Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

We’re All in This Together

Reading Time: 14 minutesThe head of U.S. Southern Command asseses the unconventional security threats facing the region, ranging from narcotics and gang violence to terrorism. The solution, he argues, is hemisphere-wide cooperation.
Reading Time: 14 minutes

The nations of the Americas have never been as important to each other as they are today. With exponential advances in technology and strong natural connections, our societies are bound together as never before across the full spectrum of human contact. From migration and demographic changes, to a record level of commercial interaction and interdependence, to shared transnational security challenges, our countries’ futures are joined…for better or for worse.

At United States Southern Command, we focus on both the better and the worse. We concentrate on the strengths of this hemisphere of enormous diversity, beauty and potential, while also seeking effective solutions to the complex security challenges shared throughout the Americas—particularly rising transnational challenges such as crime, gangs and drugs. At the same time, we understand that the realization of our hemisphere’s long-term security, stability and prosperity will only come through addressing the underlying conditions of poverty, inequality and corruption that affect large portions of the region today.

Nevertheless, despite our growing interdependence, many claim the U.S. does not pay enough attention to Latin America. Some say the region is drifting away from us, pointing in particular to the emergence of sharply anti-U.S. rhetoric from several capitals in South America. Recent respected polls have indicated a decline in Latin America’s positive opinion of the United States. Additionally, despite the President’s recent trip through Latin America and the close ties the U.S. has with the region, many credible observers continue to insist that the U.S. must pay more attention to this part of the world. To counter these perceptions and to facilitate an environment of cooperation, we need to better coordinate and communicate what we are already doing in the region, as well as adapt, refocus and innovatively increase our overall attention.

We are currently redesigning our organization around a new strategic outlook that encompasses the realities of the complex security challenges we face today and of our need to better connect with the audiences of the region. Our new outlook and organizational structure include employing a more holistic, integrated approach to national and international cooperation to better serve the security interests of the United States and those of our partners in this hemisphere.

This involves understanding and harnessing the tremendous linkages we share with Latin America and the Caribbean. An increasing population of this hemisphere has strong cultural, political and economic ties to the United States. As an example, more than 40 million people in the U.S. are of Hispanic origin. When undocumented Spanish-speaking workers are added, it is fair to assume that the U.S. is now the second most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world. For added perspective, more Hispanics live in the U.S. today than Canadians in Canada. Meanwhile, the purchasing power of our burgeoning Hispanic population is pushing toward a trillion dollars annually.

Our economic fortunes are also increasingly intertwined. Many in the U.S. believe our trade flows primarily east and west—to Asia and Europe. In fact, almost 40 percent of U.S. global trade flows north and south, half of which is with Latin America and the Caribbean alone. This huge volume of goods and services circulating throughout our hemisphere acts like life-sustaining oxygen in our nation’s bloodstream. An important example is that nearly 50 percent of the U.S. consumption of crude oil and petroleum products is imported from the Western Hemisphere, with 34 percent coming from Latin America and the Caribbean. That far outweighs the 22 percent imported from the Middle East.

Beyond cultural and economic linkages, the U.S. and the region share democratic values. That may be the most important connection of all. We all believe the democratic principles of freedom, justice, human dignity, and human rights are at the core of our societies and that free governments should be accountable to their people to govern effectively. These shared beliefs are most clearly expressed in the first article of the Inter-American Democratic Charter signed by all the member governments of the Organization of American States (OAS) in September 2001: “The people of the Americas have the right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it. Democracy is essential for the social, political, and economic development of the peoples of the Americas.”

The Charter’s promise has been largely fulfilled. Democracy has made great strides over the last two decades in the hemisphere. All the current leaders of the Americas—with the exception of Fidel Castro—have been democratically elected. We look forward to the first time in history when our entire hemisphere is united in democracy.

Drifting Apart

We are fortunate for this shared democratic dream and bond. But as enduring poverty, inequality and security challenges have generated growing popular frustration in much of the hemisphere, some new leaders have swept into power promising dramatic results through unorthodox and unproven economic and political policies. The resulting political realignments have caused our relations with a few nations to begin drifting apart.

