Pubdate: Mon, 07 Nov 2011
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2011 The New York Times Company
Author: Charlie Savage


WASHINGTON - Late on a moonless night last March, a plane smuggling 
nearly half a ton of cocaine touched down at a remote airstrip in 
Honduras. A heavily armed ground crew was waiting for it - as were 
Honduran security forces. After a 20-minute firefight, a Honduran 
officer was wounded and two drug traffickers lay dead.

Several news outlets briefly reported the episode, mentioning that a 
Honduran official said the United States Drug Enforcement 
Administration had provided support. But none of the reports included 
a striking detail: that support consisted of an elite detachment of 
military-trained D.E.A. special agents who joined in the shootout, 
according to a person familiar with the episode.

The D.E.A. now has five commando-style squads it has been quietly 
deploying for the past several years to Western Hemisphere nations - 
including Haiti, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and 
Belize - that are battling drug cartels, according to documents and 
interviews with law enforcement officials.

The program - called FAST, for Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team 
- - was created during the George W. Bush administration to investigate 
Taliban-linked drug traffickers in Afghanistan. Beginning in 2008 and 
continuing under President Obama, it has expanded far beyond the war zone.

"You have got to have special skills and equipment to be able to 
operate effectively and safely in environments like this," said 
Michael A. Braun, a former head of operations for the drug agency who 
helped design the program. "The D.E.A. is working 
shoulder-to-shoulder in harm's way with host-nation counterparts."

The evolution of the program into a global enforcement arm reflects 
the United States' growing reach in combating drug cartels and how 
policy makers increasingly are blurring the line between law 
enforcement and military activities, fusing elements of the "war on 
drugs" with the "war on terrorism."

Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami professor who specializes in 
Latin America and counternarcotics, said the commando program carries 
potential benefits: the American teams could help arrest kingpins, 
seize stockpiles, disrupt smuggling routes and professionalize 
security forces in small countries through which traffickers pass 
drugs headed to the United States.

But there are also potential dangers.

"It could lead to a nationalist backlash in the countries involved," 
he said. "If an American is killed, the administration and the D.E.A. 
could get mired in Congressional oversight hearings. Taking out 
kingpins could fragment the organization and lead to more violence. 
And it won't permanently stop trafficking unless a country also has 
capable institutions, which often don't exist in Central America."

Because the presence of armed Americans on their soil raises 
sensitivities about sovereignty, some countries that have sought the 
assistance of the United States will not acknowledge it, and the 
D.E.A. is reluctant to disclose the details of the commando teams' 
deployments. Others - like Mexico, which has accepted American help, 
including surveillance drones - have not wanted the commando squads.

Federal law prohibits the drug agency from directly carrying out 
arrests overseas, but agents are permitted to accompany their foreign 
counterparts on operations. The Americans work with specially vetted 
units of local security forces that they train and mentor. In 
"exigent circumstances," they may open fire to protect themselves or partners.

The firefight in Honduras last March, described by officials of both 
countries, illustrates the flexibility of such rules. The Honduran 
minister of public security at the time, Oscar Alvarez, said that 
under the agreement with the D.E.A., the Americans normally did not 
go on missions.

But in that case, he said, a training exercise went live: an American 
squad was working with a Honduran police unit in La Mosquitia 
rainforest when they received word that a suspicious plane from 
Venezuela was being tracked to a clandestine landing strip nearby.

After the plane landed, the Honduran police identified themselves and 
the traffickers opened fire, officials of both countries said. After 
a 20-minute gunfight, the Hondurans and Americans seized the cocaine 
and withdrew to evacuate the wounded officer.

"I don't want to say it was Vietnam-style, but it was typical of war 
action," said Mr. Alvarez; he declined to say whether the Americans 
took part in the shooting, but another person familiar with the 
episode said they did.

The FAST program is similar to a D.E.A. operation in the late 1980s 
and early 1990s in which drug enforcement agents received military 
training and entered into partnerships with local forces in places 
like Peru and Bolivia, targeting smuggling airstrips and jungle labs.

The Reagan-era initiative, though, drew criticism from agency 
supervisors who disliked the disruption of supplying agents for 
temporary rotations, and questioned whether its benefits outweighed 
the risks and cost. The Clinton administration was moving to shut 
down the operation when five agents died in a plane crash in Peru in 
1994, sealing its fate.

In 2000, when the United States expanded assistance to Colombia in 
its battle against the narcotics-financed insurgent group called 
FARC, the trainers were military, not D.E.A. But after the invasion 
of Afghanistan, the Bush administration assigned Mr. Braun, a veteran 
of the earlier effort, to design a new program.

Begun in 2005, the program has five squads, each with 10 agents. Many 
are military veterans, and the section is overseen by a former member 
of the Navy Seals, Richard Dobrich. The Pentagon has provided most of 
their training and equipment, and they routinely fly on military aircraft.

The deployments to Afghanistan have resulted in large seizures of 
drugs, and some tragedy: two of the three D.E.A. agents who died in a 
helicopter crash in October 2009 were with FAST. Last week, an agent 
was shot in the head when his squad came under fire while leaving a 
bazaar where they had just seized 3,000 kilograms, about 6,600 
pounds, of poppy seeds and 50 kilograms, about 110 pounds, of opium. 
Airlifted to Germany in critical condition, he is expected to 
survive, an official said.

The commandos have also been deployed at least 15 times to Latin 
America. The D.E.A. said some of those missions involved only 
training, but officials declined to provide details. Still, glimpses 
of the program emerged in interviews with current and former American 
and foreign officials, briefing files, budget documents and several 
State Department cables released by WikiLeaks.

For example, an American team assisted Guatemalan forces in the March 
2011 arrest of Juan Alberto Ortiz-Lopez, whom the D.E.A. considered a 
top cocaine smuggler for the Sinaloa cartel, an official said. Videos 
of the raid show masked men in black tactical garb; it is unclear if 
any are Americans.

A diplomatic cable describes another mission in Guatemala. On July 
21, 2009, seven American military helicopters carrying D.E.A. and 
Guatemalan security forces flew to the compound of a wealthy family, 
the Lorenzanas - four of whom were wanted in the United States on 
drug trafficking charges.

After a "small firefight" in which a bullet grazed a Lorenzana family 
member, agents found "large numbers of weapons and amounts of cash" 
but not the targets, who may have been tipped off, according to the 
cable. The Guatemalan news media documented the failure, portraying 
the joint operation as a "D.E.A. raid."

A former head of Guatemala's national security council, Francisco 
Jimenez, said in an interview that American participation in such 
operations was an "open secret" but rarely acknowledged.

In October 2009, another official said, the agency deployed a squad 
aboard a Navy amphibious assault ship, the Wasp, off the coast of 
Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where it focused on planes used for 

Cables also show the agency has twice come close to deploying one of 
its units to the Darien region of Panama, where FARC incursions have 
established cocaine smuggling routes. But both missions were aborted, 
for fears that it was too unsafe for the Americans or that their 
involvement could escalate the conflict.

FAST has repeatedly deployed squads to Haiti, helping to arrest three 
fugitives this year and train 100 Haitian counternarcotics officers 
this fall. Mario Andresol, the Haitian police chief, says he needs 
such help. "We know the smuggling routes," he said, "but the problem 
is we don't have enough people to go after them."

Randal C. Archibold contributed reporting from Honduras and Haiti, 
and Ginger Thompson from Washington.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom