Diálogo Interview with Brigadier General Edmund Dillon

Diálogo Interview with Brigadier General Edmund Dillon

By Dialogo
September 21, 2010

The people would have to know what that is all about because where there is ignorance how could you be on the road to democracy if you don’t know where you are heading and those at the helm steer according to their criteria? You should think about that, and if the people don’t even bother to check it out for themselves because either they don’t want to take responsibility or are afraid of making problems for themselves for asking, then how will they know what it is about? This isn’t a reproach or Marxism, socialism, communism or anything like that. This is just wanting the stance that if someone doesn’t know, well then you have to show them, so they can show someone else. But those that do know, take advantage of those that don’t, what are these people going to learn? Don’t be upset with me, stop doing what you have been doing-.
Diálogo: What is the main security focus for Trinidad and Tobago and your defense priorities?

Brigadier General Edmund Dillon: The major defense priority is internal security and infrastructure protection at the same time. Because within our national security environment, we are plagued with crime, in which there’s a nexus between that and drug trading. So our primary focus right now is to reduce the amount of illegal activities that are taking place trans-border wise between Trinidad and Tobago and the South America mainland. Internally, we are also very much involved with our law enforcement. We support joint military and police operations on the ground, in our inner cities and in our rural areas, in dealing with the crime situation in Trinidad and Tobago. So our focus is dual: one is internal and the other is external.

Diálogo: Is one focus more important than the other?

Brigadier General Edmund Dillon: No, because there’s an overlap between them, they are not separate. They, in fact, are mutually inclusive. You can’t deal with one without dealing with the other.

Diálogo: Please elaborate on the measures you are implementing to deal with these issues, both internally and externally.

Brigadier General Edmund Dillon: At the strategic level we have looked at what will allow us to deter the movement of illegal drugs, guns, ammunition and even people to some extent, along with illicit incursions on our borders. To do that we looked at the infrastructure that is required, the equipment that is required and the partnerships that are required to do that. So the government, based on our analysis, has looked at asset acquisition first, both in the maritime and the aerial domain. We are acquiring additional vessels for our Coast Guard. We recently acquired six fast patrol boats from Australia and there are three officer patrol vessels, the largest you’ll find in the English-speaking Caribbean, 90 meters in length, that have been ordered from the United Kingdom.

We also looked at asset acquisition in terms of our Air Guard for helicopters that could work in tandem with our officer-patrol vessels. To complement that, we have installed a 360° radar system around Trinidad and Tobago which extends to neighboring countries. That gives us the ability to have a common operating picture, in partnership with the Joint Interagency Task Force South. We’ve been working with them to develop that sort of facility here at headquarters. That will give us projected surveillance capability to look at what penetrates our borders in terms of illegal activity. Between the two 360° radars, our air assets and our maritime assets, we’ll be able to properly utilize our resources. But there is always a gap between strategy and resources. Therefore, if we can focus on developing where we can position ourselves at any point in time, it will allow us to operate more effectively and more efficiently.

Internally we are looking at legislative changes to the role of the military to extend to law enforcement, so that we can legally contribute more within our domestic environment. We recognize that we are going to be involved more in what we call non-traditional areas. We’re looking at a legal framework to allow the defense forces to contribute more in law enforcement.

Diálogo: Some countries have already done that. El Salvador recently gave their military certain police authorities. Guatemala is considering that option.

Brigadier General Edmund Dillon: That’s right. And that is a big, big paradigm shift for Central American countries as well. They’ve always seen the army as very distinguished — apart from the local police force, but it’s a reality that we face right now in all the countries in the hemisphere. It’s a reality and we cannot sit idly by. There is a quote by Mahatma Ghandi that says, “Evil strikes when good men fail to act.” So the militaries cannot sit idly by when the environments within their countries are falling apart. We have to be able to contribute to the safety and security of the general environment in today’s world.

Diálogo: Do you think this is a foreseeable change?

Brigadier General Edmund Dillon: We are conducting a strategic review of the force that we started in 2007, when I took command. That review tells us that for the military to continue in existence, it has to change. It has to refocus its direction. It has to refocus its strategies. It has to become connected to the stakeholders, and the immediate stakeholders of the military are the people and the government of Trinidad and Tobago. They must have a sense that the military is there to ensure that they can play, work and live in a safe and secure environment.

Diálogo: Shifting to a broader subject, what role does regional cooperation play in the fight against illicit trafficking?

Brigadier General Edmund Dillon: I will talk in three tiers. Within the region, we have the regional security system that is a subset of a larger regional system and the 15 countries within the CARICOM, including Haiti. In 2007 we developed a security architecture that is still the model we are using today. We used it for the Summit of the Americas in 2009 and the Commonwealth meeting, also in 2009. It allows us to respond to natural disasters, as we did in 2004 in Granada and it also allows us to respond to any major event within the Caribbean, because the model is one that has been used and practiced effectively. If I go back to 1997, when we had the first visit by the president of the U.S., Bill Clinton at the time, we established the Barbados Declaration of Partnership between CARICOM and the U.S. That articulated a number of security issues and a number of security areas for regional security cooperation. So the strand of regional security cooperation is based on those two tiers. The third tier is based on our relationship with the U.S., and in particular with the United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM). Under those three tiers we have been able to collaborate and cooperate on what I consider the common challenges and issues that confront us: drugs, guns, ammunition, illegal migration and common threats.

