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US military deploying warships, aircraft and more in the Caribbean to fight drug trafficking

President of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro speaks during a press conference at Miraflores Government Palace on March 12, 2020 in Caracas, Venezuela. (Carolina Cabral/Getty Images/TNS)

The U.S. is expanding its military presence in the Caribbean to fight drug cartels wanting to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis and to deny funds going to the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela, the Trump administration announced late Wednesday.

“Today the U.S. is launching an enhanced counternarcotics operation in the Western Hemisphere,” President Donald Trump said in the daily news briefing at the White House. “We are deploying additional Navy destroyers, combat ships, aircraft and helicopters, Coast Guards cutters and Air Force surveillance aircraft, doubling our capabilities in the region.”

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said the additional military forces were sent to the eastern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. The U.S. Southern Command, based in Doral, Fla., leads the operation, which officially started Wednesday, in partnership with 22 partner countries.

Last year, Southcom seized more than 280 metric tons of drugs heading to the U.S.

At the news conference, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the decision to scale up the military presence in the region while the country is facing a pandemic was based on intelligence.

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“We came upon some intelligence some time ago that the drug cartels, as a result of COVID-19, were going to try to take advantage of the situation and try to infiltrate additional drugs in our country,” he told reporters.

But the expanded military presence is also targeting the Maduro regime in Venezuela, several senior officials said during the conference.

While Venezuela is not the biggest producer of drugs reaching the U.S., it was the only country called out by Esper, who said the “enhanced counternarcotics operations” in the region is intended to not only cut the flows of illicit drugs reaching America but also to deny “our adversaries the financial resources they depend on.”

“Corrupt actors like the illegitimate Maduro regime in Venezuela rely on the profits derived from the sale of narcotics to maintain their oppressive hold on power,” Esper said. “The Venezuelan people continue to suffer tremendously due to Maduro’s continued control over the country.”

Other senior members of the Trump administration reiterated the same message.

“Under President Trump’s leadership, we will continue to execute our maximum pressure policy to counter the Maduro regime’s activities, including drug trafficking,” National Security Council Director Robert O’Brien said. “And this operation will help to choke off the funds that go to that corrupt regime.”

U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who attended the briefing, mentioned that 16 members of the Maduro regime, including Nicolás Maduro himself, were recently indicted by the Department of Justice under narco-trafficking charges. He added that the regime is also trying to establish an air route to fly drugs from Venezuela to Central America.

Plans about expanding U.S. military presence in the region were first disclosed by the Southcom commander, Adm. Craig Faller, during a congressional hearing in early March.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs, welcomed the president’s announcement.

“This action should be of serious concern to Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro and senior members of his regime, who were recently indicted for crimes including drug trafficking, corruption and money laundering,” Rubio said. “It’s essential we continue all efforts to deny the Venezuelan narco-regime of financial support until democratic order and the rule of law are restored.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department unveiled a plan to form a transitional government in Venezuela that details the conditions under which the Trump administration would lift sanctions against the nation’s oil industry and regime officials.

Also this week, the administration has called Maduro, who the United States no longer recognizes as the legitimate leader of the country, to accept an offer to negotiate his exit, and resolve the yearslong humanitarian crisis in that nation.

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© 2020 Miami Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.