The Marines are deployed as part of Operation Martillo, a broader effort started last Jan. 15 to stop drug trafficking along the Central American coast. Focused exclusively on drug dealers in airplanes or boats, the U.S.-led operation involves troops or law enforcement agents from Belize, Britain, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, France, Guatemala, Honduras, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Panama and Spain. "This is the first Marine deployment that directly supports countering transnational crime in this area, and it's certainly the largest footprint we've had in that area in quite some time," said Marine Staff Sgt. Earnest Barnes at the U.S. Southern Command in Miami.
It was 50 years ago when the U.S. military last sent any significant aid and equipment into Guatemala, establishing a base to support counter-insurgency efforts during a guerrilla uprising. That movement led to 36 years of war that left 200,000 dead, mostly indigent Maya farmers. The U.S. pulled out in 1978. Guatemalan authorities say they signed a treaty allowing the U.S. military to conduct the operations on July 16. Less than a month later an Air Force C-5 transport plane flew into Guatemala City from North Carolina loaded with the Marines and four UH-1 "Huey" helicopters.
After two weeks of setting up camp, establishing computer connections and training at the Guatemalan air base at Retalhuleu, the Marines ran through rehearsal exercises, Barnes said. Last week, their commander "gave us the thumbs up" to begin active operations, he said. This week the Marines have been patrolling waterways and the coastline, looking for fast power boats and self-propelled "narco-submarines" used to smuggle drugs along Central America's Pacific Coast. U.S. officials say the "drug subs" can carry up to 11 tons of illegal cargo up to 5,000 miles.
Col. Erick Escobedo, spokesman for Guatemalan Military Forces and Defense Ministry, said that so far the Marines have brought about the seizure of one small-engine aircraft and a car, but made no arrests. He said he expected the Marines to in Guatemala for about two months. If the Marines find suspected boats, Barnes said, they will contact their Guatemalan counterparts in a special operations unit from the Guatemalan navy that will move in for the bust. Barnes said the Marines will not go along on arrest missions, but they do have the right to defend themselves if fired on.