Interview with Brigadier General Dick Swijgman, Commander of the Netherlands Forces in the Caribbean
Stationed over 8,000 kilometers from the Netherlands, over 500 Navy, including fleet and marine personnel, safeguard the security of the territories of Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, St. Martin, St. Eustatius, and Saba. Diálogo sat down with Brigadier General Dick Swijgman to talk about his role as Commander of the Netherlands Forces in the Caribbean, and other issues related to the Dutch countries in the region during a break in his participation at the Caribbean Nations Security Conference (CANSEC 2013), held in Miami, Florida, in December 2012, and sponsored by the U.S. Southern Command.
Diálogo: Let’s start by talking about the main security concerns and priorities for Dutch countries in the Caribbean at this time…
Brigadier General Dick Swijgman: The main threat, like all other smaller countries in the Caribbean, is illicit trafficking; I’m talking about weapons, humans, and of course about drugs. There are weapons and drugs being smuggled. Security inside the communities is deteriorating, and that is a big worry for local governments, and for the representative of the kingdom. At least for the military representative of the kingdom… for me.
Diálogo: How about the problem going on now with Trinidad and Tobago, for instance? It’s not only a transit country for drugs anymore. Weapons are left behind and they are getting into the hands of mostly young, male, gang members. Do your countries face the same issues?
Brig. Gen. Swijgman: In Aruba and Curaçao we see the beginnings of this, meaning, copies of the way gangs are in the United States or in Europe. Coming up with tattoos and the way they interfere with each other, and so on. So it’s coming, it’s getting there. It is not a big issue yet, but police information tells me that they watch television, then they talk on the Internet, and see things, and … mainly young men, also some girls, they are getting into things that you don’t want to happen. We are working on a long-term program, but we are also training locals on the military side, on the Coast Guard side to get basic discipline. Most of the kids come from broken families, so they go to a four-to-six month program where Military and police instructors teach them military skills with basic discipline and work ethics. And then they get four to six more months of on-the-job training. They become electricians, computer experts, security guards, chefs at small restaurants. That’s the program we run in the Coast Guard and Military in Aruba and Curaçao, and we’re trying to extend the program to St. Martin, the island that we share on the French side. That’s part of our contribution to the island nations, to try to get the youth on the right track.
Diálogo: And with all these initiatives, and all the work that you have to do, you still find time to support countries such as the Dominican Republic and Colombia. How do you do that?
Brig. Gen. Swijgman: I think that in this globalized world, in the Caribbean environment, it’s what you have to do. We work together, we exchange two or three officers for the operations and intel centers. They come to our house as well, and we open up. We try to work together, and by working together we get results. That is what we try to accomplish on a bilateral basis. As a small country, we can’t assist every one of them, but we try. Because Colombia is very close, it is easier. Venezuela is also close, but poses more of a challenge, so I only work there with the Coast Guard. We have a combined exercise every year. On the military side, it is a little bit more of a problem to get commitment from Venezuela, because there is a little bit of a turmoil going on, I understand, but our end-goal is to have an exercise in 2013/2014, with one of my ships and one of their ships. So we need to talk to each other. But it requires careful planning and commitment from both sides for us to work together. It is a means of commitment.
Diálogo: How about working together with the United States?
Brig. Gen. Swijgman: The United States is, of course, our biggest partner. They still bring all of the assets to the Caribbean, and one of the hats I carry is as a commander in Key West …
Diálogo: You are referring to JIATF-South, right?
Brig. Gen. Swijgman: Yes. I am one of their supporting commanders. So that is a very close cooperation. We call each other, and I have one officer in their headquarters and they have one officer in my headquarters. There will be exchanges of information; working together, attending exercises, and planning assets for drug and weapons busts, or to try to find illegal persons.
Diálogo: Do you think JIATF-South is a model that could be replicated in other regions?
Brig. Gen. Swijgman: The best I’ve seen in the world is the JIATF-South multi-agency model; where the CIA, the DEA, and the Defensive Intelligence Agency are sitting at the same table, in the same room, looking at each other’s monitors. That has been a big step. And in my own small country we still need to take this step. We are on our way to getting there. So, whenever I get an opportunity to bring a politician or a senior military leader from my country to JIATF-South, with all the technology they have, I like to show them the [intelligence] fusion center. All those agencies, with their own cultures, and their own sensitivities, are sitting in the same room.
Diálogo: Sir, with that being said, how much credit can the Dutch Navy take regarding the big drug interdictions in the Caribbean?
Brig. Gen. Swijgman: There is no straight answer for that, because let’s say that I get 3,600 kilos of drugs each year. Am I successful? Or are there a lot more drugs going inside my area of responsibility, and I am only getting a little bit of it? Some years are up, and some years are down. Am I successful? Am I just trying to keep it away? We try to keep the amount of drugs coming into this sector – that I am responsible for – to a minimum, and as low as possible. I think we have to admit that there will never be zero drug trafficking.
Diálogo: What is your assessment on Operation Martillo?
Brig. Gen. Swijgman: Operation Martillo is a focused operation where if we want to look at the results we need to be patient. The tendency of course, is to say that after so many months, almost a year now, we have been very successful. We have to look at the opponents, and how they are reacting to what we are doing. Unpredictability is part of our game. And we need to stay, or try to stay as unpredictable as possible. And that comes from planning and sharing information on a need-to-know basis.