The Drug War Taught the U.S. Military How to Hunt Terrorists
Surveillance and high-value targets in Latin America
Today, the Pentagon still uses drones, spy planes and other intelligence sources – along with a lot of the same military lingo – to hunt down drug kingpins and their cronies across Latin America.
On June 21, 1971, U.S. Pres. Richard Nixon sent a letter to Congress calling for a dramatic increase in funds and programs to stop illegal drug use in America. The next day, Nixon outlined his vision to lawmakers and then to the press, who gave the proposal the “War on Drugs” moniker.
“Despite the magnitude of the problem, despite our very limited success in meeting it and despite the common recognition of both circumstances, we nevertheless have thus far failed to develop a concerted effort to find a better solution to this increasingly grave threat,” Nixon wrote. “Therefore, I am transmitting legislation to the Congress to consolidate at the highest level a full-scale attack on the problem of drug abuse in America.”
With Washington still extricating itself from the quagmire in Vietnam, resources were initially limited. But the Pentagon, the intelligence community and federal law enforcement agencies began deploying some of its best resources and state-of-the-art equipment for the new anti-drug push.
Between 1972 and 1973, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs – the predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Administration – planted poppy fields as part of an surveillance experiment nicknamed Compass Trip. At the time, intelligence analysts had little to no experience in spotting drug fields in photographs taken by spy planes and satellites.
So the Central Intelligence Agency flew its U-2s over the site taking sample pictures of the real thing, according to the agency’s official history of the U-2. The images became a standard “key” for finding poppy growing areas from the skies.
At the time, heroin and marijuana were among the most popular drugs available on the market. American troops were coming home addicted to these drugs, which they began using in Vietnam and which were grown in the Golden Triangle of Burma, Laos and Thailand.
After the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 1973 and the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Drug War shifted focus to cocaine in Latin America. By 1985, the disastrous effects of the cheaper derivative “crack” cocaine had inflamed the situation and public sentiment.
Again, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies helped police departments — domestically and abroad — to the full extent allowed by law. Washington’s campaign increasingly targeted the entire supply chain, including dealers, drug smugglers, growers and even cartel leaders.
Moving on from the lessons learned in projects such as Compass Trip, American spooks, troops and cops scooped up intelligence, compiled dossiers, worked with their foreign counterparts and, in many cases, tracked down specific individuals.
In a taste of things to come, the Pentagon started using planes carrying specialized gear to intercept or at least locate radio chatter and track cell phone signals – a new technology at the time – as well as powerful video cameras to keep an eye on the drug trade.
From bases in Florida and Honduras, small U.S. Army RU-21 and RC-12 spy planes zipped around Central and South American and the Caribbean looking for their targets. The ground combat branch ran secret listening stations in the region to track both communist guerrillas and drug traffickers.
U.S. Air Force C-130 transports ferried in supplies to support these missions. With the right gear fitted, these planes could do their own spying. On top of the aerial campaign, the military including the U.S. Coast Guard, law enforcement agencies including the FBI and DEA — and the CIA and National Security Agency — were all in the mix.
Many of the operations were secret or at least secretive – and complicated ethically and legally. In 1986, the Reagan administration was forced to admit that the War on Drugs and its fight against communist influence in the region had gotten blurred.
In a complex scheme, American officials funded rebels known as the Contras against the leftist government in Nicaragua. In addition to weapons purchased with money from covert arms sales to American enemy Iran, Washington’s support gave the Contras space to set up a healthy drug business to finance their operations.
While conspiracy theories are still rampant, the White House and the CIA insisted there was no active American involvement in the rebel’s cocaine shipments.
When the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador stopped, the Drug War continued with much of the same infrastructure still in place. In 1993, American commandos famously teamed up with Colombian forces to find and ultimately kill the notorious head of the Medellin cartel, Pablo Escobar.
“Providing advice, training, and equipment to a Colombian special police task force known as the Search Bloc, the U.S. operatives covertly led a 16-month manhunt,” George Crawford wrote in a 2009 Joint Special Operations University monograph titled Manhunting: Counter-Network Organization for Irregular Warfare. “A right-wing Colombian vigilante group, los Pepes, applied additional pressure by murdering nearly 300 of Escobar’s associates.”
The whole mission mirrors in many ways how the Pentagon and intelligence agencies locate and kill or capture so-called “high value individuals” – a.k.a. HVIs – today. And in another particularly prescient moment, the team hunting Escobar finally “fixed” his location by triangulating his radio transmissions and phone calls.
Two years later, the Pentagon’s test unit for the then brand new Predator drone showed off the unmanned planes to Joint Task Force Six. The unit was in charge of backing up law enforcement agencies guarding America’s borders and trying to curb the influx of drugs into the country.
JTF-6’s demonstration came two months before commandos at the secretive Joint Special Operations Command got their first look at the pilotless aircraft, according to an official program update. When Washington decided to send its new drones to the Balkans in July 1995, Army troops who had previously been snooping for drug shipments were behind the controls.
America’s domestic drug war was also becoming militarized. In July 1996, even the Marine Corps – traditionally in charge of amphibious landings on foreign shores – had more than 1,000 troops working with federal and state law enforcement in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, according to an official monthly review.