Diálogo: There is growing concern over the presence of extremist Islamic groups in Latin America and the Caribbean. In the case of Trinidad and Tobago, there was a coup attempt by Islamic extremists in 1990. What is your assessment of this threat today?

Brigadier General Edmund Dillon: I would say it’s medium. It’s not high, from our analysis. Between 1990 to now, Jamaat al Muslimeen has been very fragmented. There are splinters, but they are not even the original 414 people who were arrested in 1992. The leader is still there, but he has lost a number of his followers for a number of different reasons. So in our estimate, they are not at the top of the agenda. That is not to say that they are not being monitored, of course they are being monitored. But we do not see them as a number one threat; red flags have not come, showing this at this point in time.

Diálogo: Are you witnessing new emerging threats from other Islamic groups?

Brigadier General Edmund Dillon: No, but what we do have, however, are some returning incidents. We have some returnees to the region who were involved in Islamic activities in Canada and the UK, who were deported back to their home countries in Jamaica and in Trinidad and Tobago. People who have been associated with extremist Muslim groups, but since they were not nationals of those countries, the foreign governments are sending them back. What do they bring to our shores? Of course it’s cause for our concern. Therefore we have to monitor them. Whether they have moved away from their past ways or whether they are going to come and now start it, try to inculcate in the younger ones their philosophies.

Diálogo: So for now, it’s a situation that you are monitoring.

Brigadier General Edmund Dillon: We are monitoring, but there is no alarm.

Diálogo: Studies indicate that Jamaat-al-Muslimeen has evolved into gang-style activities. Is that accurate?

Brigadier General Edmund Dillon: There have always been criminal elements within the Jamaat. To say that they’re going into gang activities, I would rather say there are elements of Jamaat involved in gang activities. There is a gang phenomenon in Trinidad and Tobago right now. In fact, most of our homicides are more gang-related than anything else. So there are elements in the Jamaat who are associated with the gangs, but in terms of the Jamaat as a philosophy being involved with gangs, I don’t see it. There are elements who are involved, and additionally, there are some elements in the gangs who feel that they can get protection by being seen with members of the Jamaat.

Diálogo: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

Brigadier General Edmund Dillon: In terms of the hemisphere, there is the Merida Initiative that was based on Mexico and Central America. We have articulated in the region that that would have an effect on the Caribbean, because if you’re taking on Mexico and Central America, then the drug lords are going to find somewhere else to go. And then the weak point will be back to the traditional route, which is from the South American mainland up the islands and then heading north. So we are saying that, let us look at the entire area, not just Central America and Mexico.

I know that President Obama, in terms of the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, is looking at that. How can we now get the necessary assistance within the Caribbean to treat the same threats and challenges that confront us? We are seeing signs right now that the drug lords are doing things differently, as has been discovered in the case of submersibles for example, so we are seeing whether this is going to show up on our shores. There are also submarines they are building that can go underwater and carry drugs undetected. We look at the movements of cargo of guns from Haiti to Jamaica. As you know, the Orinoco River empties into the Gulf of Paria. Everything that starts in Colombia comes through Venezuela and empties here. Everything that comes from down there, including high-tech gear, flows through the Orinoco, so we get movements of people and guns. That’s our history. We’re only seven miles from Venezuela, so in terms of our history, there has always been movement of people back and forth between Venezuela and us. People have family on both sides of the border and so on. So we have to be able to deal with that. And then we have Guyana and Suriname that share the coast with Brazil. All that is a series of activities we must be familiar with because everything moves all the time. It’s a constant surveillance.

Diálogo: Do you propose an initiative for the Caribbean similar to the Mérida Initiative?

Brigadier General Edmund Dillon: Yes, something similar. It must be focused and it must be couched within a wider multidimensional approach. Let us deal with the core issues: drugs, guns, ammunition. No country in the Caribbean manufactures weapons, none. None of us manufacture weapons; none of us manufacture drugs. Yet, those are the issues that confront our society at this point in time: the illegal traffic of guns and drugs. They are coming in. And we are tremendously and geographically torn between supply and demand.

Diálogo: Is Trinidad and Tobago facing a problem with consumption now, as well as being a transit point?

Brigadier General Edmund Dillon: It is more of a transit point. The hard drugs like cocaine hardly stay here, but there is a residual effect because the drugs come with guns. The guns remain, the drugs go. That is usually the issue. There is of course some consumption, but not on a major scale. In other words, the drugs don’t stop here in Trinidad and Tobago. They move out to Europe through North America.