Interview with Rear Admiral Chuck Michel, Director of JIATF-S
Four months into the launching of Operation Martillo, over 15 nations working together have persistently targeted illicit trafficking along Central America’s waters, disrupting more than 30 metric tons of drugs and detaining over 50 people.
In an interview with Diálogo, during the Central American Security Conference (CANSEC 2012) in April, the director of U.S. Joint Interagency Task Force – South (JIATF-S) said that the success of Operación Martillo lies in the tightness of its partners: “If there is a weak partner, that’s where the traffickers are going to go. It’s absolutely essential for all of us to stand together.”
Diálogo: How is JIATF-S involved in Operation Martillo?
Rear Admiral Chuck Michel, Director, JIATF-South: Operation Martillo is really a regional effort and it’s the first time we try to employ all the expertise, and all the relationships and all the history of all the regional partners to try to work together, to try to achieve a strategic effect against transnational criminal organizations that operate in the region.
JIATF-S facilitates Operation Martillo, but we really don’t own Operation Martillo. Operation Martillo is owned by various stakeholders: that includes all the militaries and law enforcement partners that participate throughout the region and beyond. We have substantial contributions from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Canada and a number of other partners.
Diálogo: How are the European partners participating?
Rear Adm. Michel: Our European partners are absolutely critical in providing ships, aircraft, intelligence and logistical support… everything you would need to run this operation. Our Dutch partners in particular are running a key part of Operation Martillo through the Central Caribbean to sense if the traffickers who are being pressured in Central America shift to the Central Caribbean. The French, under Vice Admiral Loic Raffaelli, out in Martinique, are also running an operation that is part of Operation Martillo through the Eastern Caribbean to try to achieve the exact same effect. The United Kingdom contributes through intelligence support and ships.
Diálogo: How about the countries that have fewer resources?
Rear Adm. Michel: There is a place and a role for everybody throughout the region to participate. Regional partner nations and U.S. participants have a renewed commitment to address Transnational Organized Crime (TOC). We’ve seen improvements in communication sharing between nations and law enforcement activities and we’ve had an increase in the number of interdictions and seizures involving two or more nations in one way or another. No single nation or agency operating alone is capable of defeating TOC. Regardless of how small one country’s efforts or resources may seem, taken collectively, every effort enhances the region’s capacity to counter illicit trafficking.
Diálogo: Are there contingency plans for nations that may become affected if, as a consequence of the efforts put in Central America, the trafficking routes shift to the Eastern Caribbean countries?
Rear Adm. Michel: One of the key parts of Operation Martillo is that it has a very robust assessment process. That processes has to involve not only the United States but also everybody throughout the Hemisphere. They all have to have their antennas up and their ears open to sense when traffickers shift their patterns. It is absolutely vital to sense those patterns as early as possible to be able to shift resources as necessary. For example, as General Fraser said, as we put pressure against the drug traffickers in Honduras, they’re not likely to become honest citizens and get a real job, they are going to move somewhere else and we need to sense that change and try to be as nimble as they are, so we can shift our resources in whatever direction we need to shift in. Traffickers are nimble but they are not omnipotent, they don’t own the planet. Whenever they shift, they still have to put infrastructure, they still have to move that product to another location, they still have to corrupt that government official or do all the prep work they need to do. They can’t shift on a dime easily.
Diálogo: Is Martillo an open-ended operation, or does it have a time frame to accomplish certain goals?
Rear Adm. Michel: This operation has no firm end-date; it changes when the traffickers change their behavior. We will continue to put pressure on them until they change their business patterns. How long will that take? Nobody knows.
Diálogo: Which are the main achievements so far since Operation Martillo started?
Rear Adm. Michel: Since January 15, 2012, partner nations and U.S. law enforcement activities have seized 32 metric tons of cocaine, a pretty substantial amount. We have seen a significant reduction in air trafficking, somewhere between 60 and 70 percent. I can say with a pretty good degree of confidence that something significant has happened in air trafficking, I can’t tell you fully why it happened but something has happened. We are going to have to monitor that as to what the traffickers are doing… Are they stockpiling? Are they moving to other modes we are not aware of? They are very versatile, very well funded adversaries.
Diálogo: You have underscored that this is a multinational effort, where most of the success stories involve more than one country…
Rear Adm. Michel: Since we began Operation Martillo, four out of five operations or 80 percent are multinational operations. For example, the go-fast boats typically depart from Colombia, are sensed down in Colombian waters, chased across into Panamanian waters or near Panamanian waters… so they may go outside territorial waters, be chased down by U.S. people, handed off to a Panamanian interceptor who will do the take down. Just that involves Colombia, the United States and Panama.
Diálogo: General Fraser mentioned that there were talks about a six-month period to assess the results. Where do you expect to be at the end of six months?
Rear Adm. Michel: Hopefully in six months we will see a measurable change in trafficking patterns. On the air side, we have already seen it. On the maritime side, I want to see clearer changes in trafficking patterns than we currently see right now. I’d love to see some measurable changes on land, for example, reduction in homicides and crime rates that are related to the cocaine flow as it moves through there… that will be a welcomed addition. And there are probably other factors that we can measure, like taking down drug trafficking networks, indictments, arrests. So as we continue rolling on with Operation Martillo this is very much a work in progress and it is a learning experience for us and all the rest of the partners and we hope to be able to hone those skills over the next six months. We want to continue to keep the pressure on the traffickers. That’s what I want to achieve in six months.