This story first appeared in the July 7, 2014, issue of Marine Corps Times.
PUERTO BARRIOS, Guatemala — Marines are contributing to the fight against some of the most sophisticated and brutal narcotics traffickers the Americas have ever seen, known for hanging their rivals from overpasses and ruthlessly assassinating government officials.
As troops in Central America turn up the fight against narco-traffickers, they're looking to the Marine Corps for guidance. Now the Corps has a year-round training mission that leaves small teams of Marines deployed to Central America for six months at a time. They're helping train troops in some of the most dangerous countries in the world, teaching them how to patrol rivers long devoid of any enforcement, destroy clandestine airstrips used by drug runners, and turn over urban villages seized by gangs.
Marines deploy here in the form of Security Cooperation Teams — or SCTs. They're based in the port cities like this one; La Ceiba, Honduras; and Ladyville, Belize. In June, Marine Corps Times spent a week with the Marines on the ground in the three countries.
The three teams that deployed to Central America in January were the first active-duty Marines to conduct long-term training of foreign troops tasked with interdicting criminals weaving their way up to the U.S. border with drugs, weapons and people. The Marines come from a variety of units and military occupational specialties, and most are Spanish-speaking.
Marine Corps officials have stressed their commitment to this part of the world that is often in the shadows of large-scale operations in other combatant commands, like the Asia-Pacific region or the Middle East. Gen. John Kelly, head of U.S. Southern Command, told lawmakers earlier this year that it's imperative for the U.S. to keep faith with the countries whose troops are fighting against the illegal drug trade.
In recent years, the violence surrounding the drug trade has surged across the region, destabilizing large areas of Mexico, which borders two of the three countries where Marines are operating here. Senior U.S. officials have linked the instability to the recent exodus of tens of thousands of Central American children who've fled the violence and deteriorating quality of life in their countries for the dangerous, illegal attempt to enter the U.S.
The violence stems largely from the trafficking of drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines, for which Americans have an "insatiable" appetite, according to a senior U.S. official. As SOUTHCOM continues to fight the trafficking, Kelly said he's concerned that fewer resources at sea are allowing more drugs to reach land, where they're broken into smaller packages that make them harder to interdict.
"What we at SOUTHCOM, along with my inter-agency law enforcement partners, are trying to do is train the Central American nations to seize as much as they can on their borders, in their littorals, or in the riverine systems while [the drugs are] still in large loads," Kelly told Marine Corps Times.
For a command that competes for money and resources, training that comes in the form of small teams of Marines are a "low-cost, low-footprint solution" that can have a "big impact," said Brig. Gen. David Coffman, commander of Marine Corps Forces South. Kelly said that U.S. troops in Central America are providing intelligence resources and information, military adviser teams and humanitarian assistance, with the goal of legitimizing host nations' militaries and showing civilians their governments can create security and provide for their welfare.
"All of this for pennies on the dollar of what it costs if the drugs get through," Kelly said. "I did want to emphasize that this is all done within U.S. law, and our number one emphasis is on human rights. We begin and end everything with human rights."
With Central American militaries taking their fight to land and sea, the Marine Corps is the premiere service to help build their amphibious capabilities. For services like the one here, which just stood up its marine corps last summer, the opportunity to glean from Marines' small wars know-how is vital as they develop their role as an amphibious anti-trafficking task force, said Col. Medardo Monterroso Suarez, commandant of the Guatemalan marine corps.
"We're a newborn force and we have our own doctrine, but it's still very important for us to get the experience and expertise from the other forces that have learned it through operations," he said. "We recognize the tradition and prestige of the American Marine Corps."
In Honduras, 1st Lt. Felipe Bayona spent the past six months as the SCT's officer-in-charge, working with the local marines on urban tactics, riverine operations, first aid and marksmanship. Just months into the now year-round mission, he said he saw Hondurans making important progress. Those capabilities are vital to a force viewed by the president and the citizens there as more trustworthy than local police forces, he said.
Experts estimate that cartels have spent billions of dollars to move illicit goods and smuggle people. That includes spending a great deal on bribes to local officials as part of their effort to control the trade. That means in countries like Honduras, when the president comes to town, he wants the marines protecting him instead of the local police forces, Bayona said.
The people there also view the marines as more capable than the police. A few months ago, local leaders approached the Honduran marine corps' commander because they needed help when their village had been taken over by a local gang, Bayona said.
"They just came out and said, 'We want our houses back, we want our neighborhood back,'" he said. "So [the marines] started patrolling the area and pushed the gangs out. That was a big success."
