American efforts to curb the flow of drugs coming into the country won't come close to reaching officials' goals without about a dozen more ships off the waters of Latin America, said Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command.
Kelly said that he needs 16 ships in the region to reach the administration's 40 percent drug reduction goal - but he won't make a bigger dent in the multibillion-dollar industry with the three or four ships he's averaged in past years.
"I don't need a warship. I need a ship, something that floats, with a helicopter," he said. "We think it takes 16 of those things to accomplish the 40 percent mission."
Last year, Kelly said, U. S. Southern Command seized 132 tons of cocaine on the seas using an average of three or four ships, but he believes that's not enough to reach his goal.
"If I had 16 ships, I could do so much more," he said. "It's almost a scientific equation: more assets, more tonnage [of drugs]."
Kelly said that his command's efforts in Latin America accounts for only 1.5 percent of total U.S. government funds devoted to the war on drugs, though they seize far more drugs than authorities inside the U.S.
But Kelly realizes the military services only have so many assets to spare, which are usually sent to "other higher-priority parts of the world." This means his command is not likely to get the resources he would like.
"I'm not complaining, I'm not criticizing. That's just the way it is, " said Kelly. "However, without assets, certain things will happen. Much larger amounts of drugs will flow up from Latin America."
The hope is that cutting more illegal drugs off at the source before they cross the American border will significantly reduce their use in the United States.
"Heroin consumption, even in the nicest neighborhoods in the United States, is up 65 to 80 percent in the last several years," Kelly said.
Citing about 40,000 U.S. deaths per year tied to drugs - including some big figures in Hollywood - Kelly said Americans are waking up to a "heroin epidemic" on U.S. soil.
"It's massive, cheap, powerful. It's not your grandfather's heroin," he said. "It's very, very different. And it all comes up through Latin America."
Kelly said that the anti-drug effort has involved major cooperation not only from U.S. agencies including the FBI, the State Department, and the Treasury Department, but also several Latin American governments.