A naval officer from El Paso is battling the drug cartels on the high seas aboard the USS Curts (FFG 38) frigate as part of the multinational and multi-agency "Operation Martillo (Hammer)."
Lt. Cmdr. Fermin Espinoza of El Paso is in charge of the guided missile ship USS Curts, which the Navy has used in counternarcotics missions in the past, including the record seizure of 12 tons of cocaine in 2004.
"My family is from Juarez, Mexico, and I am familiar with the drug-violence that has ravaged that city. I've also seen how drugs destroy people. That's why for me, this operation is personal," said Espinoza in a telephone interview during a stop in Panama.
The U.S. Southern Command announced that the effort aims to
disrupt drug-trafficking routes in coastal waters along the Central America isthmus. Joint Interagency Task Force-South, a component of U.S. Southern Command, is leading the U.S. military's participation.
"More than 80 percent of the cocaine destined for U.S. markets is transported via sea lanes, primarily using littoral routes through Central America," said U.S. Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of the U.S. Southern Command. "Working with our partner nations, we intend to disrupt their operations by limiting their ability to use Central America as a transit zone."
"Illicit trafficking," Fraser said, "jeopardizes the safety and well-being of citizens of every country and has a negative influence on regional and national
Espinoza, 45, said he began his military career 27 years ago in the enlisted ranks. Today, he is a Navy commander, which is comparable to the Army rank of lieutenant colonel.
"Since January alone, we've had a 53 percent increase in seizures of contraband, compared to the same time last year," Espinoza said. "Eighty percent of those seizures, in coordination with our allied nations, represent disruptions in the smuggling operations of transnational gangs by sea. We've also reduced by 35 percent illicit flights used by the smugglers. Our goal is to disrupt, and principally push them away from the shorelines of Central and South America."
Since the U.S. government declared illegal drugs to be a national security threat in the 1980s, the U.S. military has been tasked with preventing narcotics and other drugs from entering the United States. Like other government agencies, the military also depends on timely and accurate intelligence. The Office of Naval Intelligence, which receives less publicity than the Central Intelligence Agency, was created in 1882 and is the oldest existing U.S. intelligence agency.
During the course of Operation "Martillo," Espinoza said the frigate is in constant communication with the Navy, Coast Guard, Drug Enforcement Administration and other agencies. The crew also relies on information regarding the drug cartels provided by the El Paso Intelligence Center.
The USS Curts has not been fired upon by drug-traffickers, who likely find the frigate's armament intimidating.
"I've been all over the world with the Navy, and this is the first time I've been put in charge of a mission such as this one," Espinoza said.
A graduate of Burges High School, Espinoza said he's come across people from other countries and the United States who are surprised to see a Latino in charge of a Navy ship.
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