By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 28, 2013 – With fewer dollars and fewer ships and aircraft to patrol cocaine traffickers’ transit routes, Joint Interagency Task Force South is adopting innovative new approaches to its counterdrug mission and leveraging partnerships across the interagency and with regional nations, its deputy director told American Forces Press Service.
The task force’s mission goes on, despite the increasing challenges of sequestration, Air Force Brig. Gen Steve DePalmer said during a phone interview from the organization’s headquarters in Key West, Fla.
And despite more cuts expected to come -- primarily in force reductions and surface assets -- DePalmer said, interagency and regional partnerships built over the 24 years since JIATF South stood up as Joint Task Force 4 are bearing fruit.
The task force’s staff, he said, includes members of every military service, various federal law enforcement entities, the intelligence community and their counterparts from 13 partner nations.
“That’s the beauty of JIATF South. We are held up as the gold standard of interagency cooperation, so there are other non-DOD agencies with other assets to bring to this fight,” DePalmer said. “And as the resources are cut, we actually find ourselves getting closer and closer in cooperation and coordination with the U.S. organizations, as well as with our partner nations.”
The Coast Guard, despite its own reductions, continues to provide forces and ships in support of the mission, and other organizations within the Homeland Security and Justice departments are maintaining their contributions to the highest degree possible, DePalmer reported.
In addition, regional neighbors are stepping up, demonstrating a level of experience, credibility and confidence that DePalmer said they’ve gained during the past two decades of partnership with the United States.
DePalmer noted the Colombian air force and navy as particularly strong partners, but said other regional nations have made big strides, participating in two-thirds of last year’s drug interdictions.
“What they may lack in resources and equipment, they don’t lack in experience and they don’t lack in professionalism,” he said.
Meanwhile, the task force’s staff has turned to creative ways to make up for fewer air and maritime assets.
For example, they’ve tapped a government research lab to use an aircraft it’s testing to support counterdrug operations. “This is a chance for them to test with real experience and a real operation, so it’s a win-win for both of our organizations,” DePalmer said.
They’re exploring ways to increase the effectiveness of every patrol conducted, and ensuring all are driven by credible intelligence. “So despite reductions, the processes of gathering information and sources and determining where these shipments are coming from and when is continuing full steam ahead,” he said.
And to help make up for fewer patrols, JIATF South is putting more emphasis on other counterdrug efforts that don’t require air and sea assets: monitoring container ship movements and policing traffickers’ financial networks.
As the budget squeeze tightens, DePalmer acknowledged that the counterdrug mission will suffer. Already, JIATF South’s drug seizures are down 15 percent from last year -- a particularly successful one for the task force, with more than 152 metric tons of cocaine seized.
“Ship presence is extremely important, and every ship that we don’t have means a certain amount of cocaine that we won’t be able to take off the water,” DePalmer said. “So we will be watching that very closely with the impact of sequestration.”
The task force will work closely with its partners as time goes on “to see what they can no longer bring to the table,” he said, and to offset those losses as much as possible.
If there’s one organization up to that challenge, DePalmer said, it’s Joint Interagency Task Force South. Every member of the task force recognizes their role in what he called a “righteous fight” against drug trafficking and its devastating effect on every nation it transits through or supplies.
“Who doesn’t want to take highly addictive drugs off the street?” DePalmer said. “This is stuff that does bad things to you and your family and your community. So I think everyone is still enthusiastic, and we are pressing forward.”