Operation Martillo: What is it?

Latin America and the Caribbean

Since January 2012, the United States, in partnership with various European and Latin American nations, has been conducting Operation Martillo (Martillo = Hammer), a multi-national, interagency and joint military operation to combat aerial and maritime drug trafficking off Central America's coasts. It began in January 2012 and has no end date, though its end is believed to be a few months away.

Who are the key actors?

  • Operation Martillo is led by U.S. Southern Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S), with strong support from the Departments of Homeland Security (particularly the Coast Guard), Treasury, State, Justice and Defense.
  • Headed by a Coast Guard rear admiral and based in Key West, FL, JIATF-S is a 600-person multiagency task force that monitors air and sea traffic headed toward the United States across Central America and the Caribbean. In addition to JIATF-S, Southcom provides the ships, sailors and aircraft of the U.S. Navy's 4th Fleet.
  • Fourteen partner nations in Europe and Latin America work with JIATF-S on the mission: Belize, Britain, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, France, Guatemala, Honduras, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Panama and Spain.
  • Martillo is run from JIATF-S’ intelligence fusion center in Key West, where intelligence agencies and officers from partner nations join U.S. government officials and officers. From the fusion center, JIATF-S cues engagement for the 4th Fleet (US Naval forces southern command), Coast Guard and partner nations.
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection contributes to the mission with long-range patrol aircraft that operate from Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida and NAS Corpus Christi, Texas.

How is it funded?

  • Most of the costs of the United States' military contribution to the operation are largely funded by the Department of Defense, with some covered by Homeland Security. Central American countries’ participation in Operation Martillo is funded through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), managed by the U.S. State Department.
  • CARSI, funded under the State Department’s Western Regional program, provides equipment, training, and technical assistance to seven Central American nations: Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras. For 2013 President Obama requested $107.5 million for CARSI.
  • Assistance goes to civilian and judicial institutions as well as military and police forces. CARSI supports anti-corruption, judicial reform, anti-gang, community policing, crime prevention, law enforcement and counternarcotics programs in Central America.

What does it do?

  • The operation targets drug boats before they land in Central America where the cargo is then divided and sent to the U.S. As part of Operation Martillo, four frigates patrol in two zones off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of South America, and two transshipment points in Guatemala and Honduras. Partner nations also contribute dozens of smaller boats. Numbers from the State Department's 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report indicate that about 80% of drugs headed to the U.S. initially travel through Central America.
  • For 2013, the mission plans to focus on targeting types of transport vessels beyond go-fast boats and semi-submersible submarines, like container ships. In an interview with the Southern Command-sponsored InfoSurHoy website, JIATF-S director Rear Admiral Charles D. Michel said the mission has recently stood up a container intelligence cell at its Florida headquarters.
  • Operation Martillo directly seized or assisted in the capture of 127 metric tons (279,987 pounds) of cocaine in 2012, according to InfoSur Hoy. After seizing a large cocaine shipment, Joint Interagency Task Force-South headquarters raises a flag with a large image of a cocaine snowflake with a larger red “X” across the center.

How will U.S. federal budget cuts affect it?

On March 1, $85 billion in automatic federal government budget cuts went into effect. This year the Navy’s budget for operations was cut by $9 billion. In response, the Navy has announced it is suspending some deployments supporting the drug war in Latin America and the Caribbean.

  • The Navy will not be replacing two frigates (USS Gary and USS Thach) once they return in the end of April. Instead they will focus with even greater intensity on the departure points for most drug shipments in the region: the coasts off of Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, the Associated Press reported.
  • According to a recent article in Wired Magazine, SOUTHCOM’s director of operations, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Vincent Atkins, has told his troops, "The fight we were in yesterday is not the fight we are in today, and we have to go and figure out how we are going to do this job." According to JIATF-S, the mission will have to depend on partner nations.
  • The Wired article also described how the Navy has been testing much of its new technology in fighting drug traffickers in Latin America before deploying it to other parts of the world, like Afghanistan and Africa. According to the report, this will likely no longer be the case.