Now fast forward a decade later. American troops and spies were fanning out across the globe, hunting terrorists by tracking their cell phones and watching them through eerie infrared video screens. Small, innocuous spy planes like the ones popular for decades in the Drug War — and drones like the Predator — were key components of these “targeted killings.”
And despite international terrorism having captured the public imagination, Washington is still using the same tactics to battle drug cartels in Mexico and elsewhere across Latin America. With attention focused elsewhere, the missions seem to largely make the news when something goes wrong.
In February 2003, the Colombian FARC rebel group captured three American contractors and executed a fourth after their spy plane crashed in the Colombian countryside. In a controversial mission more than five years later, Colombian troops masquerading as members of the International Red Cross rescued 15 hostages, including former Colombian presidential candidate Íngrid Betancourt and the Americans.
On Oct. 5, 2013, another privately operate spy plane crashed near the Panama-Colombia border. The two pilots were injured, but the other four members of the crew, including a member of the Air National Guard, died when the plane hit a mountain.
It’s not just private military companies flying these missions. The Air Force’s RC-135V/W Rivet Joints, U-2 Dragon Ladies and C-130 Senior Scout spy planes have all flown regular missions in Latin America, according to annual histories War Is Boring obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The Rivet Joints and Senior Scouts both scan for radio chatter and other communications. The U-2s can take large, high-resolution pictures with their optical bar camera or scoop up various electronic signals.
And just like the Washington’s drone war against terrorists, unmanned planes are an important part of the ongoing Drug War. As of 2011, the Pentagon had a robust mechanism to field requests for RQ-4 Global Hawk spy missions – able to get imagery from high altitudes like the Dragon Ladies – from allies in Latin America, according to a briefing we also received via FOIA.
On the ground, American troops – especially commandos – and law enforcement teams regularly train with specialized counter-drug units across Latin America. Many of these security forces are engaged in attempts to track down cartel members and leaders just like Escobar – or the recently escaped boss of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
On the domestic front, the Pentagon renamed JTF-6 as Joint Task Force North in 2004. Located at Fort Bliss in Texas, the unit now handles requests from American law enforcement agencies for military support.
The Pentagon only helps out when the cops don’t have the necessary gear or skill sets. JTF-N then goes about finding appropriate units who are in need of training exercise.
In an example of the win-win arrangement, engineers might get the experience they need and the Border Patrol gets a new watchtower or road. JTF-N might also hire contractors to fly surveillance missions or send reconnaissance troops to do the patrols as a practice session.
Of course, since the War on Drugs is largely a law enforcement issue, these missions don’t result in air strikes and dead drug traffickers … most of the time. In an undated briefing, the Pentagon’s top command for Central and South America explains that its “kill chain” is supposed to end with apprehension and prosecution rather than a Hellfire missile.
Many of the same difficulties that exist in targeted killings exist in counter-drug missions. Looking through radar screens or tracking phones, American spies often have to rely on imprecise indicators of suspicious activity.
In 2010, U.S. Southern Command investigated more than 700 “events” in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the briefing stated without offering an indication if all of this “suspect maritime activity” turned out to be drug trafficking-related. The same briefing stated there were more than 100 instances of “suspect air activity.”
But just like strikes against suspected terrorists, innocent civilians can and have gotten caught in the crossfire. On April 20, 2001, a team of Peruvian air force and CIA personnel called in warplanes to investigate a suspected drug smuggling aircraft as part of the Washington-backed Narcotics Airbridge Denial Program.
The Peruvians shot down the private float plane, which later turned out to have been carrying American evangelical Christian missionaries. Roni Bowers and her infant daughter were killed. In 2008, the CIA’s own inspector general issued a report highly critical of the agency’s participation in the program.
“Within hours, CIA officers began to characterize the shootdown as a one-time mistake in an otherwise well run program,” the investigators wrote. “In fact, this was not the case.”
In every one of the 15 shootdowns CIA officers had been involved in since 1995, they violated their own procedures to some degree, according to the final review. Not only were the personnel aware of the problems, they actively disregarded them.
In the April 2001 event, no one had even attempted to verify the civilian registration code on the side of Bowers’ plane. It was quite possible that civilians had been killed or injured in the other 14 incidents.
These issues likely persist to some degree. In its briefing, U.S. Southern Command complained about “a very large search area” and “scarce assets” in the hemisphere.
In the case of targeted killings, American troops have killed numerous unintended victims – including innocent civilians – due to a lack of good intelligence. Thankfully, the process with drug smugglers doesn’t generally end in some sort of strike.
But as with Washington’s policy of picking off individual terrorists, the American public and law enforcement officials are starting to question whether the militarized War on Drugs is worth the cost — or working at all.
On Oct. 21, a group of more than 100 police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors called Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration came out against sending non-violent offenders to jail and prison for drug-related crimes.
“Of course, there are people who deserve to be behind bars,” Chicago Police SuperintendentWe need dangerous and violent offenders off our streets. But we should stop using incarceration as our default response, especially for non-violent crimes.”
Military, police and intelligence agencies could also cut back on their whack-a-mole approach to the War on Drugs. And American troops might find those lessons useful in the fight against terrorism, too.