There are multiple reasons for this drift. A major contributor is that the continued status quo of wide
spread poverty has been blamed on failed economic policies supposedly modeled on the Washington Consensus, thus creating a growing frustration with any market-oriented economic framework. U.S. commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and the global War on Terror have also fueled, in part, a perception that the U.S. cares little about the region. Moreover, as the quality of personal security declines in parts of the region, mainly attributed to crime, gangs and drugs, popular frustration continues to mount and seek an outlet. And last, the highly publicized anti-U.S. agenda of certain vocal leaders and groups has increasingly fanned suspicion of Washington. Anti-U.S. leaders are creating tensions and suspicions that exacerbate what is already a difficult mission: building regional cooperation to address new and evolving security threats that span national borders.

All of these factors are contributing to this drift in alignment. Over the long term, if the U.S. engages proactively, we believe the failure of the radical economic and political models to deliver on their promises will ultimately halt the drift and will prompt a realignment favorable to the U.S.

Fortunately, we do not see any conventional military threat to the U.S. developing in the region, nor do we see any major military threat between nations in Latin America or the Caribbean. Although some historical anxiety between neighbors does exist, we are confident that any political issues in the region will be worked out through dialogue—which is a strength in the region—not state-on-state violence. However, public security threats—such as crime, gangs and drug trafficking—pose the principal, near-term security challenges to the region, and given the depth of our linkages in the Americas, these ills pose a threat to the U.S. as well.

New Transnational Threats

Crime, gangs and drugs cross borders—and therefore cannot be countered by one nation alone. The adaptive nature of these transnational threats poses an insidious challenge to hemisphere-wide stability and governance. They demand cooperative solutions that involve a unified response from the full spectrum of society, including national governments, international institutions and even the private sector.

In many respects, these security threats are symptoms of the deeper endemic problems of poverty and inequality. According to United Nations statistics, almost 40 percent of the region’s inhabitants are living in poverty, defined as an income of less than two dollars per day. That is roughly 180 million people—the equivalent of the population east of the Mississippi—all living on less than the cost of a cup of coffee in the U.S. Moreover, nearly 16 percent are living in extreme poverty—less than one dollar per day. Couple these poverty figures with the most unequal distribution of wealth of any of the world’s regions and a high level of corruption, and you have fertile conditions for social and political insecurity and attendant instability. You also have a tremendous catalyst for illegal immigration.

Drug trafficking is one of the greatest threats to public order in our hemisphere. The Andean Ridge in South America is the world’s leading source of coca cultivation. Despite international efforts and record interdictions and seizures, the Andean region still produces enough cocaine to meet demand here in the U.S. and a growing demand abroad. Thousands of U.S. citizens die each year in drug-related events that can be traced to narcotics from this region.

The roughly $300 billion global business of illegal drug production, distribution and consumption is also devastating whole societies in Latin America and the Caribbean. Narcotraffickers continuously adjust their operations to adapt to law enforcement efforts by developing new trafficking routes and consumer markets. As a consequence, nations that were once isolated from the illicit drug trade are now experiencing its corrosive effects. Most nations in the hemisphere are struggling to counteract the drug trade’s destabilizing and corrupting influence.

A close corollary to the spread of illegal drug traffic is the alarming growth of criminal violence in the region. Murder is now one of the five main causes of death in several countries. Latin America and the Caribbean’s annual homicide rate is one of the highest in the world, with 25 homicides per 100,000 people. By comparison, figures for Africa and the U.S. are 22 deaths and 5.5, respectively. The Caribbean registers the highest murder rate of any of the world’s sub-regions, with 30 per 100,000. Recent surveys in Central America now show that two-thirds of the respondents cited crime as the number-one problem facing their countries—six times the number choosing poverty.

Contributing to crime rates and severely challenging personal security in many areas is the growing influence of gangs. In Central America, Haiti, Jamaica, and major cities in Brazil, gangs are a security priority. The overall gang population is estimated to reach into the hundreds of thousands. Primarily, these are urban gangs whose ranks are filled with disenfranchised youth. Central American street gangs—maras—are known for their brutal initiations and their extortion of protection money—or “War Taxes,” as the locals call it. These gangs do not just pose a concern in Latin America. The more sophisticated groups operate regionally and even globally—reaching, in some cases, deep into the United States.

