By MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN, Associated Press
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Deep federal budget cuts are forcing the U.S. to send fewer surveillance planes and Navy ships to halt Latin American drug shipments, meaning the anti-drug effort will depend more on local governments hobbled by lack of equipment and official corruption.
The military/civilian task force that patrols drug-trafficking routes off the Central and South American coasts said Friday that two Navy ships won't be replaced when they return to U.S. ports in coming weeks. Flights by Customs and Border Patrol radar planes are being cut back by 40 percent, leaving them with time equivalent to roughly 100 flights for the rest of the year.
A wide range of U.S. military services and civilian agencies work with Central and South American governments on the mission known as Operation Martillo, or Hammer, which is dedicated to halting shipments of cocaine headed north from Colombia and Venezuela up the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Central America and on to Mexico and the United States.
Radar-equipped planes operated by Customs, the Navy and others operating from airports in Costa Rica, Panama, El Salvador and the Caribbean island of Curacao patrol the oceans looking for suspicious boat traffic. When they spot a suspect vessel, they alert local governments and U.S. ships in the area. For countries with small, underequipped navies unable to operate far from the coast, the powerful U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships operating under Operation Martillo are often essential to halting suspect boats.
The frigates USS Gary and USS Thach are slated to return to port by the end of April. Navy officials said this week that they don't plan to replace them, as previously intended, because of $85 billion in automatic budget cuts that went into effect last week. The cuts were designed to be so crude and controversial that the Obama administration and a bitterly divided Congress would be forced to find a better way to cut the federal deficit. When that didn't happen, federal agencies were forced to chop the same rough percentage of their budgets.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has cut 1,900 hours of flight time for its P3 radar planes, a nearly 40 percent cut in flights in the fiscal year ending in September. That leaves the program with only 800 hours for the rest of the year, an amount that could be used up after several dozen flights. The program currently flies several times in an average week.
Jody Draves, a spokeswoman for the military/civilian task force that patrols drug-trafficking routes off the coasts of Central America, said the withdrawal of two Navy ships would cut into the U.S. ability to interdict drug shipments. The task force normally has between two and five Navy and Coast Guard ships, and dozens of ships from Colombia and Central American nations, mostly smaller boats and often speedboats seized from drug traffickers.
"Will it have a serious impact if we don't have those (Navy) ships? Absolutely," she said. "There'll be an effort to try to mitigate not having as much of a U.S. presence ... We're going to have to depend, at least for the interim, on partner nations."
Most governments that participate in Operation Martillo declined to comment on the possible effects of U.S. budget cuts.
Jose Raul Mulino, Panama's public security minister, told The Associated Press that, "We work both cooperatively and autonomously and we'll keep on with our work with or without Martillo."
Other U.S. radar flights that operate from bases in El Salvador and Curacao may also be subject to cuts, said Jose Ruiz, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, although he declined to provide further details.
The U.S. is planning to focus more intensely on the coasts of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, the departure points for many drug boats and a place with higher likelihood on catching shipments.
"If we end up with fewer flight hours and fewer assets, our interest is going to be in allocating those resources at our disposal over those areas where these is the greatest likelihood of success," Ruiz said.
The U.S. Coast Guard is facing a 25 percent cut in operations. A spokesman said he no immediate information on how that would affect Coast Guard participation in Operation Martillo.
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Associated Press writer Juan Zamorano in Panama City, Panama, contributed to this report.