Guyana: At the Forefront of Drug Interdictions in the Caribbean

Guyana: At the Forefront of Drug Interdictions in the Caribbean

By Dialogo
February 17, 2016




Counter-narcotics specialists agree that Guyana is a major transshipment point for drugs headed to the United States. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) just opened an office in the South American country's capital of Georgetown, giving it a presence it has been seeking for more than a decade, with the goal of assisting Guyana's fight against drug trafficking and money laundering.

To talk about the issue of combating narco-trafficking, terrorism, and other threats currently affecting Guyana, Diálogo
spoke with Brigadier General Mark Phillips, Chief of Staff, Guyana Defence Force, during the XIV Caribbean Nations Security Conference (CANSEC) in Kingston, Jamaica, during the last week of January.


Diálogo:
During CANSEC 2016, you participated in a panel about terrorism in the Caribbean. Is this a significant concern for your country?

Brigadier General Mark Phillips:
Yes and no. That might not be our major concern. A major concern for Guyana is our territorial dispute with our neighboring countries Suriname and Venezuela. That’s the major concern, and we would like to find a judicial solution for the territorial disputes with those two countries. As far as we’re concerned, we will now have to place a lot of emphasis on monitoring our youths to see if they are also being radicalized in Guyana through our intelligence agencies. And Guyana has a sizeable Muslim population.

Diálogo:
What percentage of the population is Muslim?

Brig. Gen. Mark Phillips:
About 15 percent of the population of Guyana is Muslim, practicing Muslim. So while the border may be the primary issue that will keep us up late at night, the other emergent threats like terrorism and the radicalization of youths who may end up wanting to join ISIS is also of concern to us.

Diálogo:
How does Guyana benefit from being a member of the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI)?

Brig. Gen. Mark Phillips:
The Military, for example, including the Guyana Defence Force and the Guyana Coast Guard, has benefited from equipment gathered through CBSI. We have some riverine and shore patrol boats that were acquired through CBSI for us, along with the communications suite to ensure ship-to-shore communications. Those were acquired through the CBSI. I’m aware that the Police Force of Guyana received support from the CBSI, too, especially in the area of capacity building. So not only the Guyana Defence Force, but the Guyana Police Force also received support from CBSI.

Diálogo:
What role does your country play in CBSI?

Brig. Gen. Mark Phillips:
The fact is we are a Caribbean country. We’re linked to the Caribbean. We suffer the same threats, like illicit trafficking, transborder, or transnational issues. We benefit from CBSI because we share the same challenges of many countries in the Caribbean, but even though we are in South America, we’re still a small country with a small population facing all the traditional and non-traditional security and defense-related challenges and emerging threats to the security of this nation. What is important for us at the national level is interagency coordination; that the Guyana Defence Force works with other law enforcement and regulatory agencies and definitely at the regional and international levels with regional and international cooperation. We are ready for that.

Diálogo:
Is Guyana also concerned about drugs passing through your country and guns being left behind for the youths, specifically young males, to get a hold of the weapons and then form gangs?

Brig. Gen. Mark Phillips:
Guyana is a transshipment country in the sense that drugs pass through our country. I mean, we are fighting drugs, and we’re trying to stem the passing of drugs through Guyana. We are in the forefront when it comes to interdicting drug traffickers. If you can recall, last year we interdicted a semi-submersible, one that was actually manufactured in a remote area of Guyana. We don’t know who manufactured it, but that vessel was recovered, and it was handed over to the United States. I think it’s in Key West [Florida] right now, perhaps the biggest semi-submersible ever found.

Diálogo:
Now, that’s surprising, since previous ones normally came from Colombia.

Brig. Gen. Mark Phillips:
Exactly. Recently, we also found a fast boat. The fast boat is in Guyana right now, of course, being used by the DEA and other U.S-based law enforcement agencies. We’re building capacity to better enable us to conduct anti-drug operations. The Guyana Defence Force’s involvement is mainly to move boats or aircraft used to transport law enforcement agents or for surveillance into remote areas. We work in an interagency setting with the Customs Antinarcotics Unit, the Guyana Police Force, and other law enforcement agencies.

Diálogo:
Is it hard to toggle between the sovereignty issues you mentioned before to fight illicit trafficking?

Brig. Gen. Mark Phillips:
Yes it is. If you read the Defence Act, which includes the laws that Guyana’s Defence Force has established, it speaks clearly to the employment of the Guyana Defence Force for the defense of Guyana and the maintenance of order in Guyana. If you look under the contract of maintenance of order in Guyana, we have to work with the law enforcement agencies to deal with all situations that we consider to be inimical to the maintenance of order in Guyana.

Diálogo:
The Guyana Defence Force has two roles, right?

Brig. Gen. Mark Phillips:
Yes. Our primary role is defense, but then there’s the law enforcement aspect by which we have to work with the civil authorities. Then, of course, there’s a developmental role, under which we’re expected to work on infrastructure development in Guyana through our engineering units and also to spend time in developing and training youths [and] participate in the whole development effort of Guyana. Development is also important to us.

Diálogo:
How about disaster relief efforts?

Brig. Gen. Mark Phillips:
Disaster relief falls under the same pillar: defense, law enforcement, and humanitarian assistance operations. We have a local agency known as the Civil Defence Commission. They’re the lead agency where the [Guyana Defence Force] will always be a supporting agency for any disaster relief operations.

Diálogo:
Do you work together with the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) to execute all these efforts?

Brig. Gen. Mark Phillips:
Absolutely. The Guyana Defence Force and SOUTHCOM share a relationship much like what exists between SOUTHCOM and other countries in the Caribbean.

Diálogo:
How about now, with the change of command and Admiral Kurt Tidd as the new commander
?

Brig. Gen. Mark Phillips:
We’ve had very good relations with the previous commander, General John Kelly. He even visited Guyana to see firsthand what we were doing. This is just a transition of leadership, but the relationship with SOUTHCOM will continue to exist and it will continue to grow under the new leadership, I am sure.
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