With resources stretched thin, the US is now teaming up with small Central American and Caribbean nations to build military bases to combat drug trafficking.
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 …