President Donald Trump on April 30 authorized the Pentagon to call select U.S. armed forces reservists to active duty as part of a counternarcotics operation announced early this month.
In an executive order, the president ordered Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to call up to 200 personnel from the reserve at a time to serve as part of the military’s enhanced operation against drug cartels in the eastern Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.
The executive order limits the term of service to one year.
The Navy deployed warships to the eastern Pacific and the Caribbean as early as April 1 as part of an operation to counter drug cartels, which, according to U.S. intelligence, are actively planning to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to smuggle more drugs into the United States.
The intelligence community has long been aware of the drug cartels’ naval routes in those areas, but authorities have been short on resources to intercept all of the traffic headed to the United States. Last year, the United States seized 280 metric tons of drugs in the area.
The cartels are looking to exploit the crisis to smuggle more drugs into the country, according to Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The enhanced mission has been months in the making. The formal start on April 1 came days after the Justice Department indicted Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s socialist dictator, and members of his inner circle and military. They are accused of leading a narcoterrorist conspiracy responsible for smuggling as much as 250 metric tons of cocaine per year into the United States—about half of it by sea.
“If I was just indicted for drug trafficking by the United States with a $15 million reward for my capture, having the U.S. Navy conducting anti-drug operations off my coast would be something I would worry about,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has been among those calling for a tougher stance against Maduro, said earlier this month.
While the Trump administration has long insisted that all options are on the table for removing Maduro, including military action, there’s no indication that any sort of U.S. invasion is being planned.
Rather, the deployment of ships fits with a longstanding call by the U.S. Southern Command for additional assets to combat narcotics and other security threats in the hemisphere.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.