By Adam Isacson, Geoff Ramsey & David Smilde

During an April 1 press briefing on the U.S. response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump announced new deployments of ships and aircraft to the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific, describing the move as necessary amid the pandemic due to the “growing threat that cartels, criminals, terrorists, and other malign actors will try to exploit the situation for their own gain.”

Because the announcement is centered on the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific, the focus of these interdiction operations would be almost exclusively on cocaine, not heroin, synthetic opioids, or methamphetamine. Given the history of U.S. military intervention in the hemisphere, the announcement has fueled speculation and rumors about U.S. security policy towards Venezuela. We’ve prepared the following factsheet to place the announcement into perspective.

Is President Trump’s announcement of new deployments actually “new?”

The president’s announcement raised the profile of the operation, but the deployments themselves had been made public before. At a March 11 hearing on security challenges in the U.S. House of Representatives, Admiral Craig Faller of the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) outlined the strategy: “There will be an increase in U.S. military presence in the hemisphere later this year. This will include an enhanced presence of ships, aircraft, and security forces to reassure our partners, improve U.S. and partner readiness and interoperability, and counter a range of threats to include illicit narcoterrorism.” 

What is new is the scale of the deployment in Latin America, and the sudden shift in Department of Defense strategy on counternarcotics. According to a graphic released by the Defense Department, the operation will involve an array of ships (Navy destroyers and littoral combat ships, and 10 Coast Guard cutters) and aircraft (helicopters on destroyers and cutters, Navy P-8 patrol aircraft, and Air Force E-3 and E-8 reconnaissance planes) previously unseen in Latin America. It will also involve a company (generally 80–150 troops) of ground forces belonging to the Security Force Assistance Brigade. Some of these assets are quite sophisticated: an E-3 AWACS plane, equipped with a 30-foot radar dome, cost $270 million in 1998 (about $430 million today) to obtain and costs $39,587 per hour to operate.

Drug interdiction has been a low-priority mission for the Department of Defense in recent years, despite insistent calls by SOUTHCOM for more resources to patrol the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific. The public summary of the Department’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, which emphasizes great-power conflict, makes no mention of drugs or “narcoterrorism,” and makes only one fleeting allusion to transnational organized crime. According to a source cited in an April 2 Foreign Policy article, the Department in fact opposed the current deployment and pushed back against it, but President Trump insisted.