Navy ship battles drug cartels in Central American waters
El Paso Times, Texas
A naval officer from El Paso is battling the drug cartels on the high seas aboard the USS Curts (FFG 38) frigate as part of the multinational and multi-agency "Operation Martillo (Hammer)."
Cmdr. Fermin Espinoza of El Paso is in charge of the guided missile ship USS Curts, which the Navy has used in counternarcotics missions in the past, including the record seizure of 12 tons of cocaine in 2004.
"My family is from Juárez, Mexico, and I am familiar with the drug-violence that has ravaged that city. I've also seen how drugs destroy people. That's why for me, this operation is personal," said Espinoza in a telephone interview during a stop in Panama.
The U.S. Southern Command announced that the effort aims to disrupt drug-trafficking routes in coastal waters along the Central America isthmus. Joint Interagency Task Force-South, a component of U.S. Southern Command, is leading the U.S. military's participation.
"More than 80 percent of the cocaine destined for U.S. markets is transported via sea lanes, primarily using littoral routes through Central America," said U.S. Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of the U.S. Southern Command. "Working with our partner nations, we intend to disrupt their operations by limiting their ability to use Central America as a transit zone."
"Illicit trafficking," Fraser said, "jeopardizes the safety and well-being of citizens of every country and has a negative influence on regional and national security."
Espinoza, 45, said he began his military career 27 years ago in the enlisted ranks. Today, he is a Navy commander, which is comparable to the Army rank of lieutenant colonel.
"Since January alone, we've had a 53 percent increase in seizures of contraband, compared to the same time last year," Espinoza said. "Eighty percent of those seizures, in coordination with our allied nations, represent disruptions in the smuggling operations of transnational gangs by sea. We've also reduced by 35 percent illicit flights used by the smugglers. Our goal is to disrupt, and principally push them away from the shorelines of Central and South America."
Since the U.S. government declared illegal drugs to be a national security threat in the 1980s, the U.S. military has been tasked with preventing narcotics and other drugs from entering the United States. Like other government agencies, the military also depends on timely and accurate intelligence. The Office of Naval Intelligence, which receives less publicity than the Central Intelligence Agency, was created in 1882 and is the oldest existing U.S. intelligence agency.
During the course of Operation "Martillo," Espinoza said the frigate is in constant communication with the Navy, Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies. The crew also relies on information regarding the drug cartels provided by the El Paso Intelligence Center.
The USS Curts has not been fired upon by drug-traffickers, who likely find the frigate's armament intimidating.
"I've been all over the world with the Navy, and this is the first time I've been put in charge of a mission such as this one," Espinoza said.
A graduate of Burges High School, Espinoza said he's come across people from other countries and the United States who are surprised to see a Latino in charge of a Navy ship.
"The response I get is surprise, but I'm also greeted with welcoming and excitement," Espinoza said. "My Spanish has served me well, too, especially in my dealings with the Colombian navy. My crew is diverse, and I am always surrounded by young Americans who serve in the Navy. I am proud of the fact that the USS Curts is one of the most decorated ships in the Navy's history. It netted the largest maritime cocaine bust ever, which had a street value of $2.3 billion."
Most of the frigate crew's seizures have involved intercepting speedboats that ferry narcotics. Drug cartels are also known to use submersibles and recreational-type submarines to transport drugs by sea. Espinoza said suspects who are caught with contraband are detained and turned over to the DEA or other corresponding law enforcement agency.
When they're not chasing drug-traffickers, or responding to requests for humanitarian assistance, the crew, from the commander on down, is training to keep their skills sharp, and this includes firing weapons like the mainstay M-16 rifle.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Casey Deck, also from El Paso, works as a tactical helicopter air controller aboard the USS Curts. The 24-year-old operations specialist shares Espinoza's views on drug-trafficking.
"What we're doing is helping to keep drugs from reaching Mexico and the United States," Deck said. "For example, in August, we intercepted a 'go-fast boat' carrying drugs off the coast of Colombia. I know how the drug trade has affected Juárez and El Paso, and how it contributed to all the violence in Juárez and people having to flee to El Paso. We're supporting a good cause."
Deck, who graduated from Franklin High School, said he's glad to serve under Espinoza.
"He was former enlisted, and he's instilled in us a sense of what we can achieve," Deck said.
Deck also said he still misses some things about El Paso, especially eating at the iconic Chico's Tacos. "I really do miss eating at Chico's Tacos," he said.
Southern Command officials said "Operation Martillo" is a multi-nation effort that includes U.S., European and Western Hemisphere partners. The U.S. contribution includes Navy and Coast Guard vessels, aircraft from U.S. federal law enforcement agencies, and military and law enforcement units from several nations that are working together to prevent transnational criminal organizations from using transshipment routes to move narcotics, precursor chemicals, bulk cash and weapons.
One of Espinoza's next assignments may be the decommissioning of the USS Curts next year; the frigate is currently home-ported in San Diego.
Navy USS Curts (FFG 38) highlights:
Commissioned Oct. 8, 1983.
Early years focused on anti-submarine warfare operations in the Pacific.
Deployed in 1990-91 in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
Deployed for six months for counter-drug operations in the Eastern Pacific and Caribbean Sea ending in February 2000; intercepted more than 5 tons of cocaine.
Deployed to U.S. Southern Command in 2004 on new counternarcotics operation; credited with the largest maritime seizure of cocaine (12 tons) in history.
Took part in a third counternarcotics deployment in 2006; conducted three boardings, transferred more than 50 suspected drug traffickers, recovered 3 tons of cocaine.
Deployed in 2008 to U.S. Fifth Fleet area of operation supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom and the U.S. global war against terrorism.
Source: U.S. Navy.
©2012 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)
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