DOD News Briefing with Gen. Fraser from the Pentagon on U.S. Southern Command Operations
CAPT. DARRYN JAMES (Director, Defense Press Operations): Good afternoon. We're pleased to be joined today by General Douglas Fraser, the commander of U.S. Southern Command.
General Fraser just finished testifying at the House Armed Services Committee. We're grateful that he's made himself available to you this afternoon.
General Fraser took command of U.S. Southern Command in June 2009.
His last Pentagon press briefing was in January 2010, two weeks after the earthquake in Haiti. General Fraser's here to discuss the United States Southern Command's accomplishments and future efforts in Latin America and the Caribbean.
And with that, General Fraser, I'll turn it over to you, sir.
GEN. FRASER: Thank you very much.
Well, thanks, everybody. Thanks for taking the time this afternoon to come have a discussion with me. I really look forward to the opportunity. And I'd like to thank you for letting me have this time to talk a little bit about United States Southern Command and our efforts to support security and stability in Latin America and the Caribbean.
As we support our role in defending the United States, we focus significant effort on building and sustaining military-to-military relations with our partner militaries in the region. Building these relationships is an enduring part of our efforts. And while I won't specifically focus my comments on those, I want you to know that it provides us with a foundation and basis for everything we do and it really provides us with a basis for what I see as our two primary challenges today.
The first is supporting our friends and responding to the natural disasters that routinely happen throughout the region. And the second is the ongoing threat posed by transnational criminal organizations. As you talk about transnational criminal organization, it is a nontraditional role. And we just play a small part, if you will, of addressing that issue across the region. We support our other interagencies as well as the governments within the nations that are seeing the problems associated with -- with transnational criminal organizations.
We remain prepared. And while we remain prepared to conduct disaster relief operations whenever the need arises, we are -- our primary focus as we look at that is on responding to the hurricane season, as you look into the Caribbean. That's where we get the best sense of knowing that a disaster is a potential and we can be prepared to respond to it. Earthquakes, volcanoes and other types of natural disasters don't give us the same kind of warning as hurricanes do, and that's why we really focus very significantly on the hurricane season.
While we're doing that, though, we will remain focused on transnational criminal organizations. They represent in my mind a continuing challenge to regional and hemispheric security. These transnational criminal organizations (TCO) are engaged in illicit trafficking -- illicit trafficking in drugs, arms, money and people -- through the porous borders throughout the regions, to the United States and abroad to Europe and into Africa.
They don't respect national sovereignty, laws, governments or human life. Nowhere in my mind is this more evident than in Central America and in Mexico, which are besieged by gangs, transnational criminal organizations and drug traffickers who operate with near impunity. The direct result is unprecedented levels of violence and the erosion of citizen safety. And I think the best example of that is the northern triangle of Central America -- Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras -- which in -- has become probably the deadliest zone in the world outside of war zones, active war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and others around the world.
TCOs operate through international networks and employ innovative methods to conduct their illicit activities. Recently, we have seen an increasing use of what we're calling self-propelled, fully- submersible vessels: vessels that can operate shallow, but beneath the surface of the ocean, and transit between the northern parts of South America into the northern parts of Central America and into Mexico. And I'll be happy to answer any questions on that as we have more time.
Our partner nations are working on these issues and they're working to counter the problems. And we're working with them to support those efforts.
We engage with our partners, as I said earlier, to build that security capacity. Our efforts include military-to-military engagements, exercises, training, subject-matter expert exchanges wherever we can, to help build capacity within our military partners; similar, and as an example of that, interoperability exercises like fused response that we just conducted in the Dominican Republic with our Dominican Republic partners, as well as special forces from around the region, a very important opportunity to give us the ability to respond to those issues we see.
Also, we're working all these in conjunction with our interagency colleagues and our partner nations. Within that vein, we play a supporting role in the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), a Department of State effort to help build security and capacity throughout the region; the same within the Caribbean, the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI), a similar effort in the eastern Caribbean that combines with the Beyond Merida effort within Mexico, as well as with the consolidation plan that the Colombian government is under. All these plans, although they are separate, all interrelated into a regional opportunity to address these issues.
