SAN DIEGO -- Families waved teary goodbyes as the USS Thach left San Diego Bay on Tuesday, headed for Central America with a crew of 220 Sailors and Coast Guard Members. The main mission of the guided-missile frigate and its crew is to disrupt illegal drug trafficking in the eastern Pacific and Caribbean.
The U.S. military has long conducted anti-drug trafficking operations in that region, but its role has become increasingly important — providing training, equipment and intelligence for Central American governments, who are fighting what’s become a very violent drug war.
“SOUTHCOMM, the United States Southern Command, has stated that they would like to play a larger role in combating criminal organizations in the region," said Steven Dudley, co-director of Insight Crime, a research group that specializes in organized crime in Latin America. "So it’s an impetus from the stateside, but it’s also coming from these local governments.”
Still, some, including U.S. Congress members, have raised concerns about U.S. involvement in anti-drug trafficking activities in Central America. The U.S. cut some intelligence support for Honduran law enforcement last year after that country’s Air Force shot down two civilian planes.
Also last year, DEA agents shot and killed two suspected drug smugglers in Honduras.
In the ongoing war on drugs, the Obama administration has said it wants to focus more on prevention and treatment of drug users, but most of the federal budget to combat illegal drugs still goes toward law enforcement, interdiction and international anti-drug trafficking efforts.