President Donald Trump visited U.S. Southern Command today to applaud the work of military service members working in the command’s counter-narcotics operation that saw a doubling of resources and historic seizures over the past three months.
“I wanted to come and thank you personally for your valiant fight to defend our borders and take our vile traffickers, these vile traffickers out of business, knock them out of business the smugglers the criminal cartels we want to knock them out,” Trump told a dispersed, masked audience of mostly military and law enforcement.
In both his remarks and a White House statement, he noted that over the past 12 weeks, efforts to increase surveillance in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific ocean specifically have grabbed 120 metric tons, or 264,000 pounds of illegal drugs and nabbed 1,000 drug traffickers.
Much of that result was due to a 65 percent increase in ships, a 75 percent increase in surveillance aircraft and an additional 1,300 personnel assigned to bolster the counter-narcotics mission.
Trump gave his speech without a mask and on his left stood SOUTHCOM Commander Navy Adm. Craig Faller, also without a mask.
Though audience members did wear masks and appear within camera view to be standing about a 6-foot distance, observing recommended protocols to prevent coronavirus spread.
Trump received sharp criticism via remarks from his presidential campaign rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, who called the visit to Florida a, “photo-op and a distraction from his failures” to stem the destruction of the pandemic over the past months.
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The president announced in April that the United States would conduct one its largest military operations in the theater since the 1989 Panama invasion to oust Gen. Manuel Noriega and haul him to the United States for a trial on drug charges.
During the April announcement, Trump said the move was because there was a “growing threat” that cartels and criminals will try to take advantage of the pandemic.” It is a comment he revisited in today’s speech.
The same day, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper also made remarks about the suffering of Venezuelans at the hands of President Nicolas Maduro Moros’ policies.
“The Venezuelan people continue to suffer tremendously due to Maduro and his criminal control over the country, and drug traffickers are seizing on this lawlessness,” Esper said in April.
The Venezuelan leader and others saw the buildup in the region as a potential for U.S. military intervention in the country’s ongoing strife.
But, Faller said at that time in an Associated Press interview that the doubling of assets had been planned months in advance and was not linked directly to Maduro’s indictment
“This is not a shift in U.S. government policy,” Faller said previously. But he did commend the chance that enhanced interdiction efforts would hurt Maduro’s finances and staying power. “It’s not an indication of some sort of new militarization in the Caribbean.”
Trump did not mention Maduro by name in today’s remarks but also stressed a national security angle on his increase efforts in countering drug trafficking.
“As governments and nations focus on the coronavirus, there’s a growing threat that cartels, criminals, terrorists, and other malign actors will try to exploit the situation for their own gain,” he said in a White House statement. “And we must not let that happen.”
An April executive order authorized Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to activate units and individual military members for the mission, “Enhanced Department of Defense Counternarcotic Operation in the Western Hemisphere.”
At that time Military Times reported that an unnamed Air National Guard unit was activated to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to the operation.
In the first few weeks Trump hailed two “quick wins” – a 1.7 metric ton seizure in the Pacific Ocean near Costa Rica and a 2.1 ton interdiction in the region.
Today he highlighted the seizure of three narcotrafficking submarines in May.
“In a single four-day period in May our courageous Coast Guard men and women stopped three narco-submarines packed with poisonous drugs, keeping thousands of lethal narcotics off of our streets and off of our city areas,” he said.
The president then turned to his left and asked Faller what they did with all the drugs seized.
“What do you do with it, by the way, you get all that stuff, you dump it? What do you do with it admiral, I want to hear?,” Trump said.
Faller, at relaxed parade rest, appeared to begin to answer before another person, off camera, responded.
“You blow it up or just dump it someplace?” Trump continued.
Repeating the response from off camera, “You burn it? Alright, that sounds like a good way of doing it.”
Trump repeatedly highlighted the additional and advanced equipment that SOUTHCOM and the rest of the military is receiving, he said due to efforts to increase the military spending budget.
The president highlighted two new Coast Guard cutters and two ice breaking ships that are slated for that money as well.
The sinking of a Venezuelan naval ship earlier this year after it allegedly rammed an Antarctic-hardened cruise ship without passengers near Curacao was indicative of Maduro’s military force readiness, Trump said in April remarks, Navy Times previously reported.
About Todd South
Todd South is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War. He has written about crime, courts, government and military issues for multiple publications since 2004. In 2014, he was named a Pulitzer finalist for local reporting on a project he co-wrote about witness problems in gang criminal cases. Todd covers ground combat for Military Times.