The commander of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami says the greatest threat to security in the Caribbean region comes not from any conventional source but rather from transnational criminal organizations.
Speaking at a conference on security at the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy, Gen. Douglas Fraser said besides drug trafficking, criminal gangs in the region are also involved in arms smuggling, bulk cash flows across borders and people smuggling.
“The traffickers are well-financed and very capable,” he said.
Fraser said the Southern Command has been focusing on detecting and monitoring the transport of drugs in the Caribbean and also on how best to support its regional military partners who have been pulled into the fight against the drug cartels.
“This is a long fight; it will not be a two- or three-year fight,” he said.
Beyond security, he said, violence also is negatively impacting the economic growth of the region.
The cost of fighting the drug traffickers and economic disruptions, he said, is essentially “a tax on society.”
While an estimated 35,000 deaths have been attributed to criminal gang-related violence in Mexico alone over the past five years, Fraser noted that there have been 67,000 homicides in Central America, which he has called the “deadliest zone in the world’’ outside Iraq and Afghanistan.
“A drug-trafficking tsunami has befallen the region,’’ said Kevin Casas-Zamora, former vice president of Costa Rica and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Arturo Sarukhan, Mexican ambassador to the United States, said Central America and the Caribbean have increasingly become the “springboards” for entry of Andean cocaine into the United States as a result of U.S. and Mexican efforts to stem the flow of cocaine traffic through traditional Mexican land routes.
“We have to provide a holistic approach” to combating drug flows in the region, he said.
Otherwise, he said, trafficking will simply spread from one country to another.
Casas-Zamora said greater help is needed from the U.S. on counter-narcotics efforts in the region, as well as more serious discussion in the United States on how to deal with narco-trafficking.
“Beneath organized crime lie very basic and unmet development challenges,” he said.
But Daniel Erikson, a senior advisor in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said contrary to what may be popular perception, “we’re paying a huge amount of attention” to the region.
“We’ve made [combating violence] a major focus and investment of this administration,” he said, pointing to programs, such as the Mérida Initiative, which provides equipment and training to help in fighting trafficking, and similar initiatives for Central America and the Caribbean.
Meantime, delegates attending the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) in Suriname have approved the action plan of the Hemispheric Drug Strategy.
The strategy, which was drafted in Mexico and spans a five-year period, will now have to be ratified by the parliaments and governments of all CICAD member-states.
As part of the plan, drug controls will be stepped up and legislations will be adapted leading to a drop in the supply and demand of drugs throughout the entire western hemisphere.
Suriname’s Vice President Robert Ameerali said that his country is well underway to implement the goals and activities of the Hemispheric Drug Strategy.
“Suriname may is probably one of the first countries in the Western Hemisphere to do so,” Ameerali said, adding that the country takes its regional and international commitments seriously.
He said the authorities will this year establish a Drug Treatment Court to deal with drug offenders and their re-integration into society.
“CICAD’s Hemispheric Drug Strategy and Draft Plan of Action were important guidelines used in formulating the new Suriname National Drug Master Plan,” the Vice President said, calling for hemispheric synergy and cooperation in dealing with the global drug problem.
OAS Assistant Secretary General Albert Ramdin says there is a direct link between the illegal drugs trade and small firearms, and other crimes including domestic violence, child abuse and corruption.
“All of these have had a direct impact on national security agendas in the hemisphere and a direct economic impact on smaller and vulnerable economies like those of the Caribbean and Central America.”
Ramdin believes that success in the fight against drugs and drug-related crimes calls for a coordinated, multilateral approach to the application of resources, and a willingness to support neighbors who do not have the means to effectively counteract the threat posed by international organized crime and drug trafficking.
The CICAD conference, which brought close to 100 high-level delegates from member countries of the Organization of American States (OAS) ended in Paramaribo, the Suriname’s capital, on Friday.