Defense Leaders Vow Unity to Fight Narcoterrorism
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
QUITO, Ecuador, Nov. 19, 2004 Drug trafficking and the security threat it creates were key topics discussed here this week by defense ministers and their delegations attending the sixth Defense Ministerial of the Americas.
Discussions focused heavily on concerns about the connection, or potential connection, among terrorists, drug traffickers and organized crime during the conference's Nov. 17 plenary session.
"There's a growing awareness in the region of the connection between drugs, terrorism and organized crime gangs," a senior defense official told reporters. "This is a huge issue. People are very worried about this."
The problem affects a broad spectrum of the Americas: source countries including Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru; countries through which drugs transit such as Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean; and consumer nations, predominantly Brazil, Canada and the United States.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told the group drug traffickers, along with terrorists, hostage takers and criminal gangs, "form an anti-social combination" aimed at destabilizing civil societies. He called on the nations of the Western Hemisphere to work together to fight this scourge.
Jorge Alberto Uribe, Colombia's minister of defense, said his country "is winning" its battle against drug trafficking, organized crime and trafficking within its borders, and "will not rest" until ensuring its citizens' safety.
He expressed appreciation for support other countries have provided Colombia, which is struggling with a long-standing internal conflict against terrorist and extremist groups.
These include the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC; the United Self Defense Forces, or AUC; and the National Liberation Army, or ELN.
The State Department names all three organizations on its list of foreign terrorist organizations.
FARC, one of the major providers of cocaine to the United States, has been linked to bombings, murder, kidnapping, extortion and hijacking, as well as guerrilla and conventional military action against Colombian political, military and economic targets, officials said.
Uribe acknowledged the trickle effect this problem can have on other Latin American countries. "Anything that happens in Colombia affects all the other countries in the region," he said.
"Many of the countries that never before felt they had a drug problem are now feeling it," a senior U.S. defense official told reporters. Many, he said, are concerned that they could follow in Colombia's footsteps if steps aren't taken now.
"The next thing you know, you have these organized crime gangs around and you have someone like the FARC or the AUC paramilitaries on your hands," he said.
"It's a daunting issue," acknowledged Justin Simon, minister of justice and legal affairs for Antigua and Barbuda. He was among representatives of Caribbean nations, which serve as a transit point for illegal drug shipments, who said drugs are becoming an epidemic.
He agreed with Rumsfeld that individual nations' efforts "will be futile unless we present a united front."
Rumsfeld praised efforts already under way to stem drug trafficking and encouraged more cooperation, at the ministerial as well as during visits last week in Latin America.
After meeting with Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos Geyer Nov. 13, Rumsfeld said that country "has certainly done a commendable job of combating narcoterrorism, especially along the Atlantic coast." This year alone, Nicaraguan military has confiscated more than 6,000 kilograms of cocaine. "We applaud and encourage these efforts," the secretary said during a joint news conference.
During the secretary's visit to Panama, Hector Aleman, Panama's minister of government and justice, reported that Panama seized more than 10,700 kilograms of narcotics, including 9,700 kilograms of cocaine last year. It's a record Panama intends to break this year, he told reporters during a Nov. 13 news conference with Rumsfeld. "That is evidence that Panama is tenaciously combating drug trafficking and related crimes," he said.
Following a Nov. 16 bilateral meeting with Ecuadoran leaders, Rumsfeld praised the help Ecuador has given Colombia and other nations to help them fight drug trafficking as well as other activities he said destabilize civil societies. Thanks to this cooperation, he said Colombia is having "measurable" success in its campaign against drugs and terrorism.
The United States is providing strong support to counter the drug threat in Latin America, through operations, diplomacy, military-to-military contacts, and humanitarian and security assistance, among other efforts.
During a Nov. 9 change of command ceremony in Miami, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers praised the role U.S. Southern Command is playing in this effort. The Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman said the command's activities are helping reduce illegal drug cultivation and trafficking in the region, while helping to defeat narcoterrorism.
Myers said the illegal drug trade "is like a cancer on society" that, if left unchecked, "destroys the fabric of societies."