By Adam Williams
GUATEMALA CITY — The first 90 days of the multinational anti-drug initiative known as Operation Martillo were a “complete success,” Guatemalan Government Minister Héctor Mauricio López Bonilla said in the nation’s capital on July 12.
From April 14 through July 12, the Guatemalan, Honduran and U.S. anti-narcotics mission confiscated more than 2,340 kilograms of drugs and incinerated an additional 3,000 kilos along the Caribbean coastlines of Guatemala and Honduras. That’s the word from Ulises Noe Anzueto Giron, Guatemala’s defense minister, speaking at a luncheon here highlighting the mission’s accomplishments.
“I am convinced that with each day of this mission, regional security is improving,” said José Miguel Cabrie, the Honduran ambassador to Guatemala. “Drug trafficking is gravely affecting our countries, but the people involved in this mission are taking the steps to improve regional peace, justice, and above all, to reduce the fear of crime in our nations.”
In recent years, the jungle and mountainous regions of Central America’s eastern coast have become primary transport locations for drugs traveling north from South America. About 79 percent of cocaine flights that take off from South American airstrips land in Honduras, according to a U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs report published in March.
Challenge ahead is a ‘monumental task’
“The fight to restore security to this region is a monumental task,” said Anzueto. “We are very pleased with the results of this first step in the operation and consider it a first victory, though we know the threat of drug-traffic is great. The fight is only just beginning.”
In January, Southcom paired with more than 15 countries, including all seven Central American nations, to target the illicit trafficking of drugs throughout the isthmus. The effort is being assisted by Colombia, Mexico, Canada and several European nations.
In the first four months of the initiative, Operacion Martillo (Operation Hammer in English) has resulted in the confiscation of more than 32 metric tons of cocaine, and has slashed air trafficking of drugs by 60 to 70 percent, said Rear Admiral Chuck Michel, Director of the U.S. Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF-S).
“The results of Operation Martillo are immediately evident,” said López Bonilla. “Within weeks it was clear that drug traffic was diverting away from patrolled areas. We were able to close drug entry points and will continue to do so in other parts of the country and region.”
Operation Martillo includes all 7 nations of Central America
The pilots that took part in Operation Martillo’s first 90-day installment were relaxed on the afternoon of July 12. Dressed in fatigues, they laughed among themselves and enjoyed a traditional Guatemalan lunch of chicken, rice, beans and plantains as officers praised them.
“While we celebrate here today that we lost no personnel or aircraft during the mission, we know that we must continue our pursuit to improve the lives of the citizens of this region,” López Bonilla said. “Central America is a drug corridor and routes are always changing.”
All seven Central American nations were included on the U.S. State Department’s 2012 Major Illicit Drug Transit or Major Illicit Drug Producing list. The report estimated that 90 percent of the 700 metric tons of cocaine shipped annually from Colombia and other producing nations pass through Central America.
While the Caribbean coasts of Honduras and Guatemala remain primary drug transit locations, Anzuelo said that Operation Martillo’s next initiative will likely incorporate amplified surveillance and patrol over Pacific waters. With most drug shipments destined for Mexico, Anzuelo said deployment of forces to the Pacific are necessary to limit northbound passageways.
“Drug trafficking networks are mobile, powerful, transnational organizations,” he said. “If it is known that the Caribbean coastline is being heavily monitored, the operation could shift to the Pacific.”
Sinaloa cartel links revealed
Operation Martillo uncovered links between Mexico’s Sinoloa cartel and drug routes in the Gulf of Honduras, he said. Given the breadth of that cartel’s regional operations, it is thought that the organization has already infiltrated Guatemala’s Pacific waters and are employing fishermen to transport drugs from sea to land.
“Unfortunately we are seeing more and more evidence that local fishermen are being incorporated in the international drug trade,” Lopez Bonilla said. “Legal, licensed fishermen are being employed by drug organizations to pick up shipments that planes drop in the water.”
Guatemalan fishermen often collect the floating drugs at specified drop points during the night and transfer the packages inland, he added, noting that “we have several reports of this activity in Pacific waters and a likely next step in our operations will be to uncover the roots of these transport networks.”
Operation Martillo “has no firm end-date,” according to RADM Michel. Members of the Guatemalan and Honduran armed forces echo that idea.
While the mission’s first stage merited large drug seizures, arrests and a reduction in clandestine flights through remote regions, they assert that the multinational collaborative effort must continue in order to improve security in Central America’s northern triangle, where murder rates are among the world’s highest.
“It’s only been three months,” Anzuelo said. “We are definitely pleased and encouraged by the results, though this is a small piece of a bigger operation. Martillo will require collaboration of all the countries of the isthmus and we must assure that we are organized, trained and prepared to continue to reduce drug operations in Central America.”
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