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From Cold Warriors to targeting trafficking: US military shifts focus in Europe

Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling discusses the changing role of the U.S. military in Europe.

MAINZ, Germany -- More than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military is fighting a new battle in Europe.

Their enemies? Drug-runners, weapons smugglers and human traffickers.

The Joint Interagency Counter Trafficking Center (JICTC) is a task force based at U.S. European Command (EUCOM) in the picturesque rolling hills of southern Germany.

It helps U.S. government agencies and their international counterparts confront the criminal groups behind the illicit trade in narcotics, guns and people.

'Dismantle the drug flow'
U.S. and European officials say the drug business bankrolls many terrorist and criminal organizations. Last year, the Obama administration launched a new strategy to combat "transnational organized crime."

Europe is an attractive location for the narcotics trade. Experts say that cocaine sells for four to five times its U.S. street value and consumption has been on the rise in central Europe.

"This is not 'Miami Vice' in Europe," Brig. Gen. Mark Scraba, director of JICTC, told NBC News. "But our organization is being modeled off of the Joint Interagency Task Force South, out of Key West Florida, which has been in existence for about 25 years, with focus on South America, where they team with law enforcement officials to disrupt and dismantle the drug flow going into the United States.

"One of the big issues in Europe is that the volume of cocaine consumption has doubled between 2009 and 2011."

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A U.S. government fact sheet released last year highlighted that "29 of the 63 top drug trafficking organizations identified by the Department of Justice had links to terrorist organizations."

According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime's 2011 World Drug Report, the Taliban in Afghanistan made more than $150 million in 2009 through the sale of opium. That same year, the U.N. estimated that more than 80 tons of Afghan heroin reached Central and Western Europe, and about another 100 tons transited through Central Asia to Russia.

"Latest statistics show that the global opiate market was valued at $68 billion in 2009 and I have seen recent figures that are far above that," Scraba told NBC News. 

With its 40 staff members, including representatives from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, customs and border protection officials and the U.S. Treasury, the JICTC leverages existing military structures from the Patch Barracks in Stuttgart. JICTC was formally established in September.

"We sometimes compare ourselves to a small mom-and-pop shop, but in fact are a very efficient organization, as we have reach-back capabilities and capacities to those far larger U.S. organizations that have a similar focus," Scraba added.

The U.S. military has provided intelligence data, logistical support and non-lethal equipment for counter-trafficking operations for years -- but until recently their primary focuses had been Latin America and Afghanistan.

While actual raids -- as well as searches, seizures and arrests -- are mainly led and conducted by law enforcement agencies, the U.S. military's air and maritime surveillance capabilities help to monitor and detect suspected traffickers.

"I wouldn't say that it's a military role, what it is is a security role," Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, told NBC News. "It's a combination of military and police."

$250M cocaine seizure
Beyond offering traditional heavy military assets and providing intelligence, basic training measures for partner nations' forces have also had an impact.

In 2010, when EUCOM was in the early stages of its counter-trafficking efforts, a Ukrainian customs officer played a major role in the seizure of nearly 4400 pounds of cocaine. His involvement came only a month after returning from search-and-seizure training in the U.S.

Following intensive cooperation between Ukrainian border control and numerous U.S. agencies, several people were arrested off the coast of Odessa. Authorities confiscated cocaine with a total street value of an estimated $250 million.

"By confiscating product headed for the higher-yield European market, we also denied a large source of income for South American cocaine dealers that supply the U.S. market," EUCOM’s Capt. John Ross added.

As the U.S. military in Europe shrinks, it leaves behind many friends in Germany. "It makes me sad because friends are leaving," said Hans Gritzbach, 86, choking back tears. "And now at my age, looking back, I realize that the Americans were wonderful people." NBC's Andy Eckardt reports.

Experts say that the economic crisis in Europe and the aftermath of Arab Spring revolutions are also fueling security concerns.

"As we see regimes in Northern Africa collapse and are confronted with other instable political environments, we can suspect that a significant portion of weapons, for example, will be seized by criminal groups," said Valentina Soria, a counter-terrorism and security expert from Britain's Royal United Services Institute.

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Officials say drug trafficking hot spots include Turkey and the Balkans, while weapons are often smuggled via the Baltic States and Northern Africa.

In October 2010, Moroccan officials dismantled a drug trafficking network that was linked to Colombian drug cartels and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). According to the Moroccan government, al-Qaida provided logistical support and transportation to dozens of cocaine traffickers in the network.

"We have seen this toxic brew in other regions in Africa," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said at a February conference dedicated to the fight against transnational crime, drug-trafficking and terrorism in West Africa and the Sahel zone. "As West Africa remains a transit point for drug traffickers between South America and Europe, the potential for instability will continue to grow." 

However, Scraba warmed the magnitude of the threat could potentially be higher.

"What keeps us up at night is a drug trafficker who has a very established drug route that was built over years and built on patronage of many in-between guys," Scraba said. "[What] if that criminal is then approached by an organization or a network that wants to traffic a weapon of mass destruction, but does not have an established route to get that weapon of mass destruction to its target? It could be downtown London, it could be downtown New York."

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