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MANTA, Ecuador — For up to 12 hours a day, crews from the 552nd Air Control Wing out of Oklahoma circle high above the west coast of South America looking for drug smugglers.

But when they find one, there are limits to what they can do.

“It’s purely a passive detection mission,” said Lt. Col. Robert Leonard, head of the operational squadron at Forward Operating Location Manta. “A big misconception is that our aircraft are armed, but we have nothing here at the FOL that can be offensive.

“Everybody understands that a truckload of cocaine can be moving up the road behind the FOL, and we’re going to report that to the embassy and local law enforcement, but we can do nothing about it.”

For the last decade, U.S. servicemembers have been performing counternarcotics work at Manta, at FOL Comalapa in El Salvador and at FOL Curacao. In 2007, the three posts ran more than 1,100 missions to help seize more than $4.2 billion in illegal narcotics flowing out of South America.

But SOUTHCOM officials are quick to point out that troops’ efforts are more intelligence and coordination than drug hunting, and that boarding and seizure is usually performed by foreign allies committed to stopping the flow of illegal drugs.

“In Colombia, we hand off illicit aircraft to the Colombians,” Leonard said. “Over the ocean, we hand off to the Coast Guard or other nation’s navies.”

The missions out of Manta focus on two areas: Looking for nautical smugglers operating in the Pacific — Leonard said the area of interest is roughly the size of the United States — and running air-bridge denial missions along Colombia’s borders.

Missions from all three FOLs are coordinated through Joint Interagency Task Force South in Miami, which includes representatives from 8 U.S. agencies and 11 other countries.

That list includes France and England as well as several South American nations, which Leonard said underscores the worldwide problem narcotics smuggling poses.

The Task Force also keeps open a 12th seat for Venezuela, which has declined to participate in the operations in recent years.

Lt. Col. Charles Moore, whose airborne warning and control system (AWACS) crews have been performing the Manta missions for the last few months, notes the plane isn’t specifically designed for the cat-and-mouse searches with smugglers but that crews quickly adapted the aircraft’s radar and detection systems for the job.

Still, JIATF South claims more than $1.1 billion in seizures so far this year.

Officials won’t say precisely what they can and can’t detect, but note that semi-submersible ships now being used by some drug cartels are more difficult to spot and capture.

“As we get more sophisticated, so do they,” Leonard said.

JIATF South members

U.S. (8 agencies)Argentinian AFBrazilian Intelligence AgencyColombian AF and NavyEcuadorian AFFrench NavyMexican NavyPeruvian NavyUK Royal NavyRoyal Netherlands NavySalvadoran AFSpanish Guardia CivilVenezuelan AF**

** Seat currently open.

Source: U.S. Southern Command

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