Central America Remains a Hotspot of Instability
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 31, 2011 Central America remains a hotspot of instability caused by violent criminal organizations that use drug money to undermine legitimate governments, the commander of U.S. Southern Command said here yesterday.
Air Force Gen. Douglas M. Fraser said the northern triangle formed by Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras is possibly the most violent place on Earth today. Criminal organizations involved in illegal activities in the area –- including drug trafficking -- realize a global profit of $300 billion to $400 billion, he said.
Fraser used United Nations figures to back up his point at a Pentagon news conference.
“If we look at Iraq in 2010, the violent deaths per 100,000, according to U.N. numbers, was 14 per 100,000,” he said. “In Honduras last year, it was 77 per 100,000. In El Salvador, it was 71 per 100,000.”
The region has some very capable militaries, the general said, noting that El Salvador sent troops to Iraq that American partners rated among the best in that battle. But the governments of the region are overmatched, he added.
“If you look at the transnational criminal organizations, it’s a well-financed, capable capacity -- an enterprise, if you will,” he said. “Our estimates are anywhere from, on an annual basis, on a global basis, the transnational criminal organizations bring in 300 billion [dollars] to $400 billion a year. That’s a significant number when you put it against the capacities of the governments that we're talking about.”
One example of the technology these criminal organizations use is self-propelled, fully submersible vessels. These subs typically are 100 feet long, manned by a crew of four, and they can carry 10 tons of cocaine. They do not dive far below the surface and can transit between the northern parts of South America to the northern parts of Central America and into Mexico.
Militaries are not built to handle law enforcement activities, but many have been called upon to aid police in the effort, and U.S. Southern Command helps this effort, Fraser said.
“Because of the concern from a law enforcement standpoint -- and I'll use El Salvador as an example, the president, to address this issue, has asked and brought the military in to support law enforcement, very much in the same manner that we talk about within the United States,” the general said. “Within their authorities, they work with the law enforcement to address the issue. But almost half of the military of El Salvador is working to address the violence. And we're seeing the same things -- not to the same level -- happen within other parts of the region.”
Southern Command is working hand in hand with the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. law enforcement agencies and others to address this issue, Fraser said. Southcom personnel are part of the solution, but not the entire solution, he added.
“It’s much more complex than that,” Fraser said. “And we have to address it, in my mind, on a regional basis, and not just on a country-by-country basis.” Toward that end, he said, the Central American Regional Security Initiative and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative are aimed at improving the ways countries work together, helping to empower the law enforcement and judicial systems.
“It’s a multi-pronged effort,” Fraser added.
But the foundation for these initiatives is building and sustaining military-to-military relations with partner militaries in the region, the general said.
“We engage with our partners … to build that security capacity,” Fraser said. “Our efforts include military-to-military engagements, exercises, training [and] subject-matter expert exchanges wherever we can, to help build capacity within our military partners.”
Another important Southcom mission is to be prepared to respond in the event of natural or man-made catastrophes. The earthquake in Haiti in January 2010 was one example, and a magnitude 8.8 earthquake struck Chile last year, Fraser noted. Hurricanes probably are the most predictable natural disaster that can strike the area, he added, but the command has to be ready for everything from volcanoes to forest fires.
Southern Command works with the U.S. Northern Command to combat transnational criminal organizations. Fraser said the smuggling of drugs, guns, people and money is a regional problem, and it must be treated as such.
“Our boundaries from a U.S. forces standpoint is the southern border of Mexico with Guatemala and Belize,” he said. “But from our standpoint, that’s a very, very fuzzy boundary,” because of the close cooperation between the two American combatant commands.
Southern Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force South, which coordinates the interagency capacity to detect and monitor traffic in the maritime environment, has boundaries that go beyond those between the Northcom and Southcom areas of responsibility, Fraser said, and it reaches into parts of U.S. European Command and U.S. Pacific Command’s areas as well.