For example, as part of both CARSI and CBSI, we have a couple of programs we call Enduring Friendship-Secure Seas, and there are different names depending on where we're focused, Enduring Friendship into the Central American region and Secure Seas if you look at in the Caribbean, but a very similar project where we're helping provide interceptor boats as well as communications equipment and training to empower and enable our partner navies to be able to intercept drug traffickers as they transit the maritime environments of the eastern Pacific and the Caribbean.
And because we see the illicit trafficking as a regional problem, we continue to communicate and work on a routine basis, on a daily basis with U.S. Northern Command.
Our boundaries from U.S. forces standpoint is the southern border of Mexico with Guatemala and Belize. But from our standpoint, that's a very, very fuzzy boundary, if you will, because the coordination that happens across that boundary is so secure.
And the agency within U.S. Southern Command, the Joint Interagency Task Force South, that really conducts our interagency capacity to detect and monitor traffic in the maritime environments, its boundary really goes beyond both those geographic Combatant Command boundaries. It includes parts of both, as well as European Command, parts of European Command, and Pacific Command.
So you can see we really looked to try and reduce any problems there may be or any concerns with those boundaries.
So it is a full effort, a regional effort, an interagency and international effort as we look to address the challenges of transnational criminal organizations. So I look forward to talking to -- about this with you today and any other topics that you might find of interest.
Q: General, recently, the Mexican government complained about maybe not enough efforts to prevent the flow of weapons from the U.S. into Mexico. But according to ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) and some other agencies, perhaps many of the military-type weapons and explosives are coming to Mexico throughout the southern border. Have you detected any movement in this area?
GEN. FRASER: It is a complex issue. And I'll defer to ATF and others to give you direct answers on how much, because that really is an effort that they focus on.
The numbers I see is, there are anywhere between 45 (million) to 80 million weapons in the region, and that's pretty broadly. And those are a holdover, if you will, from various civil wars, various conflicts that have happened throughout a number of years. And so there are a lot of sources of weapons, if you will, throughout the region.
So as you look at the potential for corruption, poor accounting methodology, other things, we are working programs through -- ATF has programs to do that. Our embassies have programs to address those issues. But there is a source of weapons that can transit not only through Mexico, but it also impacts Central America as well as Colombia.
Q: Do you identify some vulnerabilities from the southern border from Mexico that might -- can make more difficult the strategy to defeat the Mexican cartels, due to the recent presence of the Mexican cartels in Central America as well?
GEN. FRASER: We're working across all those borders. We have an active role with the governments of -- and the armed forces in Guatemala, Belize and Mexico, as we work with Northern Command. We're working in conjunction with all those partners, as well as other interagency partners. Now, within Guatemala, for example, our embassy is working with the government of Guatemala to put together an interagency border post to help address the issues.
It is a complex issue. It is one that provides many -- there are many places to go across the borders throughout Central America, that really compound the problem. And so we are working on it on a systematic basis, but there's no one clear solution to it.
Q: Sir, it appears as though the sophistication of the self- propelled submersible vehicles that you -- or vessels that you mentioned -- semi-submersible or fully submersible -- has been increasing over the past couple of years, from initially crude vessels to, you know, comparatively sophisticated boats now.
And I'm wondering if you can -- if you have any indication about where the technical know-how or expertise comes from that helps facilitate that? Are there -- are there naval engineers from elsewhere that come in, or is it just a learning process based on what -- (inaudible).
GEN. FRASER: I think there's a little bit of both within it. And to back up just a minute and give you a little bit more specifics on it, what I see is still about 50 percent -- almost 50 percent of the maritime traffic that transits drugs through the Eastern Caribbean and -- or Eastern Pacific and the Caribbean is primarily go-fast. And they transit up through -- close to the coast within territorial waters, if you will, on both coasts of Central America, and then put ashore at various locations, depending on how they're operating and what their operating standard is. And then once they come ashore, then they transit -- drugs transit up through Central America into Mexico and then into the United States.
