The US Drug Enforcement Agency has five commando-style squads it has been quietly deploying for the past several years to various countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean, the New York Times reported Monday.
The countries where the commando teams have been deployed include Haiti, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Belize, all countries struggling to combat drug trafficking, the daily wrote.
The program, known by its acronym FAST — Foreign-deployedAdvisory Support Team — dates back to the George W. Bush administration. It was created originally to investigate Taliban-linked drug traffickers in Afghanistan.
But US President Barack Obama beginning in 2008 broadened its mandate beyond the Afghan war zone, according to the Times.
The newspaper reported that the program reflects Washington’s growing reach in combating drug cartels, amid concerns by some policy makers that the line between law enforcement and military activities is becoming increasingly blurred.
But Michael Braun, a former head of operations for the drug agency who helped design the program, told the Times that the military-trained commandos are exactly what is needed for often dangerous drug interdiction activities.
“You have got to have special skills and equipment to be able to operate effectively and safely in environments like this,” he told the newspaper.
“The DEA is working shoulder-to-shoulder in harm’s way with host-nation counterparts,” he said.
Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami professor who specializes in Latin America and counternarcotics, said the US commando teams could help arrest kingpins, seize drug stockpiles, disrupt smuggling routes and help train security forces in small drug-trafficking plagued countries.
But he said such operations on foreign soil are inherently sensitive, and risk a possible backlash if operations go awry.
“It could lead to a nationalist backlash in the countries involved,” he told the Times.
“If an American is killed, the administration and the DEA could get mired in Congressional oversight hearings,” he said.
“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.”