By Michael McDonald
GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - The United States military is ramping up anti-drug trafficking efforts in Guatemalan and Honduran waters to keep up with shifting smuggling routes, a top U.S. military official told Reuters on Wednesday.
Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of the U.S. military's Southern Command, said that the coasts along the two Central American countries are top transit spots for South American cocaine destined for the United States.
"Key arrival points in Central America are the northeast coast of Honduras and then the Pacific coast of Guatemala," Fraser said. "We changed our strategy to be more persistent ... to see if we could have a bigger impact on trafficking organizations."
U.S. Southern Command, based in Doral, Florida, and responsible for coordinating military operations in Latin American and the Caribbean, sent 171 Marines and four helicopters to Guatemala this month as part of Operation Martillo.
The operation is part of a strategy to boost seizures in Central American waters, where small, fast boats and submarines transport about 500 tons of cocaine to the United States annually.
The United States estimates that 90 percent of South American cocaine heading to the United States passes through Central America and attributes a rise in violent crime in the region to transnational drug smugglers.
Trafficking routes have shifted in recent years as governments crack down on smugglers, forcing security teams to adapt.
"These criminal organizations will continue to shift their operations and we will have to shift ours," Fraser said. "As we put pressure along their routes, they will be making some changes, but we don't know what those will be."
Fraser arrived in Guatemala Tuesday and held a meeting with Guatemalan President Otto Perez. On Wednesday, he is scheduled to visit military bases where U.S. Marines have been stationed.
Perez, a retired general who served during the country's brutal 36-year civil war, took office in January promising a crackdown on violent crime in the tiny Central American nation, plagued by bloody street gangs and powerful drug cartels.
(Reporting by Michael McDonald; Editing by Stacey Joyce)