2020 Enhanced Counter-Narcotics Operations
On 01 April 2020 President Trump announced enhanced counter-narcotics efforts in the SOUTHCOM Area of Responsibility. The move came days after AttorneyY General Bill Barr announced the unsealing of charges of narco-terrorism, drug trafficking, and other crimes against the former Maduro regime — 16 members of that regime — and their involvement in trafficking of 250 metric tons a year. A lot of that comes by sea. In December, Barr met with the President López Obrador and Mexican counterparts to establish a more comprehensive and coordinated effort with the Mexicans in confronting the cartels.
“Today, the United States is launching enhanced counter-narcotics operations in the Western Hemisphere to protect the American people from the deadly scourge of illegal narcotics. We must not let the drug cartels exploit the pandemic to threaten American lives.
"In cooperation with the 22 partner nations, U.S. Southern Command will increase surveillance, disruption, and seizures of drug shipments and provide additional support for eradication efforts which are going on right now at a record pace. We’re deploying additional Navy destroyers, combat ships, aircraft, and helicopters; Coast Guard cutters; and Air Force surveillance aircraft, doubling our capabilities in the region. Very importantly, our forces are fully equipped with personnel protective equipment, and we’ve taken additional safety measures to ensure our troops remain healthy."
Barr said "Because of the superb work done by the Defense Department and our intelligence community, we know exactly, most of the time, where these traffickers are at sea. But we’re significantly — have been up until now significantly limited in our ability to interdict because of the numbers of the assets we have deployed. Prior today, this limitation meant we could only intercept a fraction of the traffickers that — and the various boats that were detected."
National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said "Under President Trump’s leadership, we will continue to execute our maximum pressure policy to counter the Maduro regime’s malign activities, including drug trafficking. And this operation will help to choke off the funds that go to that corrupt regime. Maduro, narco-terrorists, and criminals should make no mistake that even as we are working around the clock to fight the spread of coronavirus, we will continue to execute the President’s counter-narcotics strategy."
One skeptic wrote "Trump tried bait and switch, doing a briefing on the indictments and increased military operations against Venezuela. He used the pretext of a COVID-19 Taskforce to lead with the outlines of a pretext for arresting Maduro as enforcing drug-trafficking indictments. Apparently Trump still believes he can game the MSM. Wag-the-dog has never been so obvious, as if a Panamanian-style invasion or even a special operations snatch of Maduro would distract the US from COVID-19 and also re-elect Trump."
The White House rarely authorized a military deployment of the magnitude of the one announced by Donald Trump, something even more relevant considering that the order was received by the Pentagon just as the country faced its worst health crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands of US soldiers were deployed in the Caribbean and the Pacific, in an anti-drug operation in which the Navy, the Air Force and the Coast Guard mainly participate. Under the supervision of the Southern Command, and the responsible admiral, Craig Faller, there are already infantry soldiers, sailors, and members of the Marine Corps, the Air Force and the Coast Guard in a complex device to interrupt three drug routes: from Venezuela to the Caribbean islands and Central America, and from Colombia to Central America.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced "... corrupt actors, like the illegitimate Maduro regime in Venezuela, rely on the profits derived from the sale of narcotics to maintain their oppressive hold on power. The Venezuelan people continue to suffer tremendously due to Maduro’s criminal control over the country.... This initiative is part of the administration’s whole of government approach to combating the flow of illicit drugs into the United States and protecting the American people from their scourge”. Esper said to conduct the operations, the president has directed the deployment of military assets to the U.S. Southern Command (Southcom) area of responsibility.
“Included in this force package are Navy destroyers and littoral combat ships, Coast Guard cutters, P-8 patrol aircraft, and elements of an Army Security Force Assistance Brigade. These additional forces will nearly double our capacity to conduct counternarcotics operations in the region,” he said. Esper said many criminal organizations are attempting to capitalize on the coronavirus crisis. “As nations around the world shift their focus inward to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, many criminal organizations are attempting to capitalize on this crisis,” Esper said. "We’re going to run it for some matter of time. I’m not going to disclose how long that will be. And then we will assess it, and then we will make adjustments from there. We may increase. We may decrease. We may sustain as is. But this will be an assessment we will do as interagency team. We will report back to the President. And we’ll take further guidance from there."