We saw a rise in the semisubmersibles, if you will, those vessels that float on the surface -- hundred feet long, can carry up to 10 tons of cocaine and can travel a thousand to 2,000 miles. They can easily transit from the northern part of South America to Mexico or Guatemala.
We have seen a downturn in the number of those vessels since 2007. We've seen a continuing decline in the vessels that we have been able to disrupt or detain. And we're starting to see now an increase in what we're calling those fully submersibles.
It is still -- we have been working with the Colombian government and the government of Ecuador. They have been able to detain two of those vessels.
Differing sophistication, where they're getting the expertise to construct these -- that is an issue we're still working on to make sure we can understand exactly who and where and how.
Where they're getting the expertise to construct these -- that is an issue we're still working on to make sure we can understand exactly who and where and how.
But if you look at it, this is not -- this is an evolution, if you will, and how much of it is semisubmersible -- manufacturers, if you will, producing fully submersibles -- and how much of it is a new manufacturing capacity and a new capability, I don't have a good answer for you. It's an effort we're continuing to explore.
Q: On those submersibles, you said they were unmanned?
GEN. FRASER: No, sir. They are manned. Though they're normally manned by a crew of four or more, and they will transit from in the western part of Colombia or Ecuador up through the Pacific, in some cases we've seen and have indications that they go around the Galapagos in transit and then up through the Eastern Pacific to somewhere off of Central America or the southern part of Mexico.
Q: And what are your rules of engagement if you should encounter one?
GEN. FRASER: From our standpoint, this is a law enforcement issue. And as we work our way through the effort, our role from a U.S. military standpoint is detection and monitoring. We will get indications from law enforcement normally, domestic law enforcement in whatever agency these vessels depart from, and then that information is handed off to us, to Joint Interagency Task Force South, and then they look for that vessel. Once they detect it, they will monitor it until it gets to a location where there is either, again, domestic law enforcement who can intercept that vessel or international ships that also have law enforcement capability on a Coast Guard element or a Coast Guard ship.
So we're following law enforcement rules. There is no rule of engagement from a U.S. military standpoint other than to detain and stop that ship. And then it's -- it is a law enforcement effort to detain the people, detain the cargo, and then move them into prosecution.
Q: They're not armed or presenting a threat to the U.S. naval vessels -- (inaudible).
GEN. FRASER: On a normal basis, from semi-submersibles and fully submersibles, we have not seen any indications of them being armed.
Q: Sir, I'd like to go back to your statement about Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras possibly being the deadliest area in the world. Just a -- a couple of questions. I'm surprised to see El Salvador in that, because the El Salvadoran army -- I mean, I've been with those folks – (inaudible) -- and they were an amazingly professional organization. Are they unable to go against these transnational gangs?
And it is a law enforcement sort of aspect to it. Do you have law enforcement folks in your headquarters? And how do you -- how do you actually combat something that is at its -- at its basis a law enforcement problem with the military?
GEN. FRASER: Let me address that in a couple of different ways, if I can. The numbers that I'm using are U.N. numbers. Their drug agency is where those numbers come from. And to use specific numbers, if we look at Iraq in 2010, the violent deaths per 100,000, according to U.N. numbers, was 14 per 100,000. In Honduras last year, it was 77 per 100,000. In El Salvador, it was 71 per 100,000. That's the basis that I'm making that comparison of violent of a -- of a region it has become, unfortunately -- again, very much because of gangs, as well as transnational criminal organizations.
There are very capable militaries, but it is a broad issue. And if you look at the transnational criminal organizations, it's a well- financed, capable capacity -- an enterprise, if you will. Our estimates are anywhere from, on an annual basis, on a global basis, the transnational criminal organizations bring in $300 billion 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.
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 in the military, in to support law enforcement, very much in the same manner that we talk about within the United States. 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. So it is an effort to address the immediacy of the violence in which militaries are being brought in.
