On a dark night, 12 undocumented aliens hastily move north along worn desert paths through agave plants and velvet mesquite trees in the southern Arizona mountainous terrain. They strain and readjust the straps underneath the heavy 40-pound packs of marijuana they are smuggling across the United States–Mexico border for the Sinaloa Cartel. These individuals have made this trek before and understand this two- to three-day movement will net the cartel approximately $237,600 once the marijuana reaches its final destination of Kansas City, Missouri, or the small town of Whiteville, North Carolina.
The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Arizona Department of Public Safety, and other local and state law enforcement agencies work tirelessly to prevent these packs of marijuana from reaching the major distribution points and final destinations throughout the United States. Often standing alone in the desolate southern Arizona desert, as well as other regions of the United States and its territories, these agents and officers watch and maneuver to interdict and capture the undocumented aliens in order to disrupt transnational criminal organizations’ (TCOs’) distribution networks.
Assisting these law enforcement agencies is a U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) organization comprising all branches of the military services. Joint Task Force North, located at Fort Bliss, Texas, has provided counter narcotics support to law enforcement for over 25 years. As a direct subordinate unit to U.S. Northern Command, Joint Task Force North supports U.S. homeland defense by fulfilling a unique area of support with specialized capabilities in conducting counterdrug operations.
By signing the National Defense Authorization Act of 1989, U.S. President George H. W. Bush committed the DOD to the “War on Drugs.” To accomplish this mission, the military formed three Joint Task Forces: Joint Task Force-4 in Key West, Florida (now Joint Interagency Task Force-South, still located in Key West); Joint Task Force-5 in Alameda, California (now Joint Interagency Task Force-West, located in Honolulu, Hawaii); and Joint Task Force-6 located at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas (now Joint Task Force North, still located in El Paso).
Originally, Joint Task Force-6 was assigned to support law enforcement agencies with counterdrug operations only along the 1,954 miles of the southwest United States–Mexico border. In August 1995, Joint Task Force-6’s area of operation expanded from the southwest United States–Mexico border to all of the continental United States; and following the attacks on the United States in 2001 and the establishment of U.S. Northern Command, Joint Task Force-6 was redesignated as Joint Task Force North in 2004. With this new designation, Joint Task Force North again expanded its area of operation to include the continental United States, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Bahamas in 2008.
Led by a U.S. Army Brigadier General, Joint Task Force North is a joint headquarters unit composed of approximately 200 personnel. This includes members from all branches of service, DOD civilians, and contractors. Joint Task Force North does not have assigned forces, but relies on volunteer military units to conduct missions that fall under the tactical control of Joint Task Force North. Within the headquarters, Joint Task Force North also has liaison officers from Joint Interagency Task Force-South, the U.S. Coast Guard, and National Guard personnel from each of the four southwest border states (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California).
Joint Task Force North supports law enforcement agencies with a myriad of capabilities. Employing aviation assets outfitted with forward looking infrared (FLIR) cameras and building roads that have made it far easier for agents to traverse harsh terrain are just two of the many ways that Joint Task Force North has supported law enforcement missions. Law enforcement agencies submit support requests to both the appropriate state National Guard and Joint Task Force North for a specific capability to assist their efforts in counterdrug operations. Joint Task Force North planners coordinate with units in each branch of service willing to volunteer to conduct the requested support. These symbiotic counterdrug operations not only benefit the law enforcement agency, but also provide real-world training opportunities for military units since much of the terrain and environmental conditions mimic many of the theaters of operation the military has deployed over the past 14 years.
Since October 2012, Joint Task Force North has exhibited phenomenal success supporting law enforcement agencies with counterdrug operations. However, it is important to note that because of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, U.S. military units and personnel do not conduct actual searches, seizures, or apprehensions, but can provide military-unique capabilities supporting law enforcement conducting these operations. The unit has conducted 84 missions from October 2012 to the present day, providing the following services:
- Support to counterdrug operations with more than 14,000 flight hours
- Trained 215 law enforcement agents
- Supported the seizure of more than 230,000 pounds of marijuana valued at over $183,000,000
- Supported the seizure of more than 2,200 pounds of cocaine valued at over $40,000,000
- Supported the seizure of approximately 68 vehicles valued at over $1,000,000
- Supported the seizure of over $652,000 in currency
- Constructed and repaired more than 20 miles of roadway, allowing Border Patrol Agents to decrease response times to remote locations and enhance agent safety
Joint Task Force North’s support role is extremely beneficial in protecting the U.S. homeland, not only from drug trafficking organizations, but also from foreign terrorist organizations that could potentially use the same avenues and methods of smuggling contraband and persons into the United States. Understanding these methods of smuggling contraband across the United States–Mexico border provides a training venue for the DOD to study and use in future conflicts. This information is distributed through lessons learned and information sharing with other military units, especially in the military police and military intelligence communities. Joint Task Force North extends its partnerships to military organizations and agencies such as the 93rd Military Police Battalion assigned to Fort Bliss, the Fort Bliss Directorate of Emergency Services (DES), and other military criminal investigative services located at Fort Bliss. This collaboration is conducted through monthly criminal intelligence fusion’s cell meetings and threat working groups to ensure the installation and the more than 167,000 military personnel and civilians living and working on Fort Bliss are protected.
The partnership and information sharing garnered by the 93rd Military Police Battalion and the Fort Bliss DES is beneficial since the installation often encounters the same types of threats, crimes, and issues civilian law enforcement encounter, even if on a smaller scale. The 93rd Military Police Battalion contributes to the analysis of local threats by training and employing company intelligence support teams composed of military police soldiers. These teams go through a combination of traditional intelligence training and criminal intelligence training at Fort Bliss before working with the local patrols at the DES. The analysts focus on pattern and trend analysis for the base, presenting their findings in a biweekly brief to the DES. Sharing this information promotes better partnerships between the military law enforcement and civilian law enforcement, as well as the opportunity to professionally develop younger military police soldiers.
As the United States continues to fight drug trafficking, agency synchronization and the sharing of information and intelligence are pertinent to filling security gaps along the border seams. As the past 25 or more years have proven, the DOD provides invaluable support to law enforcement agencies countering TCOs. Nowhere is this more evident than on the vanguard of law enforcement officers and agencies patrolling to keep U.S. communities and border areas safe.♦
Lieutenant Colonel Johnny D. Sellers Jr. currently serves as the Chief, Antiterrorism and Force Protection Branch for Joint Task Force North. He has served in the U.S. Army for 22 years with the last 18 years as a military police officer.
Captain Danielle Adair is a military intelligence officer assigned to the 93rd Military Police Battalion at Fort Bliss, Texas.
Please cite as
Johnny D. Sellers Jr. and Danielle Adair, “The Department of Defense’s Support to Law Enforcement Agencies in Countering Drug Trafficking,” The Police Chief 82 (August 2015): web-only, http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/the-department-of-defenses-support-to-law-enforcement-agencies-in-countering-drug-trafficking/.