Honduran Lt. Caesar Balderramos, the battalion logistics officer, said what they've learned from the Marines in terms of urban operations helps them carry out those types of patrols. They're also able to share what they learn with other parts of their military, he said.
"Every time we go out on operations, we see the results of the training," Balderramos said. "Not only in [our unit], but in adjacent units we work with. We just want to keep growing and getting better."
Capt. Juan Torres led the first Marine SCT in Ladyville, Belize, as they trained members of the army and coast guard to better work together to carry out land and sea operations.
Just days after Torres and his Marines finished training a company of soldiers, they deployed deep into the jungle for a counter-narcotics operation, said Brig. Gen. David Jones, commander of the Belize Defence Force. Every three months, a company deploys to the Belize-Guatemala border to disrupt illicit operations.
Now the incoming Marine teams will pick up where the first left off. The teams spent about 10 days overlapping with each other downrange, helping the new teams observe the first teams' successes so they could determine where they should take their training going forward, said 1st Lt. Vidal Rodriguez, who leads the new team in Honduras.
"What we want to focus on is training the guys straight out of boot camp here," he said. "They'll be here for at least two years … and will be able to train their new marines."
Setting new doctrine
As the developing militaries absorb what the Marines teach, new policies and guidelines are quietly falling into place. That leaves young Marine captains, lieutenants and noncommissioned officers shaping how other forces — and even international governmental agencies — are operating.
Train-the-trainer missions, like Rodriguez hopes to establish in Honduras, have been the top priority for 1st Lt. Zachary Devlin-Foltz, the outgoing OIC of the Marine team in Guatemala. Devlin-Foltz and his Marines spent weeks during the first half of the year mentoring and developing Guatemalan marines who will be responsible for training their juniors.
Now his replacement, 1st. Lt. Marco Bueno, will carry it forward. And that's key to how Monterroso Suarez' new marine corps will continue developing their capacity to operate, the commandant said.
"We know that the cooperation, friendship and alliance in the U.S. and other countries is very strong and there's a lot of commitment," he said. "But we also know that it probably isn't going to be permanent, so it's important for us to acquire the ability to be self-sufficient and maintain continuous training on which they've trained us."
While Torres and his team worked to better connect the Belizean army and coast guard, they helped stand up a new information-sharing shop called the Joint Information Operations Center. It got the two branches — as well as other agencies like law enforcement, border patrol and immigration — doing something completely new: working together to share intelligence. First Lt. Robert Wolff, a ground intelligence officer on Torres' team, helped the Belizeans learn how to use tools like Google Earth, which will help them carry out operations without spending a lot of money on new technology.
Aside from new doctrine, local commanders are looking to the Marines for assistance with more practical skills, like physical fitness. The marines in Honduras took to the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, Bayona said. And Jones, the Belizean commander, said he wants to push his troops to take the tougher physical or combat fitness tests the Marines have introduced them to.
"Since the Marines got here, the fitness has improved," Jones said. "That is what I prefer for our guys because we haven't been doing fitness training or combat fitness training for some time. ... And if they are fit, I'm more comfortable sending them to the border because the [jungle] terrain out there is very challenging."
'A new perspective'
It's not uncommon for troops in Central America to be called out on a night mission after spending all day training with the Marines, said1st Lt. Vidal Rodriguez, the new OIC in Honduras.
That keeps the troops engaged constantly, because the skills they're learning could mean the difference between life and death. Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Enmanuel Valconi, who conducts first aid classes, said sometimes in the States, young troops will be dozing off in class, he said, but the Hondurans "are focused 24/7."
Operating in Central America also allows Marines to practice riverine or jungle operations, something they're not typically exposed to, Bayona said. His team spent about a month trekking into a triple canopy jungle with Hondurans, who were much more skilled at operating in that environment, he said.
Living in third-world countries also brings into perspective things the Corps is facing like budget cuts, said Gunnery Sgt. Byron Pimentel, a radio chief and staff NCO in charge in Honduras. The marines there live on a base without running water or air conditioning, and have a great deal of efficiency with limited resources, he said.
Not every marine has a rifle, for example, said Lance Cpl. Juan Alegria, small arms repairer/technician on Pimentel's team. Whoever is going out to operate gets a rifle, and so the weapons get used a lot. For U.S. Marines, that's a culture shock, Alegria said.
Wolff, the intel officer working in Belize, said all of that can be a good reminder for Marines. New gear and technology sometimes complicates missions; seeing the way troops in other parts of the world function with much less can help put things into perspective, he said.
"Sometimes simpler is better," he said. "That can actually keep you more focused on your mission."