The High Cost of Insecurity

The costs associated with violence in the region are difficult to assess, but the Inter-American Development Bank estimates that the losses from crime approached 15 percent of GDP in 2005. This is an economic drain that inhibits efforts to alleviate the underlying conditions of poverty and inequality.

To ensure social integrity, several nations in the region have committed military forces to counter threats that normally would be the responsibility of the police. Although this is clearly not a preferred solution—especially from the human rights perspective—the growing trend is born out of the necessity to counter increasingly powerful and socially destructive gangs, drug cartels and criminal organizations. In most cases, the military has been deployed as reinforcement for undermanned and out-gunned law enforcement units.

But as public security and national defense roles blur, governments will have to be particularly vigilant. Military units normally are not trained for conducting domestic security, and military doctrine is not oriented toward the tasks of law enforcement. Nor are military weapons particularly suited to the task. Furthermore, involvement in the fight against crime exposes military units to drug and crime-related corruption. Military units and their commanders must be prepared for the scrutiny of worldwide media attention their involvement is sure to elicit. We have clearly seen drug traffickers and criminal leaders try to influence public opinion through the media. By targeting military units and attempting to evoke a visibly violent “overreaction” on the part of the military, these criminals can manipulate news reporting for their own strategic ends.

Battling Terrorism

Even as crime, drugs and gangs remain a continuing concern, Southern Command also focuses on the potential threat terrorism poses to U.S. soil and to the nations in the region. This comprises all types of terrorism, including narcoterrorism.

One of our main concerns is Colombia and its fight against the narcoterrorist group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). Over the last decade, Colombia has achieved great success in its complex struggle for peace and security. Ten years ago, the headlines coming out of Colombia resembled the worst of those to come out of any war-torn country: daily reports of shootings, kidnappings, torture, and bombings. Through its own military and interagency efforts, and a stream of modest resources and support from the U.S., Colombia has battled from the brink of chaos to a greatly improved level of peace and stability. In fact, last year marked the lowest homicide rate in two decades. With great effort, the government has established a police presence in all of Colombia’s 1,098 municipalities, thus significantly deterring crime and terrorist incidents.

The increased security presence, coupled with significant operational successes against the FARC, has enabled Colombia to record its most sustained economic growth in a decade—over five percent annually for the past two years—and has encouraged a sense of positive momentum for the entire country. These hard-fought successes, however, need continued U.S. support and steadfast effort from the Colombian government in order to win true peace for the country.

Associated with narcoterrorism, the hostage situation involving three U.S. citizens in Colombia is another major concern for Southern Command. Not a day goes by without our team focusing on the plight of Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes, who have been held hostage by the FARC for over four years. We search every day for leads that will help bring our countrymen home safely.

Since 9/11, the potential for terrorist activity in the region has been a growing concern. We consider Latin America and the Caribbean as being highly likely bases for future terrorist threats to the U.S. and others. The recent alleged plot to bomb the gas lines leading to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, and the leading suspects’ roots in the Caribbean, raises the specter of Islamic terrorist activity gaining traction in the region. For sure, members, facilitators and sympathizers of Islamic terrorist organizations are present in our hemisphere. The most prominent group appears to be Hezbollah. Although much of Hezbollah’s activity appears to be currently linked to revenue generation, there are indications of an operational presence and the potential for attacks. The Hezbollah network in the region is suspected of supporting the terrorist attacks in Buenos Aires in 1992 and again in 1994. We suspect that a similar operational support network exists today and could be activated in the future.

Fortunately, we have seen successes in mitigating terrorist activity. Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina have been working together to address terrorism and illicit criminal activity in the so-called Tri-Border Area where the frontiers of all three countries join. A Regional Intelligence Center, located in Brazil and to be staffed by agents from all three countries, is a new initiative that promises great benefits from multinational cooperation against shared threats.

