The U.S. Navy littoral combat ship USS Detroit conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation off of Venezuela's Caribbean coast, the U.S.'s top military command in the region said Thursday.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing, Navy Adm. Craig Faller, head of U.S. Southern Command, which is responsible for military operations in and around Central and South America, touted the Detroit's performance during the deployment, saying it had success in a counternarcotics and law-enforcement role.
"We've also used the Detroit in a freedom of navigation operation off the coast of Venezuela, in waters that Venezuela claims that international law does not recognize," Faller added. "Detroit did a magnificent job, sailing close to the coast of Venezuela and providing that intelligence and reporting back to us."
Littoral combat ship USS Detroit sinks a vessel as a hazard to navigation in the western Atlantic, November 23, 2019. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Devin Bowser)
The Detroit left home port in Mayport, Florida, on October 31 to head to the Southern Command area of responsibility for its maiden deployment, which was to support operation Martillo, a multinational counter-drug effort.
Faller appeared to be referring to an operation on January 21, when maritime trackers reported the Detroit sailing about 26 nautical miles off the Venezuelan coast in the vicinity of Caracas, the country's capital. Under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, territorial waters are considered to extend 12 nautical miles from a country's shore.
Those trackers also picked up a Venezuelan patrol boat trailing the Detroit for part of its trip. The ships appeared to part ways that evening, when the Detroit turned north and the patrol boat turned toward Venezuela.
Asked about that encounter on January 21, U.S. Southern Command said the Detroit "asserts navigational rights and freedoms in international waters, outside of the lawful limits of Venezuela's territorial sea."
"All of our operations are designed to be conducted in accordance with maritime laws and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows," the command added at the time.
Asked about Faller's comments on Thursday, the command again said that U.S. warships "routinely conduct freedom of navigation operations throughout the world," but added that for "operational security reasons, we are not disclosing specific dates or locations."
'The worst offender of the whole lot'
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, right, greets military officers at the National Assembly in Caracas, January 15, 2016.(Reuters photo)
U.S. Navy operations such as the Detroit's are not unheard of; they are frequently done to counter expansive Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
US military activity in the region has attracted closer attention amid heightened tensions between the US and Venezuela. In August 2019, President Donald Trump said he was considering a quarantine or blockade of Venezuela, and officials told Axios that month that Trump had periodically raised the idea of a naval blockade for a year and a half.
US and other officials in the region have discounted such action. Faller and other U.S. military leaders have declined to discuss any planning they might be doing regarding Venezuela, though he and others have said they remain prepared to assist in a "day after" scenario where the Maduro government is gone and aid is needed for the general public.
Faller's comments about gathering intelligence also suggest the Detroit was monitoring illicit activity at sea and in the air, which has increased as Venezuela's economy craters and rule of law erodes.
Honduran police with a privately owned plane that was seized after it was found to be holding 450 kilos of drugs in Brus Laguna, Honduras, July 22, 2010(Reuters photo)
Amid Venezuela's collapse, piracy and human smuggling have increased in the waters between it and Caribbean islands to the north, which have also become more popular way stations for drug traffickers.
The US military has also been watching for drug-laden aircraft, which have taken off from Venezuela with increasing frequency since the 1990s, mostly heading for Central America. Colombian guerrilla and criminal groups are behind most of the smuggling, but the US and others have accused Venezuelan military and government officials of complicity.
Officials told CNN in spring 2019 that traffickers had moved their takeoff spots from remote jungle areas in southern Venezuela to more developed areas in the country's northwest in order to shorten the flying distance. A U.S. official also told CNN the number of suspected drug flights leaving Venezuela rose from about two a week in 2017 to almost daily in 2018.
Asked about which countries in the region were aiding the U.S. campaign against narcotics trafficking, Faller singled out Venezuela as "the worst offender of the whole lot" and "not a country that we can cooperate with right now."
"We look at Venezuela, where the Maduro regime is being propped up by Cuba, Russia, and China, and we see the narco-trafficking that has increased substantially in the air and over land from Colombia," Faller said. "Then it becomes extremely difficult to track as it leaves in [Venezuela] commercial, privatized shipping private airplanes."
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