WASHINGTON — Illegal trafficking remains the biggest challenge for U.S. military forces in Central and South America as they work to balance such nontraditional challenges with the constant threat of natural disasters there, the commander of U.S. Southern Command said yesterday.
Servicemembers and their civilian partners have to keep ahead of the tactics of those involved in illegal trafficking – of drugs, weapons, exotic animals and human beings – that undermine security and stability in the region, and threaten the United States, Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser said at a military strategy forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.
Southcom, with headquarters in Miami, provides contingency planning, operations and security for the region covering Central and South America, and the Caribbean except for U.S. territories. The area is strategically important to the United States, now the fifth-largest Spanish-speaking nation with one-third of its population expected to be of Latino origin by 2015, Fraser said.
The United States has a “great and enduring relationship” with Latin America, Fraser said, but often doesn’t give enough attention to its southern neighbors. “A lot of times, we in the U.S. look east to west and not north-south in own hemisphere,” he said.
The general said he sees no threat of conventional warfare in Central and South America, either toward the United States or within its own nations. But nontraditional challenges such as trafficking remain high, he added.
Widespread poverty and disproportionate wealth drive crime and corruption, Fraser said, leading to multibillion-dollar trafficking networks adept at changing routes and tactics. For example, he said, the United States has worked with Colombian authorities to confront drug traffickers. However, he added, the criminals have moved their operations to other areas, such as north to Mexico or through the southeast waterways to Africa.
“As we’ve had success in Colombia, they’ve gone to other places,” Fraser said. “We need to continue to keep pressing on all sides of the balloon.”
Southcom has disrupted or obtained about 100 metric tons of cocaine so far this year, but that’s only half of what it seized compared to this time last year, Fraser said. “We don’t know why,” he said. “There are changes going on in the trafficking world, and we’re trying to catch up. We need look at [illegal trafficking] as enterprise and treat it as an enterprise.”
At least 60 percent of illegal drugs flowing out of Central and South America and the Caribbean end up in the United States, Fraser said, adding that U.S. officials need to address the issue of American demand for illicit drugs.
Urban gangs are plentiful in Southcom’s area of responsibility, Fraser said, and there is evidence of financial support there for Middle Eastern-based terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas that have taken root in Central America.
At the same time that Southcom is working such nontraditional challenges, it also has to stay prepared to deal with Mother Nature, Fraser said.
“I was not expecting to respond to an earthquake in Haiti,” he said, referring to the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated the Port-au-Prince area and caused 22,000 U.S.
servicemembers to deploy there through June for relief operations.
“I don’t know what next crisis will be,” Fraser said. “We have to remain prepared.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)