U.S.-directed seizures and disruptions of cocaine shipments from Latin America dropped sharply in 2007 from the year before, reflecting in part a successful shift in tactics by drug traffickers to avoid detection at sea, senior American officials disclosed Monday in releasing new figures.
Navy Adm. Jim Stavridis, commander of U.S. Southern Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations in the region, said seizures fell from 262 metric tons in 2006 to about 210 tons last year.
"It's difficult to say why that is," he said in an interview with three reporters who visited his headquarters with Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who expressed concern at the shift.
The 2007 figure was the lowest since 2003, other officials said. Last year's drop broke a string of yearly increases in cocaine seizures and disruptions dating to the late 1990s. The numbers include estimates of cocaine thrown overboard or scuttled with vessels — a common response by smugglers who are detected at sea.
The biggest drop-off last year was in seizures at sea, which fell from nearly 160 metric tons in 2006 to about 100 metric tons last year, according to the figures, which are preliminary but were described by officials as reliable estimates.
"In any given contest of offense and defense you've got to adjust your tactics," Stavridis said, alluding to a conclusion reached by Mullen and others that the drug cartels are nimbler than the U.S. government. They are finding new ways of eluding detection at sea, such as shipping drugs in semi-submersible vessels, and are flying drug routes from sites in western Venezuela that are harder to stop, officials said.
Mullen put it more directly during an exchange earlier Monday with several dozen officials at the headquarters of Joint Interagency Task Force South in Key West, Fla., where military and civilian agencies — including the Pentagon and the CIA — coordinate the tracking of drug shipments and drug leaders.
"The bad guy is moving faster than we're moving," Mullen said.
The Joint Chiefs chairman also said he is concerned at how long it might take to regain the upper hand.
"I worry a little bit about how we as a government are able to focus on this mission," he said, noting that the counterdrug mission is a lower national security priority now than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Concern about Iran in Latin America
In comments later in Miami, Mullen also expressed worry at Iran's push to strengthen its ties in Latin America.
In September Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Bolivia, where he pledged $1 billion in investment, and then Venezuela to meet President Hugo Chavez, whom the Bush administration accuses of being a threat to stability in the region. He also has been to Nicaragua recently.
"I'm very concerned about the Iranian engagement here," Mullen told a news conference at Southern Command headquarters after meeting privately with Stavridis and his staff. "I haven't seen any evidence that Iran has fomented any kind of terrorism in this part of the world," but there remains a "very disconcerting" possibility that Iran's growing presence could lead to future terrorist links, he added.
Mullen also was asked about Chavez's statement Sunday urging his Colombian counterpart, Alvaro Uribe, to recognize the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the National Liberation Army as legitimate insurgent groups — rather than terrorists — as a first step toward possible peace talks.
"My principal concern there is from a security standpoint," Mullen said. "I've watched Venezuela move in this direction" — an allusion to a view among U.S. military officials that Chavez is actively seeking to counter U.S. efforts in Colombia to help the government defeat the FARC.
Pipeline pointing east?
In commenting on the drug war, Stavridis did not indicate that he is alarmed by the 2007 drop in drug seizures and disruptions.
Among possible explanations offered by Stavridis was that more of the drug traffic is being directed east across the Atlantic toward Europe and Africa, where it often fetches higher prices, rather than toward Mexico and the United States. He also said it was possible that more of the cocaine is being used inside Latin America by the cartels for payoffs "for various activities" which he did not discuss in detail.
Another factor that other U.S. officials said is playing a major role in the drug traffickers' recent success is their increasing use of semi-submersible vessels that are much harder to detect at sea.
To underscore his concern about this development, Stavridis has placed on the lawn in front of the Southern Command headquarters building a replica of a drug smuggling semi-submersible built by the Naval Research Office in the 1990s to enable the U.S. military to study ways to detect and track them.