Southcom ‘Part of Solution’ to Drug Crime, Commander Says

WASHINGTON, March 7, 2012 — U.S. South­ern Command’s cen­tral mis­sion — dis­rupt­ing transna­tion­al traf­fick­ing in drugs, weapons, cash and peo­ple in Cen­tral and South Amer­i­ca –- is too large and com­plex for even a U.S. com­bat­ant com­mand to tack­le alone, Southcom’s com­man­der said today.

At a Defense Writ­ers Group break­fast, Air Force Gen. Dou­glas M. Fras­er said that in line with the president’s strat­e­gy tar­get­ing transna­tion­al orga­nized crime, South­com works with oth­er U.S. gov­ern­ment agen­cies and inter­na­tion­al part­ners’ mil­i­tary and law enforce­ment agen­cies to track, cap­ture and pros­e­cute peo­ple who have made sev­er­al coun­tries in the Amer­i­c­as the most vio­lent in the world.

Suc­cess in that effort rests on the command’s oth­er pri­ma­ry mis­sion of build­ing inter­na­tion­al and inter­a­gency part­ner­ship and coop­er­a­tion, the gen­er­al told reporters.

South­com is “only one part of the solu­tion” to transna­tion­al orga­nized crime and its effects in Cen­tral and South Amer­i­ca, Fras­er not­ed. Both the Unit­ed States and the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty are intent on the issue, he added.

“We’re work­ing to pull togeth­er all the var­i­ous agen­cies, capa­bil­i­ties, and [the] inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty to improve our abil­i­ty to coor­di­nate and focus our efforts to address this larg­er prob­lem,” he said.

While transna­tion­al orga­nized crime is not a tra­di­tion­al mil­i­tary threat, Fras­er said, the vio­lence and cor­rup­tion stem­ming from the glob­al drug trade in coun­tries south of the Unit­ed States has, in many cas­es, destroyed law enforce­ment and judi­cial process­es.

Fras­er said he doesn’t see either an inter­nal or exter­nal con­ven­tion­al mil­i­tary threat in the region, but many coun­tries are using their mil­i­taries to aug­ment too-small or cor­rupt police forces.

Transna­tion­al crime’s great­est impact is in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca, he said. Hon­duras in 2011 led the world in per capi­ta mur­ders, with 86 per 100,000 peo­ple, Fras­er not­ed. El Salvador’s mur­der rate is 66 per 100,000, he added, while Guatemala’s over­all rate is 41 per 100,000, with high­er peaks in parts of the coun­try.

Those three coun­tries do use their mil­i­tary forces in crime-fight­ing efforts, Fras­er said. He not­ed Hon­duras has com­mit­ted half of its forces to the effort, and Guatemala has employed forces in 60-day sieges against high-crime areas.

While he doesn’t think mil­i­tary forces should serve in law enforce­ment over the long term, the gen­er­al said, he sup­ports the approach as a bridg­ing strat­e­gy.

“[Southcom’s] efforts along those lines are to help sup­port the mil­i­taries with train­ing, with some equip­ping — to help them work with law enforce­ment as well as address the traf­fic as it enters Cen­tral Amer­i­ca,” he added.

Fras­er said Southcom’s forces pur­sue a more con­ven­tion­al mil­i­tary mis­sion along the region’s coast­lines, where for 20 years they have spot­ted and mon­i­tored air- and sea-based drug move­ment from north­ern South Amer­i­ca through the Caribbean to var­i­ous des­ti­na­tions — most com­mon­ly, now, in Cen­tral Amer­i­ca.

Drug traf­fic — most­ly cocaine but increas­ing­ly includ­ing metham­phet­a­mine pre­cur­sors com­ing from India and Chi­na, rout­ed through the Amer­i­c­as by transna­tion­al crim­i­nal net­works — then typ­i­cal­ly moves inland, by ground or air, through Mex­i­co and into the Unit­ed States, still the world’s largest con­sumer of ille­gal drugs, the gen­er­al said.

