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New head of MARFORSOUTH gets first-hand look at the front lines of drug war

Sep. 1, 2013 - 10:47AM   |  
Brig. Gen. David Coffman, the new commander of Marine Corps Forces South, stands at the head of a boat in Honduras during his first trip to the area of responsibility. Marines are working with local militaries in Central and South Americas to intercept drug trafficking.
Brig. Gen. David Coffman, the new commander of Marine Corps Forces South, stands at the head of a boat in Honduras during his first trip to the area of responsibility. Marines are working with local militaries in Central and South Americas to intercept drug trafficking. (Marine Corps)
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Coffman observes from a boat as Marines work with Honduran troops. (Marine Corps)
Coffman observes from a boat as Marines work with Honduran troops. (Marine Corps)

Eight weeks after taking command of Marine Corps Forces South, Brig. Gen. David Coffman was speeding along the Caribbean coast of Honduras in a boat confiscated from drug traffickers.

Eight weeks after taking command of Marine Corps Forces South, Brig. Gen. David Coffman was speeding along the Caribbean coast of Honduras in a boat confiscated from drug traffickers.

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Eight weeks after taking command of Marine Corps Forces South, Brig. Gen. David Coffman was speeding along the Caribbean coast of Honduras in a boat confiscated from drug traffickers.

He watched as Marines and sailors join their Honduran counterparts Aug. 19 to 23 in training exercises to combat drug smuggling. The U.S. service members shared their skills in interdiction operations, boat handling, marksmanship and basic patrolling, Coffman said. But for the Hondurans, the skills they’re learning aren’t just for future knowledge and use.

“For many of our partners in Central and South America, we are there ... in a training venue, but our partners are fighting,” Coffman said. “So when we’d go back to rest, some of our Honduran training partners would say, ‘OK, sounds good for you, but I have to actually go do a real operation.’ ”

Honduras is one of the 14 countries that partner with the United States for Operation Martillo — or Operation Hammer, which is led by U.S. Southern Command. Since it began in January 2012, nearly 320,000 pounds of cocaine have been confiscated, along with 25,000 pounds of marijuana and $40 billion, according to a Navy news release.

In addition to the security cooperation team in Honduras, there are two more now operating in Central America. In Belize and Guatemala, Marine Corps Forces South and Navy personnel provide joint riverine training to the host nations’ special naval and Marine forces, conducting infantry tactics and combat support skills instruction. The training is designed to improve the host nations’ ability to counter illicit drug trafficking and to enforce the rule of law.

Last year, about 200 Marines deployed to Guatemala in response to the country’s request for help as it worked to combat transnational organized crime. Honduras borders Guatemala, and they share a serious challenge from violent drug traffickers. In Guatemala, the Marines trolled the skies in UH-1N Huey helicopters, alerting the local navy of suspicious activity at sea or along the shores.

Coffman’s field report from Honduras included observations he made from that captured boat — refurbished with U.S. assistance, and now used against the traffickers. His goal there, he said, was to enhance the already tight partnership between the two militaries.

The trip was Coffman’s first since assuming command in Miami on June 21. It’s a different kind of assignment for the former commander of a Marine expeditionary unit, who has worked in the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East.

During his trip, the commander of the Honduran marines — members of that country’s naval infantry — showed Coffman how the two countries team up there. The U.S. service members worked with Honduran personnel on joint riverine training missions, which present unique challenges for Marines and sailors used to operating within larger-scale naval exercises and missions, Coffman said. It’s good training for both sides.

Since many of the partner nations in that region don’t have big blue-water navies, Coffman said “brown-water” training missions Marines and sailors conduct are imperative in stopping drug traffickers. Those are patrols done aboard small boats along coastlines and rivers.

Brown-water and riverine missions have been been a successful part of Operation Martillo, and Coffman said he hopes they continue. The U.S. can contribute to the fight through the Marine-Navy training teams, he said.

Seeing his Marines train with the Hondurans was the highlight of the trip — especially knowing the fight that Honduran troops face.

“It was very enlightening for me to have the [Honduran] commandant walk me through the real operations,” Coffman said. “We facilitate with the training, but it was a reminder to me that we’re in this thing together.”

Since many of the United States’ partner nations in the region are battling narcotics trafficking, much of it aimed toward the U.S., Coffman said it’s important that U.S. troops contribute to the fight. The U.S. provides training teams, he said, but the partner nations “have skin in the game,” and Marines need to be cognizant of that as they work with them.■

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