WASHINGTON — Despite intensified counternarcotics efforts over the last five years, the military’s ability to stop drug smuggling into the U.S. from Latin America has declined as planes and ships have been diverted to combat operations around the globe, according to a senior military officer.
As a result, the Navy and Coast Guard are stopping one of three suspected seaborne drug shipments headed to American shores, Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, told reporters Wednesday.
The Navy has four frigates on patrol in the Caribbean and along the Pacific coast of Central America — one more than usual — as the U.S. works with regional allies in an anti-drug operation aimed at pushing smugglers further offshore.
But other military craft used to track or interdict drug shipments have been diverted to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the NATO-led air campaign last year in Libya, the coast of Somalia to hunt pirates and the Persian Gulf to beef up the Navy’s presence as tensions build with Iran.
“It’s really the capacity to intercept that we are really lacking,” Fraser said.
The military has spent $6.1 billion since 2005 to help detect drug payloads heading to the U.S., as well as on surveillance and other intelligence operations, according to a report last year by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Some experts argue that the U.S. should focus more on reducing demand for narcotics and curbing cartel violence than on assigning more military assets to chasing drug smugglers.
“This doesn’t mean that the U.S. should scramble for more drug-interdiction boats and planes,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on drug policy at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
U.S. demand for cocaine has fallen in the last two years, studies show, but smuggling of methamphetamines and their precursor chemicals has grown as traffickers shift to meet changing U.S. demand.
The Obama administration has sought to increase cooperation with authorities in Mexico and Central American countries to dismantle drug cartels operating from Panama to the U.S. border. Officials cite improved communications, better training and a series of high-profile arrests.
But critics say policymakers have little to show for their efforts. The epidemic of drug-related killings continues to rage in Mexico, and cartels show few signs of losing control of lucrative smuggling routes.
Some economists and academics have argued that capturing illegal drug shipments drives up the price on American streets and serves to further enrich the cartels.
“Any drug-interdiction strategy is a Band-Aid, a temporary fix,” said Bruce Bagley, who studies U.S. counternarcotics efforts at the University of Miami at Coral Gables, Fla. “It may reduce the supply for a short time, but what does get in is worth more.”