An Air National Guard unit is being activated to assist in ongoing counter-narcotics efforts, a Pentagon spokesman told Military Times.

The unit, which the Pentagon won’t name for operational security reasons, is being activated in response to an executive order issued Thursday by President Donald Trump, calling on Defense Secretary Mark Esper to provide additional personnel to support the effort.

“In the executive order, the president authorized Secretary Esper to activate units and individual members in the Selected Reserve to support the Enhanced Department of Defense Counternarcotic Operation in the Western Hemisphere,” Army Lt. Col. Christian Mitchell, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an email to Military Times. “In response, Secretary Esper will activate an Air National Guard unit in support. The unit will provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to the operation.

On April 1, U.S. Southern Command announced it launched an enhanced presence to “support ongoing whole-of-government and internationally supported operations to reduce the availability of illicit drugs and save lives in the United States and throughout the region,” according to the command’s website.

The intent is to “reduce the flow of illicit drugs, degrade transnational criminal organizations, and increase interoperability with our partner nations and interagency partners. The operation supports our objectives to degrade the capabilities of drug trafficking organizations, save lives, and directly support the National Drug Control Strategy.”

That same day, Trump announced that Navy ships were being moved toward Venezuela as his administration beefs up counter-narcotics operations in the Caribbean following a U.S. drug indictment against Nicolás Maduro.

“The Venezuelan people continue to suffer tremendously due to Maduro and his criminal control over the country, and drug traffickers are seizing on this lawlessness,” Esper said after the president’s announcement.

The mission involves sending additional Navy warships, surveillance aircraft and special operations forces teams to nearly double the U.S. counter-narcotics capacity in the Western Hemisphere, with forces operating both in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific. Esper said the mission would be supported by 22 partner nations.

“As governments and nations focus on the coronavirus there is a growing threat that cartels, criminals, terrorists and other malign actors will try to exploit the situation for their own gain,” said Trump. "We must not let that happen."

However, on April 19, Adm. Craig Faller, head of U.S. Southern Command, said in an interview with the Associated Press that the decision to double anti-narcotics assets in Latin America was months in the making and not directly tied to Maduro’s indictment.

Faller said economic and diplomatic pressure — not the use of military force — remain the U.S.' preferred tools for removing Maduro from power.

“This is not a shift in U.S. government policy,” said Faller, who nonetheless celebrated that enhanced interdiction efforts would hurt Maduro’s finances and staying power. “It’s not an indication of some sort of new militarization in the Caribbean.”

Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.

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