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley added that intelligence showed that drug cartels were trying to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis. "We came upon some intelligence some time ago that the drug cartels, as a result of COVID-19, were going to try to take advantage of the situation and try to infiltrate additional drugs into our country. As we know, 70,000 Americans die on an average annual basis to drugs. That’s unacceptable. We’re at war with COVID-19, we’re at war with terrorists, and we are at war with the drug cartels as well.
"This is the United States military. You will not penetrate this country. You will not get past Jump Street. You’re not going to come in here and kill additional Americans. And we will marshal whatever assets are required to prevent your entry into this country to kill Americans."
"So right now, the Navy has marshaled additional grey hull ships from both [Indo-Pacific Command] and [European Command] for the naval fleet at Norfolk and they are set sail already, and they are in the Caribbean right now. In addition to that, there’s ten Coast Guard cutters and there’s Special Operations Forces and Security Force Assistance Brigades, along with Air Force reconnaissance aircraft."
Jorge Rodriguez, Venezuela's communications minister, called the deployment a "desperate attempt to distract attention from the tragic humanitarian crisis" in the U.S. caused by the coronavirus. In a display of sarcasm, he also said that for "the first time" in decades, the U.S. is trying to limit the supply of cocaine, which mostly comes from Colombia, one of the U.S. allies in the region. In statements following this announcement, President Maduro called on the Trump administration to stop meddling in the internal affairs of Venezuela and called for a "humanitarian agreement" between all the political actors in the country to deal with the real issue, which is the fight against Covid-19.
At least one tanker carrying fuel loaded at an Iranian port has set sail for Venezuela. The Iran-flagged medium tanker Clavel on 13 May 2020 passed the Suez Canal after loading fuel at the end of March at Iran’s Bandar Abbas port. Four other vessels of the same size as the Clavel, all flagged by Iran and loaded with fuel at or near Bandar Abbas, are about to cross the Atlantic Ocean after passing Suez. They have not yet set their final destinations.
The United States is considering measures it could take in response to Iran’s shipment of fuel to crisis-stricken Venezuela, a senior official in President Donald Trump’s administration told Reuters on 14 May 2020. The United States has a “high degree of certainty” that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government is paying Iran tons of gold for the fuel, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It is not only unwelcome by the United States but it’s unwelcome by the region, and we’re looking at measures that can be taken,” the official said. The oil sectors of Iran and Venezuela - members of OPEC that both are deeply at odds with the United States - are under tough US sanctions.
Venezuela is in desperate need of gasoline and other refined fuel products to keep the country functioning amid an economic collapse that has occurred under the socialist Maduro. It produces crude oil but its infrastructure has been crippled during the economic crisis.
Starting in April 2020, several flights from Tehran brought materials to Venezuela to help it restart the catalytic cracking unit at its 310,000 barrel-per-day Cardon refinery, drawing US condemnation. Venezuela’s 1.3 million-bpd refining network has all but collapsed due to under-investment and lack of maintenance.
The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) 19 May 2020 published an analysis of the dangerous geopolitical games that President Donald Trump's administration seems to be eager to play as five Iranian supertankers head towards Venezuela. One of the consequences of the U.S. blockade of Venezuela is a gasoline shortage, as any nation that sends the necessary additives to process Venezuelan crude into fuel faces heavy-handed sanctions. Yet without gasoline, Venezuelans are unable to transport food and other necessities from the point of sale to their homes and workplaces. And this precious commodity, which was virtually pennies on the gallon just months ago, is presently being sold on the underground market at exorbitant prices in U.S. dollars.
Five Iranian supertankers on the way to Venezuela, carrying approximately 45.5 million gallons of gasoline and related products, as reported by the British outlet Express. Reuters quoted a senior official in Trump’s administration as saying on 14 May 2020 that the United States is considering measures it could take in response to Iran’s shipment of fuel to Venezuela. The United States has a “high degree of certainty” that Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government is paying Iran tons of gold for the fuel, the official claimed, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It is not only unwelcome by the United States but it’s unwelcome by the region, and we’re looking at measures that can be taken,” the official added.
