The Western Hemisphere is increasingly confronting security and stability challenges that must be addressed together, academia, government entities, military officials, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and private sector experts expressed at the 8th annual Hemispheric Security Conference (HSC), in Miami, Florida, May 2-3, 2023.
Under the theme Partnerships in the Decisive Decade, participants examined the increasing security threats from transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), authoritarian governments, corruption, cyber actors and cyberthreats, widespread migration, the risks posed by natural disasters, climate change, as well as external state actors such as the People’s Republic of China and Russian, which seek more prominent regional influence.
The conference was organized by the Florida International University’s (FIU) Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy, the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, and the Adam Smith Center for Economic Freedom.
“Citizen security to climate change, strategic competition in the region to cybersecurity and emerging technologies are too big for one country, one government, or one leader to tackle alone. It takes all of us […] governments, NGOs, the private sector, and especially academia to help build a better future for our hemisphere,” Shlomi Dinar, interim Dean, Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs, FIU, said during his opening remarks.
Daniel P. Erikson, deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for the Western Hemisphere at the U.S. Department of Defense, stressed the United States’ commitment to strengthening collaboration and partnership, as the region faces an increasingly complex and rapidly evolving security environment. As such, he highlighted the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity, a new framework for regional cooperation with 11 participating countries to tackle economic inequality, foster regional economic integration and good jobs, and restore faith in democracy.
“While the risks that we face are clear, so are the opportunities. We are very gratified by what we see as a very deep commitment and political will in many countries in this region to continue to deepen and expand their relationship,” Erikson said.
The HSC opened with the panel “Protecting our People: Achievements in Citizen Security,” where experts discussed efforts to combat TCOs, gangs corruption, upholding rule of law, and insecurity.
María Paula Romo Rodríguez, former minister of Government of Ecuador (2018-2020) and research fellow at the Adam Smith Center, addressed the efficient organization of TCOs that operate across borders. Latin America’s main security issue changed from being a “drug trafficking problem” to involve illegal mining, species trafficking, cybercrime smuggling, criminality, extortion, and migrant smuggling, among others, she said.
“It’s important to look at the security issue as a hemispheric problem, because no country is going to be safe if the neighboring country is not safe,” Romo said, stressing that promoting democracy and national security go together.
She urged policymakers to make crime less profitable. “We have to work very hard to stop criminal economies, to freeze and seize assets, and we also have to work very hard to fight impunity, especially the heads of criminal organizations.”
The next panel, “After United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27): Climate and Environmental Security in the Region,” analyzed combatting illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing, illegal mining, and conducting humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Tony Long, chief executive officer of London-based Global Fishing Watch (GFW), an international NGO dedicated to advancing the sustainability of marine resources, expressed his concern about the impact of IUU fishing in the region caused by the growing presence of China’s fishing fleets.
“The Chinese fleets that have been growing, that have been fishing squid out on the high seas in the Pacific to the south of Galápagos and the west of Ecuador and Peru, this fleet has grown up to more than 350 vessels now, and it’s been unregulated; it’s not really been controlled. The belief is there’s so much squid being drawn from the water, they’re worried that it’s impacting the marine reserve within Galápagos and the wildlife there that relies on those squid as part of the food chain,” Long said.
Latin American nations, however, are rallying to combat IUU fishing. “We see Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Costa Rica, Panama… all sharing their data with GFW in order to understand more about what’s happening and complement their own systems. Countries also started to work together to share science and really drive an understanding of exactly what’s happening in that region, which will lead to understanding where fishing and other resource extraction is happening,” Long added.
U.S.-China strategic competition took center stage in the following panel, “In the middle: Opportunities and Challenges in the Era of U.S.-China Strategic Competition,” addressing China’s growing military exchanges, port investments, environmental abuses, and 5G technology.
For Paula Dobriansky, former under secretary of State for Global Affairs, the Western Hemisphere and the global community at large are faced with a new era of great power competition with Russia and China.
“China is viewed economically as being the more significant challenge for the region. However, Russia has the nuclear weapons… Russia has been giving China aid and assistance and bolstering its own military foundation,” Dobriansky said.
Technological effects on security
“Cyber security and Combatting Disinformation” and “How New Technology Is Solving Old Security Challenges” were the last panels to captivate participants on day two of the event.
Ana-Christina Gonzalez, deputy Director of J2 Intelligence Directorate, U.S. Southern Command, emphasized that TCOs and autocratic governments are taking advantage of new technologies to undermine democratic values and the rule of law.
“TCOs are involved in turning a profit on everything — drugs, humans, timber, wildlife, gold, cigarettes — and this is lucrative. We estimate that the 200 plus TCOs in Latin America and the Caribbean, excluding Mexico, earn about $300 billion a year in revenue, with drugs comprising just a third of their earnings,” Gonzalez said.
One of the most striking problems, she added, is criminal groups’ use of cyberattacks, disinformation, social media channels, apps, and the dark web to conduct their illegal business, creating new challenges for regional law enforcement.
“Cyberthreats are becoming far more consequential to Latin American and Caribbean countries. Ransomware attacks, data breaches, and other forms of cybercrime are growing at the hands of state and nonstate actors,” Gonzalez said.
She is, however, optimistic about the region’s technological innovations. For instance, Colombia uses drones to monitor coca plantations and disrupt narcotrafficking networks, Mexico and Peru deploy a network of sensors along their borders to detect illegal activities, and Jamaica implemented a biometric identification system to boost ports and airports security, among other nations.
Finally, the current security challenges in Haiti couldn’t be missed at the HSC.
“Haiti is a failed state,” Canadian Ambassador to Haiti Sébastien Carrière said. “The State’s institutions all but disappeared. The Haitian National Police is still operating, perhaps the last functional national institution in the country — far from perfect, but still functioning. We don’t have a parliament; we don’t have a president. We have a prime minister whose mandate is a tiny little thread of constitutional legitimacy, and some would say it has none.”
The HSC ended with the consensus that regional cooperation is indispensable for security in the Western Hemisphere.