From our role, we are working very much hand in hand with the Department of State, with USAID, with all our interagency partners as well as host nation governments, to address this issue in an interagency process. We are a part of the solution; we are not the entire solution. It's much more complex than that. And we have to address it, in my mind, on a regional basis, and not just on a country by country basis.
We'll have country by country relations, but we also have to look at it on a regional basis, and we're continuing to do that.
That's where I go back and talk about the Central American Regional Security Initiative, the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. Those are ones that help empower the law enforcement capacities, the judicial capacities; also address some of the other endemic issues that are associated with supporting law or criminal activity. It's a multi-pronged effort.
Q: Continuing on that then, can you say what -- what specifically is the U.S. military's part of it? What are you guys doing in these countries? How many -- how many personnel are involved? What kind of assets or capabilities do you bring to that problem there?
GEN. FRASER: Ours goes very much back to very traditional building partnership capacity. So it is working with our militaries to help train, help provide expertise so that they can train themselves. As you look at it, because our role is very clearly defined as a detection and monitoring area, as well we help support, as I mentioned, those interceptor vessels in the maritime environment, and we've seen growing success within that. So we are continuing to engage with that and working with our partners in State and AID to make sure our efforts are coordinated.
So it's very traditional in a building partnership capacity and looking, as militaries getting more pulled into this, how do we help train them to understand how to operate in a law enforcement environment also, because it is different than operating in a military. And it crosses a security line that we all need to be very, very deliberate about. All the militaries that we work with are very, very deliberate about it.
Q: You mentioned Honduras's levels being sky-high pretty much. How does that affect JTF-Bravo's OPTEMPO? I mean, does that increase their training mil-to-mil inside Honduras and the rest of Central America? And does that -- and does that also increase their interdiction efforts as well?
GEN. FRASER: They have been involved for quite a number of years supporting counter-narcotics activities; in other words, supporting host-nation domestic tactical response teams in conjunction with the Drug Enforcement Agency capability to move and address wherever they might have an opportunity to support that effort. So they have been supporting that primarily from a transport standpoint, if you will.
We're seeing an increase in that activity, if you will, and we're working to look for more coordination. But, you know, they're also there within -- operating from Honduras to help support and provide a response for disaster relief. So they have -- they remain having a multi-pronged effort and focus in supporting all our efforts within Central America.
Q: But has there been consideration given to maybe boosting the assets at JTF-Bravo, given that the level of -- I think -- (inaudible) -- hearing today you said that 40 percent of the cocaine transits through Honduras. Wouldn't it behoove you to actually increase --
GEN. FRASER: We're looking at an effort right now on balancing those out. So, yes, we are looking to see where we can pull in and where it makes it sense to address these issues.
But, again, it's a very complex -- there's not just one solution. So it's not just JTF-Bravo; it is also looking at the maritime environments to help us understand that. It's working within the northern parts of South America to address where the production is.
We have to work on each one of those levels. And that's what we're doing, looking to find better information, looking to figure out how we can support our partner better, and then looking to see where it makes a difference for our forces to come in and support.
That said, this is really at the invitation, as you look at it, from domestic -- or from host nations.
And they are working these issues within their own capacities now, working with us, helping from a training and an exercise standpoint.
Q: And one last one. Are you looking at ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] because it sounds like --
GEN. FRASER: Yes, we are.
Q: Can you expand on that with more specifics?
GEN. FRASER: We're looking at a lot of nontraditional methods of doing this also, if you will. So we're looking at where we can provide ISR capacity. But we have linkages, if you will, right now. I'll have to get you the acronym [CNIES] but we have -- I'll have to get you the title of the acronym [Cooperative Nation Information Exchange Service]. It's a CNIES capability. And it's a computer system that allows us to coordinate activities with our partners. When we see a vessel coming and they're close to it, then there's a cooperation, coordination that happens between Joint Interagency Task Force South and that partner nation's military that they are now able to go respond. So that's a broad area.
