NORFOLK -- Because of sequestration budget cuts, Navy frigates will stop conducting drug patrols in the Caribbean and along the South American coastline, ending their participation in a joint operation that stopped 160 tons of cocaine from reaching U.S. streets last year.
The Navy confirmed Tuesday that it is suspending the upcoming deployments of two ships to the region, the Norfolk-based Kauffman and the San Diego-based Rentz. They were scheduled to replace two San Diego-based frigates that will return home in the coming weeks -- one of them early because of the cuts.
The ships were part of Operation Martillo, a counternarcotics effort that involves the Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, Marines, Drug Enforcement Agency and law enforcement agencies from several partner countries in Latin America and Europe.
Officials acknowledge that, without the frigates, fighting drug trafficking in the Caribbean just got tougher.
"We are always looking for creative ways to address this problem," said Lt. Cmdr. Ron Flanders, spokesman for the Southern Command, which is responsible for the task force that works with partner countries to run Operation Martillo.
"Certainly with less gray hulls it will be more challenging," he said, referring to Navy ships.
Last year, Operation Martillo ("martillo" means hammer in Spanish) intercepted and captured $4 billion worth of cocaine, valued at $12 billion in street resale value; 25,000 pounds of marijuana, worth more than $10 million on the streets; and $3.5 million in cash, according to U.S. Southern Command.
The across-the-board budget slashes took effect Friday, coming down hard on defense and forcing the services to cut operations not considered essential. With the Afghanistan war effort still a priority and the Navy's pivot to the Pacific region, commanders have warned that police and goodwill operations in South and Central America would be on the sequestration chopping block.
Operation Martillo is not the only naval operation in the Caribbean hit by sequestration.
The hospital ship Comfort was supposed to leave its new base in Norfolk early next month for a four-month humanitarian mission to eight South and Central American nations. That, too, was cut.
The Coast Guard says it will reduce hours dedicated to drug interdiction and its other operations.
Atlantic Area spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Jamie Frederick said cutter and aircraft activity will be affected, but that the service would not discuss details to ensure their security.
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp told the U.S. Naval Institute on Monday that, because of the cuts, the only vessels to carry Coast Guard personnel will be the service's own cutters and that there aren't enough to meet the demand in the Caribbean.
"We already don't have enough surface assets down there to interdict all of the drugs that are smuggled from South America into North America," Papp said. "If those (frigates) go, we don't have enough platforms to put Coast Guard law enforcement teams on."
Papp noted that Great Britain, Holland and France each provided a ship to the Caribbean but are withdrawing those because of their own budgetary problems.
Cmdr. Cory Barker, a spokesman for the Navy's 4th Fleet, said Operation Martillo cuts off drugs being transported by ship from South America to Central America before they are trucked northward to the United States.
The frigates play an important role in helping intercept those drugs.
"I can guarantee you, it's a major factor, a major blow," he said.
Flanders said the operation also serves to build partnerships and help Central American nations strengthen their own law and maritime enforcement against the drug and organized-crime cartels.
The silver lining, he said, is that those countries are working more closely together and seeing more success.
"This cocaine business is a multibillion-dollar industry, and these guys have a lot of resources," he said.
"I am sure they are watching the events going on in the United States. ... I am sure they might see it as an opportunity for them, but we are doing everything we can to counter this. It's hard, though. We need frigates. We need Coast Guard ships."