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American DEA squads extend reach of drug war

Charlie Savage
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FOILED: A file picture released by the Honduran Security Ministry of an aircraft whose crew were involved in drug smuggling and whose escape the police prevented. — PHOTO: AP
FOILED: A file picture released by the Honduran Security Ministry of an aircraft whose crew were involved in drug smuggling and whose escape the police prevented. — PHOTO: AP

Late on a moonless night last March, a plane smuggling nearly half a ton of cocaine touched down at a remote airstrip in Honduras, in South America. 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 (DEA) had provided support. But none of the reports included a striking detail: that support consisted of an elite detachment of military-trained DEA special agents who joined in the shoot-out, according to a person familiar with the episode.

From Afghanistan programme

The DEA 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 programme — 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.

Part of war on terror?

“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 programme. “The DEA is working shoulder-to-shoulder in harm's way with host-nation counterparts.”

The evolution of the programme into a global enforcement arm reflects the United States' growing reach in combating drug cartels and how policymakers 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 specialises in Latin America and counternarcotics, said the commando programme carries potential benefits: the American teams could help arrest kingpins, seize stockpiles, disrupt smuggling routes and professionalise 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 DEA could get mired in Congressional oversight hearings. Taking out kingpins could fragment the organisation 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.” 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 DEA, the Americans normally did not go on missions. But in that case, he said, a training exercise went live.

“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.

Begun in 2005, the programme 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 DEA 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 kg, about 6,600 pounds, of poppy seeds and 50 kg, about 110 pounds, of opium. But he is expected to survive, an official said.

Revealed by WikiLeaks

The commandos have also been deployed at least 15 times to Latin America. The DEA said some of those missions involved only training, but officials declined to provide details. Still, glimpses of the programme 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 DEA considered a top cocaine smuggler for the Sinaloa cartel, an official said. 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. ( Randal C. Archibold contributed reporting from Honduras and Haiti, and Ginger Thompson from Washington .) — New York Times News Service

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