And our focus remains in the maritime environments. Once you come domestically, now it's working with each nation to address the information requirements there. And we're working that on a -- on a bilateral basis as the -- as the opportunity presents itself.
Q: Thank you. Also with this triangle on the Central American, a couple of weeks ago we learned that the U.S. was helping Mexico with drones, which was a bit controversial -- to track down -- because it was a bit controversial because Mexico has very concrete laws against the use of other -- this kind of military equipment from another country.
Is something like that going in Central America as well, something -- this kind of aid, even by -- if these countries have asked for it? Or are there any similar problems like with Mexico that forbids this kind of --
GEN. FRASER: We have to work it on a bilateral basis, each country by country.
What we're really trying to work is within each country, as they have a capacity. For example, within Belize, they have captured a drug trafficking organization, a Beech King Air-like aircraft. And we're working with them to see how we can equip that to now help them provide their own ISR capability. That is how we're really working to help address our partners, wherever those capacities are, that we can help support their capability to provide this on -- within their own capacity.
Q: Yeah, General, this morning at the hearing, you stated that there were some concerns of the automatic weapons that the Russians are selling Venezuela; that they could end up in other hands, you said.
GEN. FRASER: Uh-huh.
Q: Which hands? Could you elaborate a little more? I'm asking because it's only the Colombian guerrillas, or could be perhaps another group, even an outside group from Latin America?
And also, if I may, how do you see now the relationship between the Chavez government and the guerrillas, now that the Chavez government is in good terms with the Colombian government? Is it going better or --
GEN. FRASER: My concern within the automatic weapons is -- as we talked about earlier, it is the availability of automatic weapons. And so it's the availability to anyone who might be able to get a hold of those weapons. That's my larger concern, as you look at weapons. So it's not just targeted on the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia], or targeted on a specific organization. It is just the availability of those weapons, because of the transnational criminal organizations and their desire to get a hold of weapons.
The relations between Venezuela and Colombia have improved significantly. They continue to improve. In fact, I think as you know, from my understanding, President Chavez will visit Colombia and talk with President Santos on Friday, and so I see that as a positive effort.
How that will now translate into illicit activities across the border, that is an issue that they are working government-to- government, and they're better able to answer those questions than am I.
CAPT. JAMES: General, we have time for one more question.
Q: Could I ask you about Iran's engagement in the -- in the region. Both you and the director of national intelligence have flagged this. You did in your testimony today. What is the level of engagement with Venezuela and Bolivia, as you mentioned? Are they -- are they trying to broaden deeper relations with other nations to, you know, blunt the United States, or even to develop their own network of terrorist or Hezbollah surrogate-like -- surrogates in the region?
GEN. FRASER: What I see Iran doing is working into expand its relations with many countries within Latin America. They have doubled their number of embassies over the last five years. They now have 11 embassies. There should be another one that will open this year. They also have cultural centers that they have established in 17 different countries.
So I see them working to establish those relationships throughout the region in an effort, again, in my assessment, to reduce the potential for international isolation and also to reduce U.S. influence, if you will, wherever they're partnering and wherever they find the opportunity to do that.
Q: Well, how about bankrolling surrogates to attack the United States asymmetrically, if we ever got into a shooting conflict with Iran? Any evidence -- (inaudible).
GEN. FRASER: My only concern is because of traditional, in other parts of the world, relationship.
I have not seen any evidence of that relationship translating beyond or into Latin America. What I see is there are groups, Hezbollah, in the region. They have been there for a long time. They continue to conduct illicit activity. But a lot of that continues -- that money, if you will, flows back to their parent organizations. I haven't seen any evidence of any connection within Latin America.
Q: You know what I’m getting at because Iran and Hezbollah are very close. And --
GEN. FRASER: We're -- I'm skeptical. I continue to watch. I have not seen any indications of that to date.
CAPT. JAMES: General, I think that's all the time we have.
GEN. FRASER: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure -- talking with you. And I look forward to future discussions.