KEY WEST -- A new, shiny light gray, $160 million patrol ship was docked last week at the U.S. Navy’s Outer Mole Pier in Key West.
While there is an American flag aboard, the ship clearly does not belong to the United States, not with the signage in Dutch, framed pictures of Queen Beatrix and beer taps — featuring Heineken.
The ship, named the HNLMS Holland, is the new pride and joy of the Royal Netherlands Navy. It boasts a large communications satellite, infrared cameras, friend-or-foe identification system and long-range surveillance radars all contained within an innovatively designed mast that does not rotate.
When its first tour of duty begins early next year, the 355-foot Holland likely will be patrolling territorial waters of the Kingdom of the Netherlands’ six Caribbean islands: Curaçao, Aruba, Bonaire, Dutch St. Martin, Saba and St. Eustatius, with a combined population of about 335,000.
And while it serves the Caribbean, the Holland also will be a major asset for the U.S.-led Joint Interagency Task Force South, based in Key West. Since its inception in 1994, the task force’s main mission has been drug interdiction by air and sea.
The Netherlands — where drug tourism legally thrives at “coffee houses” in its capital of Amsterdam — might seem an unlikely partner in the United States’ long war on drugs. But the Dutch, along with the French, have been the premier allies in going after traffickers in the Caribbean.
“Since the post Cold War, there has been so much drug money laundered into the official business of government and companies and tax havens,” said Brigadier General Dick Swijgman, who commands the Netherlands Forces in the Caribbean from his base in Curaçao. “Drug money inflicts so much damage on the democracy of small islands.”
The Dutch-protected islands are in prime locations for drug traffickers to transfer their loads. Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire, located off the coast of Venezuela, serve as northbound transfer points for cocaine and heroin from Colombia and Venezuela that is destined for the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. Dutch St. Martin, in the Eastern Caribbean, is a transshipment hub for drugs headed for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.
In March, the crew of the Norfolk-based U.S. Navy frigate Elrod intercepted a speedboat carrying an estimated 1,000 pounds of cocaine in the Caribbean.
“A good deal of credit for this interdiction goes to the Dutch Navy,” Cmdr. John Callaway, Elrod’s commanding officer, said in a news release.
A Dutch surveillance plane spotted the suspected traffickers and alerted the Elrod, which sent a helicopter to block the speedboat’s escape. Four people were arrested.
The bust was part of an ongoing 12-country mission called Operation Martillo, Spanish for “hammer.” The operation began earlier this year to go after illicit trafficking in coastal waters off Central and South America.
The Netherlands has a proud maritime history, with its Navy the most powerful in the world in the mid 17th century. Now the Dutch want traffickers to know about their dedicated drug interdiction efforts. “We’re small islands, but don’t mess with us,” Swijgman said. “They are part of our Kingdom.”