Critiques and concerns

U.S. involvement in counternarcotics operations

Operation Martillo is part of a growing trend of U.S. involvement and investment in counternarcotics military missions in Central America and the Caribbean.

Although no participant in Martillo has been involved in civilian deaths, citizens in places like Guatemala, where armies have recent histories of gross human rights abuses, are wary of U.S. military training their home country’s troops for internal missions.

The overall increased U.S. military presence, particularly around Central America, has drawn attention to the region.

Notable Operation Martillo activity in Central America:

According to an investigative report by the Toward Freedom website, Marines were unofficially deployed to Guatemala for Martillo in July, just two days after a SOUTHCOM-led military interaction/humanitarian exercise known as "Beyond the Horizon" ended in Guatemala. The same article reported that two days after Operation Martillo soldiers left, members of the U.S. Navy construction battalions came to Coban, Alta Verapaz for a security cooperation mission with local troops.

  • The first phase of Martillo focused on the Honduran Gulf before it shifted to Guatemala, where 171 Marines and four helicopters were sent last August, making it the largest Marine operation since the United States first stopped giving the country U.S. military aid in 1978. Although aid to the army is still suspended (this suspension goes back to 1990) to Guatemala, the ban does not apply to the country’s navy or air force or Department of Defense assistance, which is why the U.S. can still fund Operation Martillo (and other operations) there.
  • The deployment came just two months after four civilians were killed in a U.S-backed counterdrug operation in Ahuas, Honduras by DEA agents.
  • "This is the first Marine deployment that directly supports countering transnational crime in this area, and it's certainly the largest footprint we've had in that area in quite some time," Marine Staff Sgt. Earnest Barnes told the Associated Press of the deployment.
  • Of note: SOUTHCOM signed two contracts in September for a “shoot house” and “improvements” at the training base for Guatemala’s elite Kaibil Special Forces unit in Petén. The Kaibiles have a violent reputation marked by human rights abuses and brutal training.

Operation Martillo has changed drug traffickers' approach and apparently pushed drug trafficking routes towards the eastern Caribbean:

  • A map from a testimony at a House Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing last June showed a decrease in cocaine flows in most areas, particularly the Caribbean. It also showed a significant uptick in cocaine trafficking in the eastern Pacific, with most of the boats leaving Colombia's Pacific Coast.
  • Since that time however, SOUTHCOM intelligence in September showed drug traffickers shifting back to using Caribbean sea routes in response to the increased pressure on trafficking in Central America. A U.S. Congressional report released in September found the amount of drugs passing through the Caribbean is against on the rise.
  • The U.S. Coast Guard testimony at a February 26 House hearing included a map showing the sites of major 2010-2012 drug seizures. According to the image, Puerto Rico has had the highest density of major seizures in the region recently.
  • According to InSight Crime, in 2009 many drug flights "flew directly from South America to Honduras. In the last two years, however, flights have increasingly gone via Caribbean islands with shipments later sent to the isthmus."
  • This all supports a December 2011 testimony by William R. Brownfield Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs that predicated the Combination of Merida (U.S. assistance initiative in Mexico and CARSI would push the flow of drugs back towards the Caribbean:

    “In the 2000s, the Merida Initiative has, in turn, pushed the cartels increasingly into Central America. Although 90-95 percent of the cocaine from South America now transits the Central America/Mexico corridor, it is likely that the combined efforts of Merida and CARSI will force the traffickers to once again use the Caribbean as a conduit to the U.S. market.”



Recent activity

SOUTHCOM's Operation Martillo page can be found here, but the mission's most recent reported activity is as follows:

  • On January 24, 2013, the Coast Guard intercepted 1,400 pounds of cocaine, an estimated wholesale value of more than $17 million from a go-fast vessel in the southwest Caribbean Sea, Jan. 24, 2013.
  • On January 20, 2013, a frigate, the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Thach (FFG 43), with a crew of 220 sailors was deployed for 6 months to conduct Counter Transnational Organized Crime (C-TOC) operations. The deployment consisted of the ship's Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) team, U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment and Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and is being supported by an embarked helicopter detachment, HSL-49, Det. 2 based at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, CA.