Washington (AFP) - President Donald Trump announced Wednesday he was directing the Pentagon to join drug interdiction efforts in the eastern Pacific and Caribbean, saying traffickers were trying to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump together with Pentagon leaders said they were doubling the number of ships and aircraft committed to tracking and seizing drugs coming up to the United States from South and Central America.
"Today the United States is announcing enhanced counter-narcotics operations in the Western hemisphere to protect the American people from the deadly scourge of illegal narcotics," Trump said in a White House press conference.
"We must not let the drug cartels exploit the pandemic to threaten American lives," he said.
Trump said they were deploying more Navy destroyers, combat ships, surveillance aircraft, adding to the US Coast Guard drug patrols already on the scene.
Underscoring the effort, Trump made the announcement with Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley, and Attorney General Bill Barr at his side.
They said that the focus was on the Venezuelan regime of President Nicolas Maduro's alleged cooperation with Colombian cartels to push hundreds of tonnes of cocaine and other drugs northward by air and sea.
"These additional forces will nearly double our capacity to conduct counter-narcotics operations in the region," said Esper.
"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."
Milley said they had received intelligence recently that drug cartels saw the Covid-19 outbreak as an opportunity to try to ship more drugs to the United States.
"We are at war with terrorists, we are at war with Covid-19, and we are at war with the drug cartels as well," he said.
"This is the United States military. You will not penetrate this country," Milley warned.
Last week the US Justice Department unveiled indictments of Maduro and top aides, saying the Venezuelan leader directed a drug trafficking group called "The Cartel of the Suns" that worked with Colombian armed rebels to ship hundreds of tonnes of the drug to the United States over two decades.