News: SOUTHCOM hosts Caribbean security leaders to discuss illicit trafficking
Story by Michael Wimbish
MIAMI - Central America continues to be the preferred pathway for illicit traffickers to move drugs and other illicit cargo into the United States. But as the multinational Operation Martillo disrupts the networks and routes of traffickers there, the thinking is that the criminal organizations will do what they’ve done in past decades: shift their activities to more permissive environments.
As top defense and security leaders from 15 nations, including the United States, met this week for an annual Caribbean region security conference, the main topic of discussion was the strengthening of multinational security efforts so that traffickers can’t effectively shift operations to the Caribbean – a favorite corridor for the movement of drugs three decades ago.
“I’m very concerned about the Caribbean vulnerability. (In response) to shifts in any illicit trafficking that could be on the horizon and likely is, I’m confident we can take steps now to ensure continued regional security,” said SOUTHCOM commander, Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly during opening remarks of the 2012 Caribbean Nations Security Conference (CANSEC) at U.S. Southern Command headquarters.
Currently, traffickers have much less of a presence in the Caribbean compared to other parts of the region according to a recent U.S. Senate report. But in a region suffering economic instability, some nations lack modern equipment and capabilities to patrol the vast waters in their area.
Kelly said the key to the way forward in the Caribbean is the sustainment of capabilities and equipment provided to nations by the United States. In a resource-constrained environment, he said that a commitment by each nation to training and the maintenance of assets would demonstrate the long-term viability of security measures in the region.
“We’re going to prioritize programs that demonstrate a clear return on our investments. The U.S. will continue to be engaged in the Caribbean,” said Kelly of U.S.-provided capabilities. “Investments have to be sustainable.”
At the conclusion of the conference, participating nations committed to the implementation of CARICOM’s Caribbean Counter Illicit Trafficking Strategy, and took steps in the development of a Caribbean maritime security strategy.
CCITS was a major topic of discussion during CANSEC. The strategy involves the development of a joint, regional strategy to disrupt transnational organized crime networks that include the illicit trafficking of drugs, humans and weapons in the waters of the Caribbean.
A multinational, whole-of-government approach and a focus on all pathways – air, land and sea - is critical to the success of any strategy, U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Charles Michel, director of Joint Interagency Task Force South, said during a presentation on the first day of CANSEC. He said forces from participating nations need to be able to work seamlessly together, intelligence must drive operations and the operations must be persistent.
“We’re just not going to be able to blindly patrol out there and expect to have a serious impact against these guys. These guys are real players. They bring real capabilities, real bad, ruthless characters to the table, and I’m telling you, they’re very good and very adaptable, he said.”
JIATF South is the organization responsible for overseeing U.S. detection and monitoring operations and facilitating the interdiction of illicit trafficking in a 42-million square-mile area of responsibility with the support, cooperation and participation of international partners.
“(Traffickers will) find a weak place … and they will exploit that,” said Michel, who discussed how lessons learned during Operation Martillo can serve as a foundation in the development of a strategy in the Caribbean.
Michel said that a specific part of Operation Martillo is to “sense” changes in trafficking trends and then immediately “shift” assets into those areas “to never allow the traffickers to have the initiative again.”
He also stressed that the focus of operations must be on all trafficking, not just drugs.
CANSEC attendees also discussed how regional security forces can leverage existing and emerging information technologies to facilitate the timely awareness of illicit traffic in the region and enhance combined efforts to disrupt transnational organized crime activities.
U.S. military security cooperation and engagement efforts in the Caribbean – led by SOUTHCOM - include a series of multilateral exercises, professional military-to-military engagements and the provision of security capabilities. Much of SOUTHCOM support to the Caribbean falls under the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI), a U.S.-led regional security-partnership initiative.
U.S. military support to CBSI includes the Secure Seas program, which provides patrol boats, communication suites and associated sustainment packages to Eastern Caribbean nations to help them counter illicit trafficking in their territorial waters.
Attendees of CANSEC were: Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Dutch Caribbean, French Antilles, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and Trinidad & Tobago.
Representatives from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), the Regional Security System, the Inter-American Defense Board, the U.S. State Department, U.S. Northern Command, and Joint Interagency Task Force-South also took part in the conference.
The theme of this year’s CANSEC was “Sustaining the Force: Ensuring Maritime Capacity to Counter Transnational Organized Crime through Maintenance, Logistics, and Training.”
The annual CANSEC is a forum for productive dialogue among regional security and defense experts and the exchange of ideas on ways to achieve shared security goals. Traditionally, the location of CANSEC rotates among countries of the region. Last year’s conference was held in St. Kitts & Nevis.
(Jose Ruiz of U.S. Southern Command’s Public Affairs office also contributed to this article)