The Freedom-class littoral combat ship USS Detroit (LCS 7) had been sailing in formation with the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Lassen (DDG 82), USS Preble (DDG 88) and USS Farragut (DDG 99) while conducting maritime security operations in the Caribbean on May 11. The forces are deployed to the US Southern Command area of responsibility.
Nour News warned that any pirate-like action to trigger insecurity for Iranian tankers in international waters will be a serious "gambling" which will not remain unanswered by Tehran. The US Navy’s dispatch of 4 combat warships to the Caribbean if aimed at preventing Iran’s shipment of fuel to crisis-stricken Venezuela could lead to Tehran’s crushing response.
Reports that the U.S. Navy has deployed four additional warships to the Caribbean along with a P-8 Poseidon multi-mission aircraft has raised alarm bells in Tehran, as Iranian authorities warn against U.S. interference with commerce between sovereign states. In response to the perceived threat to their oil tankers, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif wrote UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres saying: “Coercing nations into complying with the U.S. illegal demands threatens multilateralism, as the foundation of international relations, and sets a dangerous precedent, paving the way for those who aspire rather divide, not unite, nations,” as reported by Reuters. Tehran lodged a protest with the Swiss ambassador to Iran, who represents U.S. interests against any possible actions to impede its ships. “If the United States, like pirates, intends to create insecurity on international highways, it will take a dangerous risk that will certainly not go unnoticed,” the Iranian news agency NOUR warned.
If U.S. warships block the Iranian vessels in international waters and Iran makes good on its threat of retaliation, other nations may quickly be drawn into a conflict that would undermine efforts by the UN to foster a worldwide cessation of hostilities. However, should Iranian oil tankers arrive safely at Venezuelan ports, two sanctioned nations will have opened a breach in the U.S. imposed economic blockade through an act of mutual assistance during a health and food emergency.
Iran-flagged tanker Fortune, the first in the flotilla, was approaching the Caribbean Sea on 22 May 2020. It had been navigating with its satellite signal on since it passed the Suez Canal earlier in May. The four other vessels are following the same route across the Atlantic Ocean, Refinitiv Eikon data showed. The first vessel was expected to reach the South American country's waters on 24 May 2020.
The OPEC-member country desperately needs fuel for up to 1,800 gasoline stations that have been partially closed for weeks due to insufficient supply from state-run PDVSA's refineries, which until March worked at about 10 percent of their joint capacity of 1.3 million barrels per day (bpd). PDVSA's gasoline output is now limited to a single facility, the Amuay refinery, but most fuel produced is low octane as most of the country's alkylation units are out of service, according to company sources. Imported alkylate could improve the quality of domestic gasoline.
On 22 May 2020 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country is always entitled to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and warned that if his country's oil tankers in the Caribbean or anywhere in the world get into trouble by the Americans, Tehran will definitely retaliate. Referring to the American moves in the Caribbean, he reiterated, “If our oil tankers face problems in the Caribbean Sea or anywhere in the world by the Americans, they will face problems reciprocally.”
The first of five Iranian oil tankers has entered the Venezuelan territorial waters to show Iran’s determination to carry out exports of goods and oil to everywhere in the world regardless of US threats. According to the online tracking data, the Iranian-flagged tanker, named Fortune, arrived in the Venezuelan exclusive economic zone (EEZ) on the evening of 23 May 2020. Based on media reports, upon entering the Venezuelan waters, the ship was closely followed by a US cargo ship, the Adam Joseph.
Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei has congratulated the tanker crews that delivered fuel to sanctions-stricken Venezuela, despite US threats and pressure, on “a great job” and even compared their mission to a religious struggle. The 81-year-old Khamenei, who is one of the closest-followed Islamic leaders on Twitter, praised the tanker flotilla's crews and captains on 08 June 2020. “You did a great job. It was Jihad & brought honor to the country,” he wrote, while also praying that God grant strength and success to the sailors.
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