“Brazil has become the sec­ond-largest user of cocaine in the world,” he not­ed, adding drug move­ment is also increas­ing from South Amer­i­ca to West Africa, then into Europe and the Mid­dle East.

South­com still con­ducts train­ing and dis­as­ter-pre­pared­ness exer­cis­es and oth­er tra­di­tion­al mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary engage­ments with part­ner forces in the region, Fras­er said, but inter­na­tion­al and U.S. efforts are most­ly aimed at dis­rupt­ing drug trade.

Oper­a­tion Mar­tillo, or “Ham­mer,” is focused on air and mar­itime sur­veil­lance of the Caribbean and east­ern Pacif­ic using South­com assets includ­ing Navy and Coast Guard ships and Navy, Air Force and U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion air­craft, Fras­er not­ed.

About 80 per­cent of Colombia’s cocaine moves by ship, whether tra­di­tion­al coast-hug­ging “go-fast” drug smug­gling boats, fish­ing ves­sels, or “pret­ty sophis­ti­cat­ed” wood and fiber­glass sub­mersibles and semi-sub­mersibles drug traf­fick­ers craft in the region’s jun­gles, Fras­er said.

The gen­er­al said South­com and its region­al part­ners inter­dict some 25 to 35 per­cent of the drug sup­ply they know about, but he acknowl­edged the over­all actu­al per­cent­age like­ly is low­er. And as traf­fick­ers shift from larg­er ship­ments to using small­er, more numer­ous boats, he said, more drugs are get­ting through.

Oper­a­tion Ham­mer has in 45 days net­ted 3.5 met­ric tons of cocaine and 10 smug­gling ves­sels, but the effort’s over­all aim is to use per­sis­tent sur­veil­lance to force traf­fick­ers to move their ship­ping routes into inter­na­tion­al waters, the gen­er­al said.

That shift would pro­long tran­sit time and offer more oppor­tu­ni­ties for U.S. and oth­er nations’ ves­sels to stop ille­gal ship­ments, seize car­goes and pros­e­cute traf­fick­ers, Fras­er explained. Dutch and French ships are active in coun­ter­drug efforts in the Caribbean, he added.

The gen­er­al said while South­com may see the num­ber of its own ships decline over time as the Navy reshapes its fleet, some coun­tries in the region are bring­ing more to bear in the coun­ter­drug effort.

Colombia’s recent strat­e­gy against the nar­coter­ror­ist group FARC — Fuerzas Armadas Rev­olu­cionar­ios de Colom­bia, or Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia — demon­strates what is pos­si­ble, Fras­er said. Colom­bia has focused more task forces against the group, and paired with forces in neigh­bor­ing Venezuela to tar­get illic­it activ­i­ty across the bor­der.

FARC has been dimin­ished in half, … and they’ve revert­ed back to very tra­di­tion­al gueril­la tac­tics,” he not­ed.

South­com sup­ports Colombia’s efforts, and the Unit­ed States has spent some $8 bil­lion on coun­ter­drug efforts in that nation over 10 years, Fras­er said, but Colom­bia itself has invest­ed $100 bil­lion in defense dur­ing that time. Colom­bia can serve as a mod­el for oth­er region­al nations, par­tic­u­lar­ly in its whole-of-gov­ern­ment approach anti-cor­rup­tion efforts, the gen­er­al said. The gov­ern­ment first moves in secu­ri­ty forces to stop drug pro­duc­tion and quell vio­lence in a giv­en region, then fol­lows up with eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment experts to help build sus­tain­able, legal means of liveli­hood, he explained.

Colom­bian troops get anti-cor­rup­tion train­ing, and spend two months at time in post­ings in the field before rotat­ing to a new assign­ment else­where in the coun­try, Fras­er added. Through these means, the Colom­bian gov­ern­ment has gained con­trol over the country’s cities and large towns, he said.

Oth­er nations in the region can take those lessons and deter­mine how to apply them to their sit­u­a­tion, the gen­er­al said.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)