From the print edition
WASHINGTON, D.C. – As the presidents of three nations gathered in Antigua, Guatemala, to discuss legalization and regulation of illicit drugs, the chief of the U.S. Defense Department’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 Fraser, commander of Miami-based Southern Command, who spoke March 23 at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Fraser did not comment on the debate raging throughout the region on whether to decriminalize illicit drugs. At the Antigua meeting – which was strongly supported by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Mexican President Felipe Calderón – newly inaugurated Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina said, “We have realized that the strategy in the fight against drug trafficking in the past 40 years has failed. We must end the myths, the taboos, and tell people you have to discuss it, debate it.”
Joining Pérez Molina at the summit were Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla and Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli. Not attending were presidents Mauricio Funes of El Salvador, Porfirio Lobo of Honduras and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua. Lobo and Ortega have opposed the idea from the beginning.
Fraser estimated the profit gained from organized criminal activity in Central America at $18 billion a year – more than the 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.”
Last year, he noted, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ranked Honduras the most violent nation, 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 sub-region,” Fraser said.
“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,” Fraser said. “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.”
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 30 meters long and built in the jungles of Ecuador or Colombia.
“They have a crew of four people who 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.”
Fraser freely acknowledged that the drug problem wouldn’t exist if North Americans didn’t consume illicit narcotics.
“The U.S. government is spending over $10 billion to reduce demand, to educate and to help support counter-drug efforts,” he said. “Drugs are directly related to the deaths of 37,000 Americans a year; that’s more than get killed on the highways. 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, is that 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 U.S. has been decreasing over the past five years.
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.”
To that end, Fraser pointed to Colombia as an unparalleled “success story” due to its ability to dramatically reduce murders, kidnappings and other crimes, especially during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe, who took a hard line against the country’s leading rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
But during a question-and-answer period that followed his speech, Fraser singled out Venezuela and Bolivia as two countries that have been particularly uncooperative with the U.S.
“On a military-to-military basis, we see no cooperation with Venezuela today, but that has been more their intent than ours. We face common problems, but Venezuela has not stepped up to support these efforts to the level they could,” he said. “There’s an opportunity for them to help address these problems. The coordination between Venezuela and Colombia has improved over the last couple of years. That’s a helpful indication, and I’d like to see that grow.”
He added that “our military-to-military engagement with Bolivia has been reduced over the last few years, and from a [U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency] standpoint as well. Again, that’s their desire, not ours.” However, he said, “there is a trilateral agreement formed between Brazil, Bolivia and the United States to help address transnational crime issues, and the U.S. is playing a role in that effort, though not directly.”
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.”