Friday, June 09, 2006

Rumsfeld: Army should pull out of drug war in Bahamas

Miami, Florida (AP) - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wants to end U.S. Army helicopter support for a joint U.S.-Bahamas drug-interdiction program that over the past two decades has resulted in hundreds of arrests and the seizure of tons of cocaine and marijuana.

The Army's seven Black Hawk helicopters and their crews form the backbone of Operation Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, which the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration credits with helping drive cocaine and marijuana smugglers away from the Bahamas and its easy access to Florida.

But in a May 15 letter to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Rumsfeld said it was time after more than 20 years to shift the equipment elsewhere. The military is being stretched thin by the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and other commitments around the globe.

The Bahamas anti-drug program, Rumsfeld wrote, "now competes with resources necessary for the war on terrorism and other activities in support of our nation's defense, with potential adverse effects on the military preparedness of the United States."

The letter asks Gonzales to help identify "a more appropriate agency" to provide the air support. Rumsfeld said he wants to complete the military pullout from the program by Oct. 1, 2007.

The DEA is the other major player in the program, but it has only one helicopter in the Bahamas. The Coast Guard has three Jayhawk helicopters assigned to the program, but DEA officials said the equipment would be insufficient to provide quick response along the vast, 700-island Bahamas chain.

"We would need some resources to be able to do that," said Mark R. Trouville, chief of DEA's Miami field office. The Miami DEA office oversees U.S. anti-drug efforts in the Caribbean and Latin America.

The Justice Department, of which DEA is a part, declined comment Wednesday on Rumsfeld's letter. Trouville said discussions were under way regarding which agency might assume the military's role in the Bahamas.

Officials at the Pentagon and the U.S. Southern Command in Miami did not immediately return calls Wednesday.

When the program began in 1982, up to 90 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the U.S. from Latin America came into Florida through the Bahamas and Caribbean. Now, most of the cocaine moves across the U.S. southwestern border, in part because of the pressure on traffickers operating off Florida's coasts.

"If we start letting our guard down here now, and we reduce our presence here, it will be more economical (for smugglers) to come back this way. And certainly the state of Florida is ground zero for that," Trouville said.

Since 2000, the program has resulted in seizure of more than 25 tons of cocaine, 82 tons of marijuana and the arrests of 786 people, according to DEA statistics from April.


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