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Can a blimp curb drug trafficking in Latin America? The US hopes so

After sweeping US budget cuts, the Pentagon is testing new tools to stop drug trafficking in Latin America and the Caribbean: a blimp tethered to the back of a boat and a hand-launched drone.

For the billions of dollars it brings in, drug running can be surprisingly low tech.

Although traffickers employ sophisticated submarines and build unique tracking systems, they still throw bundles of cocaine out of small planes, stash drugs in shipping containers, and hide their illegal goods in fishing vessels.

Now the Pentagon is testing its own retrograde tools in the fight against drug trafficking in Latin America and the Caribbean: a blimp tethered to the back of a high-speed catamaran and a remote-controlled plane that is hand launched.

Such is the new fiscal reality for the Pentagon in its fight against drug trafficking after mandatory, across-the-board federal budget cuts went into effect this spring. Those cuts, tied to legislation known as the sequester, forced a $6.1 billion reduction on the Navy and Marine Corps this year, leading it to call home two advanced frigates that were patrolling the Caribbean and eastern Pacific.

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Those boats, capable of carrying a crew of more than 200 people and integrated technology like an anti-submarine helicopter and torpedoes, helped keep hundreds of thousands of pounds of cocaine from reaching the US, according to the Military. But now that they are no longer deployed the Navy is testing other ways to detect drug boats.

“We’ve put a lot of planning into this,” says Lt. Cmdr. Corey Barker of the Navy’s 4th Fleet, which this week is testing the blimp and plane. “We’re trying to find cheaper ways to still conduct our mission.”

Operation ‘hammer’

In military parlance, the blimp is an aerostat, capable of flying as high as 3,000 feet above the boat to which it is moored. The unmanned drone, with an 8.5-foot wingspan and a range of 10 kilometers (6 miles), is launched by being thrown off the back of the boat. Both are equipped with radar, infrared cameras, and sensors.

The blimps have been used successfully elsewhere, including AfghanistanIraq, and along the Mexico-US border. But this would be a first in the fight against drug trafficking at sea.

“The technology is old, but they’re equipped with the same equipment we have aboard our P-3 aircraft,” which are used to search for submarines and other vessels, Mr. Barker says.   

However, the blimp and drone are a decided downgrade from the two 450-foot-long Navy frigates that had been patrolling as part of the anti-drug trafficking mission known as Operation Martillo (Spanish for hammer).

The mission, which continues despite the budget constraints, is a surge-style operation launched little more than a year ago. It seeks to cut down the amount of drugs being transported to Central America, both via the Pacific and Caribbean, by bringing together several US agencies with foreign governments.

Last year, authorities say the mission “disrupted” 145,000 kilograms (319,000 pounds) of cocaine, worth an estimated $4 billion in wholesale. (Not all that cocaine was seized. Some of it was lost at sea or carried aboard a boat that turned back to South America after being detected.)

‘Effective partnerships’

The White House praised the mission in its 2013 drug policy, released Wednesday, saying that targeting bulk shipments at sea “has the greatest impact on reducing the flow toward the United States, relieves pressure on Central American partner nations, and reduces illicit revenue streams.” 

The budget cuts come as Central America grapples with an influx of drug trafficking. Some 80 percent of the cocaine bound for the US is smuggled through the isthmus of small countries, according to the United Nations World Drug Report.  

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“It’s been one of the most effective partnerships we’ve had in the fight against drug trafficking,” says Guillermo Melgar, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry of Guatemala, one of 14 countries that have signed on to the operation.

Underscoring the frustration with the US-led decades long war on drug trafficking, Guatemala’sPresident Otto Perez Molina has called for an international legalization of drugs as a means of combating trafficking.

Meanwhile, joint missions between the US and Guatemala resulted in several major hauls: In one instance last year, authorities took down a boat 40 miles off Guatemala’s Pacific coast. It was carrying 1,325 pounds of cocaine.

“These were seizures that we couldn’t have made without the operation,” Mr. Melgar says. “But the biggest benefit was to the United States. Thousands of pounds of drugs didn’t reach the country because of this operation.”

With the frigates back home, drug traffickers can more easily push drugs to consumers in the US, according to military officials.

“Every ship I lose, you can add 20 to 25 tons that will get through,” said Marine Gen. John F. Kelly in a Mach 20 press briefing at the Pentagon.

Mr. Kelly, commander of US Southern Command, which overseas Operation Martillo from its Key WestFla., base said that even “in the normal period before sequestration I had only a fraction of what I could effectively use. And we’ve still got between 150 and 200 tons” of drugs.

South American Andean countries, where coca leaf is grown, manufactured between 788 and 1,060 tons of pure cocaine in 2010, according to the latest figures available from the United Nations World Drug Report.