Task Force Stems Chemical Trafficking in Asia-Pacific
by Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service
CAMP SMITH, Hawaii, Aug. 2, 2012 – A little-known organization with U.S. Pacific Command is bringing together military and law-enforcement capabilities to combat drug-related transnational crime in the Asia-Pacific region that has a direct impact on U.S. security.
Joint Interagency Task Force West’s major concern is precursor chemicals that are trafficked to the Western Hemisphere to produce methamphetamine, the task force director, Coast Guard Rear Adm. James E. Rendon, told American Forces Press Service.
These chemicals, frequently shipped from China, are sent to illegal laboratories in Mexico and Central America, where they are used to manufacture the highly addictive stimulant referred to on the street as “meth,” “glass” or “tik.”
Eighty percent of the methamphetamine that makes its way to the United States transit through Mexico, Rendon reported.
Illicit drugs have long represented a threat to the United States, where drug abuse takes a heavy personal toll on users and their loved ones. But society at large suffers, too, not only from petty crimes committed by addicts to fund their habits, but also from even-more-insidious activities conducted by transnational crime rings bankrolled by the drug trade.
“There is a link, absolutely,” Rendon said. “For transnational criminal organizations, there are no boundaries.”
That gives them wide berth to gain power and influence that ultimately destabilizes governments and provides a funding source for extremism, he said. So, recognizing the link between drug trafficking, U.S. national security and regional stability, JIATF West is working hand in hand with its U.S. interagency and regional partners to confront this scourge.
JIATF West is one of three joint, interagency task forces with similar missions. JIATF South, based in Key West, Fla., is focused largely on cocaine trafficking within U.S. Southern Command’s area of responsibility. Joint Task Force North at Fort Bliss, Texas, part of U.S. Northern Command, concentrates predominantly on drug trafficking and other transnational threats along the southwestern U.S. border.
By law, the Defense Department is barred from actively conducting law enforcement. But it contributes to those efforts largely by sharing intelligence about drug flows or shipments of precursor chemicals, Rendon said.
“We have a very capable intelligence directorate, which has at its disposal all the tools … to be looking for things that just don’t look right in terms of shipments going across the Pacific,” he said.
JIATF West passes this information through the interagency and to partner nations so their law enforcement entities can disrupt and seize shipments, typically after arriving at their destination ports, he said.
This collaboration is paying off, Rendon reported. Since 2010, JIATF West contributed to the seizure of about 1,500 metric tons of precursor chemicals used to produce methamphetamine. So far this fiscal year, he estimated that the task force has helped prevent production of up to 200 metric tons of methamphetamine.
To support this effort, an equally important part of JIATF West’s mission is to help regional partners improve their domestic counter-narcotics capabilities. “We meet with our partner nations, we assess what their needs are and then we do our best to support their needs,” Rendon said.
Training packages, often delivered by Army Special Forces teams, range from tactical to classroom training tailored to an individual country’s requirements, he said. Courses can cover anything from marksmanship to mission planning. More recently, U.S. FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration officials have begun providing fraudulent document training to help partners follow the illicit money trail.
JIATF West also focuses heavily on the maritime domain and helping partner nations build capacity within their maritime police or coast guards. This runs the gamut, from deploying trainers to help nations close capability gaps to helping them develop the physical infrastructure and bases needed to project power within their sovereign waters.
Meanwhile, JIATF West also is supporting capacity-building through other base development projects. Rendon recently returned from Indonesia and Thailand, where the task force, working through the U.S. embassies in those countries, established training centers where law enforcement officials can learn tracking and interdiction techniques and apply them in realistic training scenarios.
Rendon said he’s been impressed that partner nations recognize the negative impact of trafficking on their own countries and are dedicated to doing their part to control it.
One of his goals, he said, is to partner with China -- which has a huge chemical manufacturing base -- to stem the diversion of some of these chemicals for illicit uses. Rendon plans to travel to China in September with R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, to address this challenge, along with other demand and supply side issues.
“We are hopeful that China will want to engage with us,” he said. “There is something in it for them just as much as there is something in it for us. And the bottom line is methamphetamine is just a horrible drug that has so many negative consequences related to the health, the safety and security of citizens of all countries.”
As JIATF West and U.S. partners in the Asia-Pacific region experience success, Rendon recognizes that the traffickers continue to adapt their practices to avoid detection and interdiction. He compared it to the “balloon effect,” in which pushing at one spot on a balloon causes it to bulge out on the other side, signifying a change of tactics.
“So we are constantly looking for ways to keep up with their tactics,” he said of the traffickers.
The impact of these and other capacity-building efforts extends beyond the partners’ own borders, Rendon said, contributing to regional stability.
“Everything that we do is in support of U.S. interests, but also in promoting regional stability and security within the Asia-Pacific region,” he said. “The Asia-Pacific region has a drug problem itself. And so we work with various countries and train those various countries in a spectrum of topics to help their law enforcement be able to combat transnational organized crime.”