A UH-1N Huey crewmember with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 467 (HMLA-467) looks back at another aircrew during takeoff during Operation Martillo in Retalhuleu, Guatemala. (Marine Corps)
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Marines are off to a good start in meeting one of the goals laid out by the next head of U.S. Southern Command as they tackle drug trafficking and other organized crime in Guatemala.
About 200 Marines arrived in the Central American country Aug. 12 in response to Guatemala's request for help as it works to combat transnational organized crime, which has troubled the region for decades. The main tools Marines will use to get the job done: four UH-1N Huey helicopters.
Marines are trolling the skies to alert the Guatemalan navy of suspicious activity in their country, according to Staff Sgt. Earnest Barnes, Marine Corps Forces South public affairs chief. The sites they're focused on are the country's coasts — the east borders the Caribbean Sea and the west borders the Pacific Ocean. The Marines on the job include aviation personnel, combat engineers and communications teams.
Gen. John Kelly, the incoming head of SOUTHCOM, said during his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in July that taking on drug trafficking would be one of his goals as commander. Barnes said drug trafficking is just one of the crimes Marines are looking out for in Guatemala. Also on their radar are weapons smuggling, illicit money or even human trafficking.
"The detachment monitors the coastal areas and has the ability to notify local law enforcement or military personnel as to where illicit activities are occurring," Barnes said. "It helps those authorities quickly apprehend them and find the materials."
This mission is part of a bigger one in that region called Operation Martillo — or Operation Hammer — that began in January. Fourteen countries are contributing to that mission including Colombia, El Salvador, Nicaragua and the United Kingdom.
So far, SOUTHCOM has done some serious interference in illicit trades occurring in the region. Since the broader, 14-nation operation began at the beginning of the year, it has resulted in the disruption of more than 78,000 kilograms of cocaine, nearly 12,000 pounds of marijuana and $3.5 million in bulk cash, Barnes said.
Marines are also looking out for something Kelly referenced in his Senate testimony that has made fighting crime in this region difficult. Organized criminal groups are using semisubmersibles — basically cheaply built submarines — to transport some of these illegal materials. That's something Marines in their helos are on the watch for, Barnes said.
Operation Martillo has netted 56 assets, including submarines, speedboats, aircrafts and other vehicles that were tied to illicit trade since January.
"Most of these disrupted events were supported by partner nations who have played an enormous role in the success of the operation," Barnes said.
The Marines' mission in Guatemala is strictly to support the local military, Barnes said. They'll be there at least a couple of months, and their successes will be assessed after that and the U.S. and Guatemala will determine any future need, he said.
Anita Isaacs, a political science professor at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, studies Guatemala closely. She said this partnership with the U.S. military is a follow-up to something their president, Otto Perez Molina, spoke about in his campaign leading up to his election in 2011.
"This is something [he] actually requested and spoke about rather extensively," Isaacs said. "He said he would welcome the opportunity to have the U.S. military come in and assist with the criminality associated with drug trafficking."
But it comes at an interesting time, Isaacs added, because Guatemala and the U.S. have been disagreeing on strategy in dealing with some of the problems. Guatemala has indicated an interest in legalizing drugs to curb the violence surrounding trafficking — a policy the U.S. is unwilling to even consider, she said.
Guatemala's military is housing the Marines tasked with sniffing out local bad guys. They're staying in barracks on a local air force base in the southern side of the country, Barnes said. The amenities aren't as fancy as what they might see in the U.S., "but any Marine who has deployed to CENTCOM should be used to a pretty tight knit family-living community," he said.
The Marines teamed with members of Guatemala's air force in August to meet with locals and show they are there to help, he said. It's likely a step that goes a long way, as Isaacs said Guatemalans don't always have a positive response to outside military forces.
"It can bring back reminders of armed conflicts," she said. "I think it's important that the U.S. stay out of local affairs and doesn't get caught up in any other disputes. It's very important because the situation there is potentially very explosive — both socially and politically."
Col. Michael Knutson, MilGroup Commander at the U.S. embassy there, said a recent poll in the leading Guatemalan daily paper showed a 75 percent local approval rating of the Marines' deployment to counter transnational organized crime. He said when it's clear that U.S. interests align with Guatemalans' in addressing illicit trafficking, responding to disasters and addressing humanitarian concerns, they overwhelmingly support U.S. military partnership there.
Isaacs said that as long as the U.S. military stays focused on what it's there to do, it could send a powerful message to the region that an effort is being made there to collaborate.
The White House detailed a new strategy last summer by which the U.S. would fight transnational organized crime. SOUTHCOM's operation is in response to that program. And the types of crime Marines can help prevent in Central America keeps those drugs, weapons or dirty money from reaching U.S. borders, Barnes said.
Isaacs said additional domestic policies, including immigration reform and curbing the demand for drugs inside the U.S., will further help stabilize the hemisphere.