The US military will build a base for the Dominican Navy on a small island here, consisting of barracks, a command center, and reconstructed pier. The project came at the behest of Dominican authorities witnessing an increase in drug trafficking on their coastline. It is one example of a regional approach the Pentagon is taking to catch drug shipments, the bulk of which are destined for the US.
The base is tiny compared with US installations elsewhere in the Americas, and it will have no US personnel. With its own resources stretched, the US is increasingly turning to allies like the Dominican Republic to combat trafficking. The Pentagon has built similar bases in Belize, Nicaragua, Panama, Guatemala, and Costa Rica and ramped up its presence at the Soto Cano Air Base in western Honduras, where about 600 US soldiers are stationed.
Despite these efforts, however, only one-third of detected drug shipments are intercepted and the rate is dropping. “More is getting through,” Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, chief of Southern Command (SouthCom) told reporters Wednesday, a day after testifying before the House Armed Service Committee.
Smugglers largely rely on go-fast boats, which have the capacity to carry more than 4,000 pounds of cocaine, to transport drugs through the seas. Last year, for the first time, US officials discovered a drug submarine in the Caribbean. The largest of such vessels are capable of transporting 10 metric tons (22,000 pounds) of cocaine.
The US command for Latin America is “focused on [its] maritime mission, which is to support the detection and monitoring of the traffic through the maritime environments of the Caribbean and the Pacific,” General Fraser testified.
SouthCom and regional military partners seized 117 metric tons of cocaine, worth about $3 billion to drug cartels, last year, while criminal groups in the region pocket $18 billion in profits annually,according to the UN.
US military aid in the Americas is still targeted mostly at Mexico and Colombia. SouthCom spends about $25 million a year – less than 6 percent of its budget – on an infrastructure program focused on 11 countries, nine of which are in Central America and the Caribbean.
“Our support under the program has focused on improving the interdiction capabilities of partner nations by constructing or improving infrastructure at forward operating sites which would include piers, barracks, maintenance centers, and operational command centers,” says Raymond Sarracino, a spokesman for SouthCom.
“We expect militaries in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador will continue to be called upon to play an important role in domestic security matters in the coming years,” Fraser testified last week, referring to policing actions to curb what many believe is trafficking-related violence.
Drugs in the DR
The $1.5 million base planned for the Dominican Republic drew small protests and cries of Yankee imperialism in a country that was twice occupied by US Marines in the 20th century.
The Dominican Navy says it requested construction of the base because drug running via its coastal waters has spiked since it cracked down on illicit drug flights from South America last year.
Considered the center of the Caribbean drug trade, the Dominican Republic is a key transshipment point for smugglers trying toreach US soil via the Mona Passage, which separates the country from Puerto Rico.
The base, planned for a three-mile-long, mostly protected island off the southeast coast – Isla Saona – “will allow the Dominican Navy to have a continual presence in the area,” allowing it “to monitor illicit activities” in the Mona Passage, according to the Dominican Navy in a statement.
Still, opponents fear the long-term effects. “We know drugs has negatively impacted the Domincan Republic,” says Hector Leon, a student who demonstrated against the base’s construction. “But what happens when we no longer need it? Will it be a base for the US?”
John Lindsay-Poland, director of research and advocacy at the Fellowship of Reconciliation, which documents US military presence in Latin America, says that’s a real danger.
“The thing about capacity in infrastructure is that it can outlive the mission,” he says. “You set up a base like this and maybe the politics change … but the infrastructure is still there. It’s an infrastructure that allows the US to intervene.”
Calls for a new approach
For critics, the failures to stop drug smuggling underscore the shortcomings of a military-led approach to drug interdiction.
Any military assistance in those countries needs to be complemented with aid that will go to reform key institutions, says retired Army Col. Robert Killebrew.
“Southcom is moving throughout the area to provide assistance to those countries,” Killebrew says. “That’s good. They need it. But my concern is that there has to also be help to the legal organs of those states, the courts, the police, the prosecutors.”
Thanks in part to the effects of the drug trade, countries in Central America and the Caribbean are among the most violent in the world. The scourge of drug-related violence has led many countries to involve their militaries in citizen policing roles, despite sordid histories of human rights violations in some countries.
Many Latin American leaders – including former Army general, recently inaugurated Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina – are now calling for a discussion on the legalization of drugs. During a visit to the region last week, Vice President Joseph Biden said "It's worth discussing [decriminalization], but there is no possibility the Obama/Biden administration will change its policy on legalization," which largely puts an end to any meaningful conversation on the topic, critics say.