said Michael A. Braun, a former head of operations for the drug agency who helped design the program. “The D.E.A. is working shoulder-to-shoulder in harm’s way with host-nation counterparts.”
The evolution of the program into a global enforcement arm reflects the United States’ growing reach in combating drug cartels and how policy makers increasingly are blurring the line between law enforcement and military activities, fusing elements of the “war on drugs” with the “war on terrorism.”
Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami professor who specializes in Latin America and counternarcotics, said the commando program carries potential benefits: the American teams could help arrest kingpins, seize stockpiles, disrupt smuggling routes and professionalize security forces in small countries through which traffickers pass drugs headed to the United States.
But there are also potential dangers.
“It could lead to a nationalist backlash in the countries involved,” he said. “If an American is killed, the administration and the D.E.A. could get mired in Congressional oversight hearings. Taking out kingpins could fragment the organization and lead to more violence. And it won’t permanently stop trafficking unless a country also has capable institutions, which often don’t exist in Central America.”
Because the presence of armed Americans on their soil raises sensitivities about sovereignty, some countries that have sought the assistance of the United States will not acknowledge it, and the D.E.A. is reluctant to disclose the details of the commando teams’ deployments. Others — like Mexico, which has accepted American help, including surveillance drones — have not wanted the commando squads.
Federal law prohibits the drug agency from directly carrying out arrests overseas, but agents are permitted to accompany their foreign counterparts on operations. The Americans work with specially vetted units of local security forces that they train and mentor. In “exigent circumstances,” they may open fire to protect themselves or partners.
The firefight in Honduras last March, described by officials of both countries, illustrates the flexibility of such rules. The Honduran minister of public security at the time, Oscar Álvarez, said that under the agreement with the D.E.A., the Americans normally did not go on missions.
But in that case, he said, a training exercise went live: an American squad was working with a Honduran police unit in La Mosquitia rainforest when they received word that a suspicious plane from Venezuela was being tracked to a clandestine landing strip nearby.
After the plane landed, the Honduran police identified themselves and the traffickers opened fire, officials of both countries said. After a 20-minute gunfight, the Hondurans and Americans seized the cocaine and withdrew to evacuate the wounded officer.
“I don’t want to say it was Vietnam-style, but it was typical of war action,” said Mr. Álvarez; he declined to say whether the Americans took part in the shooting, but another person familiar with the episode said they did.
The FAST program is similar to a D.E.A. operation in the late 1980s and early 1990s in which drug enforcement agents received military training and entered into partnerships with local forces in places like Peru and Bolivia, targeting smuggling airstrips and jungle labs.
The Reagan-era initiative, though, drew criticism from agency supervisors who disliked the disruption of supplying agents for temporary rotations, and questioned whether its benefits outweighed the risks and cost. The Clinton administration was moving to shut down the operation when five agents died in a plane crash in Peru in 1994, sealing its fate.
In 2000, when the United States expanded assistance to Colombia in its battle against the narcotics-financed insurgent group called FARC, the trainers were military, not D.E.A. But after the invasion of Afghanistan, the Bush administration assigned Mr. Braun, a veteran of the earlier effort, to design a new program.
Begun in 2005, the program has five squads, each with 10 agents. Many are military veterans, and the section is overseen by a former member of the Navy Seals, Richard Dobrich. The Pentagon has provided most of their training and equipment, and they routinely fly on military aircraft.
The deployments to Afghanistan have resulted in large seizures of drugs, and some tragedy: two of the three D.E.A. agents who died in a helicopter crash in October 2009 were with FAST. Last week, an agent was shot in the head when his squad came under fire while leaving a bazaar where they had just seized 3,000 kilograms, about 6,600 pounds, of poppy seeds and 50 kilograms, about 110 pounds, of opium. Airlifted to Germany in critical condition, he is expected to survive, an official said.
The commandos have also been deployed at least 15 times to Latin America. The D.E.A. said some of those missions involved only training, but officials declined to provide details. Still, glimpses of the program emerged in interviews with current and former American and foreign officials, briefing files, budget documents and several State Department cables released by WikiLeaks.
For example, an American team assisted Guatemalan forces in the March 2011 arrest of Juan Alberto Ortiz-López, whom the D.E.A. considered a top cocaine smuggler for the Sinaloa cartel, an official said. Videos of the raid show masked men in black tactical garb; it is unclear if any are Americans.
A diplomatic cable describes another mission in Guatemala. On July 21, 2009, seven American military helicopters carrying D.E.A. and Guatemalan security forces flew to the compound of a wealthy family, the Lorenzanas — four of whom were wanted in the United States on drug trafficking charges.
After a “small firefight” in which a bullet grazed a Lorenzana family member, agents found “large numbers of weapons and amounts of cash” but not the targets, who may have been tipped off, according to the cable. The Guatemalan news media documented the failure, portraying the joint operation as a “D.E.A. raid.”
A former head of Guatemala’s national security council, Francisco Jiménez, said in an interview that American participation in such operations was an “open secret” but rarely acknowledged.
In October 2009, another official said, the agency deployed a squad aboard a Navy amphibious assault ship, the Wasp, off the coast of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where it focused on planes used for smuggling.
Cables also show the agency has twice come close to deploying one of its units to the Darién region of Panama, where FARC incursions have established cocaine smuggling routes. But both missions were aborted, for fears that it was too unsafe for the Americans or that their involvement could escalate the conflict.
FAST has repeatedly deployed squads to Haiti, helping to arrest three fugitives this year and train 100 Haitian counternarcotics officers this fall. Mario Andresol, the Haitian police chief, says he needs such help. “We know the smuggling routes,” he said, “but the problem is we don’t have enough people to go after them.”
Source: NY Times, By CHARLIE SAVAGE
Published: November 6, 2011
Randal C. Archibold contributed reporting from Honduras and Haiti, and Ginger Thompson from Washington.
Dear Drugs-Forum readers: We are a small non-profit that runs one of the most read drug information & addiction help websites in the world. We serve over 4 million readers per month, and have costs like all popular websites: servers, hosting, licenses and software. To protect our independence we do not run ads. We take no government funds. We run on donations which average $25. If everyone reading this would donate $5 then this fund raiser would be done in an hour. If Drugs-Forum is useful to you, take one minute to keep it online another year by donating whatever you can today. Donations are currently not sufficient to pay our bills and keep the site up. Your help is most welcome. Thank you.
D.E.A. Squads Extend Reach of Drug War