With Eyes on the Caribbean

With Eyes on the Caribbean

By Dialogo
January 25, 2012

Tinted in shades of green, gold, and blue, like a classic Caribbean postcard, St. Kitts and Nevis captivates thousands of tourists from all over the world.

As in the case of other Caribbean islands, its warm waters and stunning vistas create a tropical paradise that, nonetheless, is not immune to the pressures of drug trafficking, transnational organized crime, youth violence, human trafficking, and illegal firearms possession, among other crimes.

The plague of these evils not only costs thousands of lives each year, but also endangers tourism, the cornerstone of many Caribbean economies. In order to construct a united front against this shared problem, defense and security leaders from 17 Caribbean countries met on the island in December 2011 for the Caribbean Nations Security Conference (CANSEC 2012).

The annual event, co-sponsored by the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and the St. Kitts and Nevis Defence Force, focused on generating ideas and formulas for the effective use of the region’s existing resources and on sharing information in two fundamental areas: the fight against drug trafficking and international organized crime, on the one hand, and support in disaster situations, on the other.

“I think the most important thing we can do is to focus on the capabilities we have today. And with those capabilities, determine what we can do to improve how we are addressing our collective security concerns,” General Douglas Fraser, commander of SOUTHCOM, stated in his opening address.

This priority, he said, is key at a time in which the rates of violence in the Western Hemisphere are alarming. Gen. Fraser noted that, in Honduras alone, there were 82 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011. “The United States in general has five per 100,000, but there are cities in our country where that figure oscillates between 40 and 50, and that’s directly related to the same problems that you are facing here: organized crime and the impact that it has on our cities and on the population,” he added.

During the conference sessions, the participants agreed that the Caribbean is witnessing a progressive change in drug trafficking routes. Cornered by the frontal assault on drug cartels in countries such as Colombia and Mexico, the criminals are returning to the region, in what some are calling the “cockroach effect.”

According to Rear Admiral (Upper) Homero Lajara Solá, deputy armed forces minister of the Dominican Republic, in addition to traditional threats, his country’s military and police forces are now faced with a phenomenon previously unknown to them. Murder for hire, which is undermining society’s roots, is a byproduct of narcotrafficking that is now affecting his country. “We weren’t prepared for a situation of that kind, in which hitmen come to carry out commissions, chiefly in relation to drug trafficking, which is the axis around which all criminal activity revolves. Ninety-five percent of crimes are linked to drug trafficking,” he said.

Realities like this one, and those of other nations such as Trinidad and Tobago, where 11 murders occurred over four days in August 2011, explain why the sharp line that previously separated the role of military personnel from that of public-safety forces in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America has been growing fuzzier.

The topic, which was highlighted once again at CANSEC 2012, was addressed by other high-ranking military leaders, including Brigadier Rocky Meade, deputy chief of the Jamaica Defence Force. Meade explained that in his country’s case, there are already two legal instruments that authorize the participation of the Armed Forces in the fight against drug trafficking and assistance in the event of natural disasters and other emergencies. “In Jamaica we work very closely with the Police. What we do is provide the resources that the Police does not have, including maritime resources, air resources, and additional man power,” he commented.

Caribbean Connection

In view of the irrefutable hemispheric threat that narcotrafficking represents, joint action among the countries and organizations of the region is indispensable in order to benefit from the resources and information in existence. Along those lines, the organizers of CANSEC 2012 took the initiative to gather several of the organizations engaged in protecting the region at a single event.

Representatives of the Caribbean Community Implementation Agency for Crime and Security, the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI), the Inter-American Defense Board, and the Regional Security System took part in the discussions and demonstrated their will to work together.

Makila James, the director of the U.S. State Department Office of Caribbean Affairs, explained that CBSI member countries work together on three strategic priorities: substantially reducing illicit trafficking in the Caribbean, advancing public safety, and promoting social justice. Created in May 2010, CBSI is an organization that emerged as a result of dialogue between the United States and Caribbean countries.

In her address, James insisted that solving these problems requires a holistic approach. Beyond training military and police personnel, beyond patrol boats and radars, the evil has to be attacked at its root. It is necessary, she said, to generate alternatives so that young people, the population most susceptible to the influence of drug traffickers, can see a future beyond drugs and criminal gangs as a way of life.

APAN, the All Partners Access Network

The Inter-American Defense Board (IADB) also offered its capabilities in order to contribute to establishing a regional framework for information exchange. Lieutenant General Guy Thibault, the board’s chairman, referred specifically to the importance of identifying the gaps in information that exist in the area of humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and pointed to the use of the All Partners Access Network (APAN) as a proven mechanism.

APAN, a social network created by the U.S. Department of Defense, played a decisive role in coordinating the different government agencies and non-governmental organizations that provided aid in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

During the event’s sessions, SOUTHCOM presented a similar tool currently in the testing stage: the Collaborative Sensor and Information Integration (CSII) system. Based on the internet, CSII constitutes an unclassified data-exchange network with the purpose of gathering data from radars and sensors set up in different countries in the region in a single location and for shared use. At present, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica are sending data to CSII, a project led by SOUTHCOM in alliance with CBSI.

These and other proposals presented at CANSEC, as well as the discussions and even the informal conversations between top-level security and defense decision makers in the Caribbean, demonstrated that in spite of the different languages and cultures, the countries of the region can engage in dialogue with one another and jointly design regional strategies. As Gen. Fraser said, it is a matter of fitting together all the pieces of the puzzle in order to achieve a clear and complete image, indispensable for stopping the common enemy in its track.

“If we go back to the 1970s and 1980s, about 30 percent of the overall flow of cocaine was coming through this region. Right now it is a little less than 10 percent. So, our collective goal, mine specifically, is that as we put pressure on traffickers in other parts of the region, that they don’t have the ability to move back here,” he said.