President Trump — flanked by Attorney General Bill Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and top military officials at the White House coronavirus briefing — announced on Wednesday a massive new “counternarcotics operation” in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea to “combat the flow of illicit drugs into the United States.”
“We must not let the drug cartels exploit the pandemic to threaten American lives,” Trump said. “In cooperation with the 22 partner nations, U.S. Southern Command will increase surveillance, disruption and seizures of drug shipments and provide additional support for eradication efforts, which are going on right now at a record pace.”
Included in the force package are Navy destroyers, other combat ships, Air Force surveillance planes and helicopters, and ten Coast Guard cutter ships, Trump said, noting that the new forces would double U.S. interdiction capacity in the region — and help slow the spread of the coronavirus by reducing illicit travel.
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States had obtained intelligence that cartels were seeking to “take advantage” of the coronavirus to smuggle drugs. Asked about the intelligence later in the briefing, Trump called it strong but wouldn’t elaborate.
“We came upon some intelligence some time ago that the drug cartels as a result of COVID-19 were gonna try to take advantage of the situation and try to infiltrate additional drugs into our country,” Milley remarked. “As we know, 70,000 Americans die on an average annual basis to drugs. That’s unacceptable. We’re at war with COVID-19, we’re at war with terrorists, and we are at war with the drug cartels, as well.”