Securing The Southern Caribbean

Securing The Southern Caribbean

By Dialogo
July 01, 2012

The red glow of an instrument panel reflected on the wire-rimmed glasses of
Leading Seaman Jason Watts as he gripped the throttle of a Coast Guard interceptor.
Piloting one of the newest additions to the Trinidad and Tobago fleet, he sped from
one cove to another east of the Coast Guard headquarters in Chaguaramas. Each inlet
was obscured from the bright lights of the capital, Port of Spain, by thick
vegetation, mountains or islands, some known to be drug handoff points.
During a January 2012 patrol in the Gulf of Paria, the first-quarter moon
made the night especially dark, but every vessel along the coast glowed yellow on
the radar screen. At one point, Ldg. Smn. Watts cut the engine and gently glided
between anchored yachts in Scotland Bay. His five seamen peered in every direction,
one slowly moving the high-powered beam of a flashlight across each vessel, then
along the shorelines where coastal residents could be heard talking as children
played in the cool night air.
“There are so many tactics that [are] used,” said Ldg. Smn. Watts, speaking
of drug traffickers’ attempts to evade detection. “They realize that any time they
cross the borders … we will send somebody out to check them out as a target of
interest,” he said as he steered the 9.75-meter-long vessel. As a result, drug
runners in speedboats or disguised pleasure yachts often meander slowly, stopping at
several points as if to simulate fishing, said Ldg. Smn. Watts, a nine-year veteran
of the Coast Guard. Once the traffickers get close enough to an island, they hug the
coast, knowing they will blend in with the static on a radar screen. Others will use
simple wooden pirogues and trail behind a cargo vessel until it docks to unload its
illicit cargo to the smaller boat.

The calm waters and proximity to South America – just seven miles at the
closest point – make this area and Trinidad’s southern coast prime entry points for
the Southern Caribbean. A 360-degree radar system implemented in the past five years
has helped the Coast Guard deter large-scale drug shipments. Still, “entrepreneurs,”
as Coast Guard Commander Captain Mark Williams calls them, make the run to remote
areas of Venezuela to retrieve drugs and guns. Once the drugs reach Trinidad, they
are repacked and reshipped. Left behind are the guns that have ravaged the islands,
causing the murder rate to spike amid bloody turf battles by rival gangs.
“Trinidad and Tobago believes that our efforts have worked, but the profit
will still allow individuals to try,” said Capt. Williams. He described a capable
maritime fleet of offshore patrol vessels, interceptors and fast patrol craft
complemented by attack helicopters and airplanes with radar surveillance
capabilities and the islands’ 360-degree radar technology. In addition to
counternarcotics operations, a Caribbean Community (CARICOM) agreement makes the
Coast Guard responsible for search and rescue in a broad swath of small island
nations to its north. It must also protect the country’s lifeblood — valuable
offshore oil and gas rigs — up to 200 miles offshore.

The repercussions of this responsibility go far beyond the isolated points
where South America nearly touches Trinidad. Traffickers are always looking for
vulnerabilities, places with less security that have cargo facilities and
international flights. This is leading them to bypass Trinidad for Grenada,
Barbados, St. Vincent or St. Lucia, just out of range of the French, British and
American navies that are present in the Caribbean. These islands lack the resources
to track down and stop drug and gun runners, making the Trinidad and Tobago Coast
Guard the first line of defense in the Southern Caribbean.

Shared Threats

Chief of Defence Staff Brigadier General Kenrick Maharaj realizes that a
weakness in one area of the Southern Caribbean affects the national security of all.
“If my borders are strengthened, and the borders of Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia
remain relatively weak, then my borders are inherently weakened in that regard,” he
told Diálogo at the 2012 Caribbean Nations Security Conference in St. Kitts and
Nevis. “So it is really in our interest to treat these security concerns in a more
regional context rather than the restrictive context within our own borders.”

Francis Forbes, the interim executive director of the CARICOM Implementation
Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS), explained that with the drug trade’s big
money, so came the weapons to protect it. Payment in kind to traffickers also led to
an influx of drugs for domestic sale, converting the Caribbean from a transit point
to user countries. “Organized crime was born out of the drug trade,” Forbes said. He
estimated the region now has 350 gangs with 33,000 members protecting turf and
selling drugs. “Once you have the mix of guns, gangs and drugs, you’re going to have
acts of violence, and, unfortunately, innocent people die,” he said.
Trinidad and Tobago recognized the impact of the inflow of guns and drugs
from South America in the mid-2000s and adjusted its security strategy to increase
border protection. Colm Imbert, an opposition member in Parliament and a former
government minister involved in the security strategy, explained that Trinidad’s
strategy would protect the Southern Caribbean and curtail the domestic supply line,
while forcing traffickers northward. In turn, Trinidad would continue to collaborate
with French, American and British navies that would patrol the North and Central
regions of the Caribbean basin. Imbert emphasized, “You must work with the other
countries that patrol the Caribbean and have a collaborative effort to stop the
trade.” Capt. Williams said that regional coordination can also help reduce the
narcotics trade to West Africa and Europe by preventing vessels from filling up with
smuggled, subsidized Trinidadian fuel.

A Unified Response

In late 2011, retired Army Capt. Gary Griffith, National Security Advisor to
the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, received a surprising phone call. The
Grenada Coast Guard called his personal mobile phone to report that a potentially
dangerous vessel was about to enter Trinidad and Tobago waters. Capt. Griffith
quickly called the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard, urged them to dispatch a unit,
and the vessel was intercepted. “That shouldn’t be the case,” he said. “We should
have a proper system where, if there is any immediate clear and present danger from
any island, they will know what to do.”
Such a system is now part of the National Security Operations Centre (NSOC),
which the republic stood up January 1, 2012. Capt. Griffith said the NSOC has
representatives from all national security and emergency response agencies as well
as partner nation liaisons. Capt. Griffith described how the NSOC will improve
response time to targets and enhance communication and coordination through an
international command center.
Lieutenant Commander Steve Axley, chief of the military liaison office at the
U.S. Embassy in Port of Spain, sees the NSOC as a tool whose goals align with
regional security centers operated by the U.S. “I view the interagency
communications center here not only as a tool to improve interagency response here
on the island, but also interagency response with SOUTHCOM [U.S. Southern Command]
and JIATF-S [Joint Interagency Task Force-South] and help us develop a common
intelligence picture,” he said. Lt. Cmdr. Axley noted that the U.S., through the
Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, has donated resources to purchase
communications equipment for countering illicit trafficking that is interoperable
with U.S. equipment, allowing for a greater degree of sharing. One such opportunity
for sharing is the new Collaborative Sensor and Information Integration (CSII), a
real-time, Internet-based radar picture of the region built from contributions from
partnering nations, who can in turn access CSII for their security needs.

Just after 10 p.m., skipping across wakes at 37 knots with a light head wind
en route back to Chaguaramas, Ldg. Smn. Watts acknowledged the advances in
technology, but noted the challenges that remain to better coordinate international
efforts. He knows his men want to protect their nation and their comrades, and his
concern is one held by many seamen in the Caribbean basin. If the laws and
agreements are in place to foster collaboration and protect servicemen, they can
give it their all. If not, he said, Coast Guard servicemen must accept that luck and
the law is not always in their favor, “Hey, one day for police, next day for
Source: Capt. Gary Griffith, National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister
of Trinidad and Tobago, Newsday