Talking Drugs, Guns and Hope with the Director of CARICOM IMPACS
By Dialogo February 21, 2013
Interview with Francis Forbes, Interim Director, CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security
Disturbing, concerning, and disappointing are some of the words Francis Forbes, Interim Director of the CARICOM Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS), has picked in the past to describe a grim picture of a Caribbean besieged by gangs and traffickers of small weapons, ammunitions, drugs and even people. But during a recent interview with Diálogo, after speaking at the Caribbean Nations Security Conference, on December 2012, Forbes left aside this dour reality and focused on what his organization, with the help of the United States and other partner nations, is doing to turn this situation around.
Diálogo: As the executive director of CARICOM IMPACS, what do you consider to be the most important security challenges faced by the Caribbean countries today?
Francis Forbes, Interim Director, CARICOM IMPACS: The illicit trafficking of drugs, arms, ammunition and humans, and its effects, such as the proliferation of gangs and gang violence and homicides. There are also emerging threats such as cyber-attacks that, although already here, will become more significant with time, especially as Caribbean governments are in the process of putting their services online. What further compounds the issue is that there is a scarcity of funding and resources available to combat these threats.
Diálogo: CARICOM IMPACS has been working in the development and implementation of a Caribbean Counter Illicit Trafficking Strategy. Can you discuss that?
Director Forbes: The Caribbean Counter Illicit Trafficking Strategy (CCIS) is one of the many strategies that will be developed based upon what we know now as the CARICOM Crime and Security Strategy. When completed, the strategy will be a comprehensive one that identifies illicitly trafficked/laundered products, modes of transport – sea, land, air, and even cyber space – and attempt to craft appropriate responses to disrupt the supporting networks which operate within the region. Developing responses require reviewing and enhancing capacities and capabilities, including working nationally, regionally and internationally to foster greater cooperation legally and operationally. We have been offered a lot of support from representatives at CANSEC in terms of further developing the strategy, and I assure you that long before the next CANSEC, the strategy will be completed and we will be acting upon it.
Diálogo: Can you please explain what this strategy entails?
Director Forbes: Essentially, if you take into consideration the roles and functions of Joint Interagency Task Force – South and the U.S. Southern Command, if you take into consideration that the member states of CARICOM and the Caribbean region as a whole is comprised of mainly island nations, [it is easy to note that] illicit trafficking by land, air and sea is significant to us. Through this strategy we are trying to achieve complete maritime domain awareness, which means we are trying to develop a complete picture of all traffic movement across our region by air, land and sea. If we achieve that goal we will then be able to share information in such a manner that we will be able to, in the first instance, interdict those who are engaged in illicit trafficking and in that process we will hopefully be able to seize assets, to include maritime assets, which will go back to the security forces to be used against the traffickers in the future.
Diálogo: Are there legal issues that you need to take into consideration as you work on developing this strategy?
Director Forbes: Whenever you have 12 or more member states working together, coordinating, cooperating, there are always legal issues involved. Each member state is a sovereign nation and the laws are not necessarily the same. It becomes a little bit more complex when we are working not only with CARICOM members as a group, but also with other Caribbean partners who are not members of CARICOM. Then, added to that, is the United States, which has a long history of working with us in the Caribbean, but the fact is that our judicial systems differ and our legislative foundations differ. So the legal issues are there, but we don’t consider them insurmountable at this time; we are confident that we will work with some legal documents that will provide sufficient cover for us to achieve our objectives.
Diálogo: What progress can CARICOM IMPACS show in the area of information sharing?
Director Forbes: For the first time, we now have information and intelligence sharing mechanisms [the Joint Regional Communications Centre and the Regional Intelligence Fusion Centre], which provide capacity and capability for all member states to share information and intelligence. We have also developed our own secure communications system called CARICOM Intelligence Sharing Network over which information sharing is achieved. Consequently, our borders are now much more secure, as we vet over 20 million travelers who enter and depart our territorial space whether by land, air or sea every year. Our Regional Intelligence Fusion Centre links with intelligence entities in all member states as well as several non-members from the international community. We are also linked with Interpol and assist with tracking Red Notices. Several arrests are now being made based upon information shared by and through IMPACS.
Diálogo: What would you say are tangible results of CARICOM IMPACS during the last couple of years?
Director Forbes: The implementation of a number of regional projects that have and will bear significant fruit: there is the APIS system [Advance Passenger Information System] that has so far generated arrests and scores of refusals of undesirables reaching our borders based upon the targeting done by the CARICOM Joint Regional Communications Centre (JRCC). There is the CARICOM Intelligence Sharing Network (CISNET) that provides a secure means for our intelligence member states to share information. The region benefits from threat assessments and fused intelligence products from our Regional Intelligence Fusion Centre (RIFC). And there is the CARIPASS (CARICOM Travel Card) awaiting to be signed into legislation in the member states; and there is the Advance Cargo Information System (ACIS) being implemented that will generate both security and economic benefits as well.
Diálogo: How important is the support you get from the United States? Can you cite examples of recent collaboration?
Director Forbes: Currently, CARICOM IMPACS works closely with the U.S. Department of State on Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) issues, and functions as the CBSI secretariat. We will also be hosting the knowledge platform for CBSI. Efforts are in effect to procure equipment and we expect testing and training to begin in January 2013. Under CBSI, there is a component of strengthening IMPACS, and we look forward to further training opportunities among other things. The agency works closely with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP) and has received training from CBP counterparts in strengthening the border security of the region. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) also launched a firearms program which will be hosted by IMPACS and this is significant since it will support the firearms program being undertaken by the agency.
Diálogo: At the culmination of CANSEC 2012, you went back to your country with a long to-do list. How about this time?
Director Forbes: We are a little better off this year, because we have taken onboard volunteers that are willing to assist. There are representatives from SOUTHCOM who have indicated “let’s work a little bit closer” this time. So although the burden is still there, it is not as great as when I walked away from CANSEC last year , because I am now reassured about closer working relationships… So I am in good hands.
Diálogo: As the interim director for CARICOM IMPACS, what results are you expecting to bring to the next iteration of CANSEC?
Director Forbes: I hope that when I return to CANSEC, I will be able to report not only that the strategy has been completed, but that we have started to implement a strategy that is allowing us to search together; allowing us – of course, through the signing of CSII* – to see what I call a complete picture (air and sea), and to be able to track the traffickers much more accurately and much more timely than now. My vision of the next CANSEC is one where successes will be reported.
Note: The Cooperative Situational Information Integration system (CSII) is an Internet-based information sharing tool that allows authorized users to exchange near real time air, maritime, and land tracks to get an operational picture of a certain geographic area. Developed by the United States Southern Command, CSII is deemed as an important mechanism that fosters regional cooperation in countering transnational organized crime.