Southcom Chief Urges Regional Cooperation in Anti-Drug Efforts
By Dialogo March 28, 2012
WASHINGTON — As the presidents of three nations gathered in Guatemala for an historic summit to discuss Central America’s war on drugs, the chief of the U.S. Southern Command said the violence-prone isthmus is by far his biggest concern.
“That’s where violence is causing the biggest impact to regional stability,” said Gen. Douglas M. Fraser, commander of Miami-based Southcom, who spoke Mar. 23 at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Fraser estimated the profit gained from organized criminal activity in Central America at $18 billion a year — more than the annual Gross Domestic Product of the region’s most violent country, Honduras.
“This violence permeates entire societies,” Fraser told his audience of nearly 100 people. “If you’re a prosecutor and you’re focused on a high-profile case against drug traffickers, there’s a very good chance you’ll be dismembered and left as a warning. It’s also a very difficult place to be a journalist who writes about corruption and illicit trafficking. That has become a death sentence as well. It even affects students as they walk to school, if they’re at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Criminal organizations have ‘destabilizing impact’ on region
Last year, he noted, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ranked Honduras the most violent nation on Earth, with 86 killings per 100,000 inhabitants, and San Pedro Sula — its second-largest city — is today the world’s most dangerous metropolitan area, with 159 homicides per 100,000 people.
“The threat I see throughout the region is transnational crime and the impact it’s having on security. I see this as a 21st century threat, a network of networks that doesn’t start and end in one country or subregion,” said Fraser.
“If I look specifically at cocaine, there is a source zone, the northern part of South America. There’s a transit zone that comes primarily through Central America and, to a lesser extent, the Caribbean. And there’s a demand zone, which is the United States. We have to address each part of that landscape,” said Fraser. “However, it’s not just cocaine trafficking. We focus on that a lot because that’s what we know the most about. But in reality, criminal organizations are looking to fund their activities any way they can.”
The profits gained from transnational criminal activity have outstripped the ability of Central America’s countries to fund their militaries, he warned.
“That is having a destabilizing impact on the region, not only from the illicit trafficking itself but also bribery and coercion,” said Fraser. “And these organizations are very diversified. They work in precursor chemicals, and they move weapons back and forth, from military-grade to commercial. They also traffic in bulk cash, and 90 percent of the cocaine coming into the United States transits through Central America.”
He added: “It’s a very lucrative business. These are very smart and capable organizations, and when we put pressure on one location, they look to move to another location.”
Semi-submersible vessels a growing threat
Fraser, a four-star general who took over the helm of Southcom in 2009, noted the growing tendency of drug traffickers to use semi-submersible vessels — often measuring 100 feet long and built in the jungles of Ecuador or Colombia.
“They have a crew of four people that can travel from the coast of South America to Mexico and Guatemala without refueling,” he said. “Our estimates are that it costs $2 million to build one of these vessels. They carry up to 10 tons of cocaine, and the market value of 10 tons is around $250 million. And these vessels are very hard to detect.”
Fraser said that’s because they generally have low water lines and are painted in camouflage, quickly submerging as soon as patrol boats come near.
“Primarily because there are no roads connecting Colombia with Panama, they work to move around that obstacle, and make landfall wherever it’s most favorable,” he said, naming the northeastern Caribbean coast of Honduras as the hub of such maritime activity. In second place is Panama, followed by Guatemala. “Once they get on land, they can distribute their loads and follow the roads to Mexico and across the U.S. border.”
“As a result of this deteriorating situation, countries in the northern triangle have asked their militaries to support law-enforcement capabilities,” said Fraser. “We see enormous challenges as we look across the region. I see us as part of the solution, working within our authority to address these overall problems. My goal is to support this engagement and our partner militaries to the point that this is no longer a regional security problem but one local law enforcement agencies can handle. Right now, that is not the case.”
Drug problem starts at home
Fraser said the U.S. government is spending more than $10 billion to reduce domestic demand for drugs, and to support counter-drug efforts. “Drugs are directly related to the deaths of 37,000 Americans a year — that’s more than get killed on the highways,” he said. “These organizations all have networks in U.S. cities, so we’re not divorced from the problem. Both domestically and throughout the hemisphere, we need to do our part as well.”
One encouraging sign, he said: the price of cocaine has jumped more than 50 percent over the last five years, while the quality has come down. In addition, the use of cocaine in the United States has been going down over the last three to five years, though the use of other drugs such as methamphetamines has gone up.
To combat illicit trafficking routes on both coasts of the Central American isthmus, Southcom in late February launched Operation Martillo — a cooperative effort involving 14 nations in the Americas and Europe.
“Operation Martillo focuses on traffic as it’s moving back and forth. We’re using the same capacity, just changing the approach to see if we can reduce the impact of these organizations throughout the Caribbean,” he said. “We can force them to move to other places, making their operations more difficult.”
Southcom, formally established in 1963, is one of the Pentagon’s nine Unified Combatant Commands. It consists of more than 1,200 military and civilian personnel representing all branches of the U.S. armed forces, as well as a number of federal agencies.
“Our programs look to foster professional, civilian-led militaries that respect human rights and the rule of law. We’re also looking to see how we can be creative — and we also conduct exercises and training to help build their militaries,” said Fraser. “One of the reasons militaries are being asked to support law enforcement is that the populace and the government have more confidence in them than they do in other agencies. But we need more surveillance and reconnaissance capacity, and we see that coming in the future.”
Fraser concluded: “There is no one solution to this problem. We all have to decide it is our problem, and every one of us has a role — whether it’s here domestically, or supporting governments internationally.”
â€¦In my region, the politicians, the police in all levels are corrupted and I need to make a stand against the drugs traffic, but specially to stop the impunity regarding traffic and corruption. A more severe punishment is neededâ€¦