Increasingly, countries in the region have taken action against terrorist-linked supporters and facilitators. Last year, Colombian authorities dismantled a complex document forgery ring with alleged ties to local and Islamic terrorist organizations. Also in 2006, Brazilian authorities arrested a suspect linked to the assassination of the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Potential repercussions from the end of Fidel Castro’s rule in Cuba are another concern. While we all hope for a peaceful transition to democracy, there is a risk of instability following full leadership change on the island. If improvements are not made in Cuba’s poor socio-economic conditions and extremely repressive regime, ultimately there could be a massive exodus toward our shores. The U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and—if necessary—the U.S. Department of Defense are prepared and capable of responding if mass migration occurs.

We’re in This Together

The drift in political alignments, falling approval ratings of the U.S. and the rising tide of anti-U.S. rhetoric coming from Caracas all demand new and innovative approaches to our engagement in the region. In this regard, the U.S., in general, and Southern Command, in particular, need to compete more effectively to improve our “acceptance rating” and our “market share” in what is essentially a geopolitical marketplace of ideas.

To do this, we need to communicate effectively that the U.S. cares about the people of the region—and that we care for the long haul. We also need to demonstrate how we are engaged positively on security issues. A good portion of our task might simply involve building a wider recognition of all that we currently do in the region—taking some deserved credit if you will—while also developing new ways of connecting with the people. Most importantly, all our endeavors need to harness and emphasize the natural alignments and shared interests between the nations of the Americas. Despite our differences, our growing economic and cultural interdependence and our shared security challenges prove that we’re all, in fact, in this journey together.

As we look to the future, we see the increasing importance of developing innovative sub-regional, regional and hemispheric partnerships to combat transnational security threats. Our current and future security needs require a cooperation that goes beyond mere agreements on the desire to work together. This cooperation needs to be concrete and able to adapt as the threat adapts. It needs to combine a multi-agency, multinational and private sector approach to security. But several key prerequisites need to be met before this level of cooperation can take place.

First, we need to earn and maintain trust in order to keep the partners we have and to develop new ones. Our unified approach will require consistent and effective resources, strategic messaging and innovative and earnest information sharing. Second, we need to re-examine the various exercises, programs and partnerships we sponsor in the region and find innovative ways to make them more inclusive and more effective at communicating our connection to the peoples of the region. Paramount to this effort will be finding the right size and shape of participation with which each nation or agency is comfortable. Participation can range from international peacekeeping operations and humanitarian assistance missions to large multinational events like our annual Defense of the Panama Canal exercise—an exercise that unites dozens of militaries, numerous governmental and non-governmental agencies, and for the first time this year, even the United Nations and the OAS.

Last, but not least, we need to do a better job of relating and publicizing the efforts of all U.S. agencies and of our own private sector. There is a tremendous amount of “good” the U.S. does in the region—from $350 billion of U.S. foreign direct investment, to millions of non-governmental volunteer hours, to the quarter million medical patients U.S. Southern Command treats each year. But often we do not tell our story well, particularly in a way that can help us counter the image that the U.S. does not pay enough attention to the region. If we employ all these methods, we will achieve more effective and stronger security partnerships.

A New Partnering Model

Our unique counter-narcotics task force located in Key West, Florida, is a role model for the kind of innovative cooperation and fusion of capabilities we have in mind. This task force combines the efforts of partners from dozens of countries, the U.S. military and numerous U.S. and international agencies. Thanks to this arrangement, we interdict vast quantities of narcotics moving through the region each year. It is a truly multinational approach that bridges the gap between the military and law enforcement while ensuring that legal and ethical norms prevail. It is into this gap that most of the region’s security challenges fall, and it is a gap that we must close.

U.S. Southern Command hopes to do its part to make these partnerships work. Our new engagement strategy commits us to build the security capability of our military counterparts and to expand the capacity for all of us to work together. Each year we sponsor dozens of multinational and bilateral training exercises designed to improve our collective response capability to a wide variety of threats, from disaster response and peacekeeping operations to counter-drug and counter-terrorist training. In addition to our military exercise program, we also sponsor exchanges and advanced education programs for military and inter-agency personnel across Latin America.

Meanwhile, our humanitarian goodwill activities continue to multiply. Each year we construct wells, schools, community centers, and medical clinics in several countries and treat hundreds of thousands of patients. As President George W. Bush announced this spring, we have sent the U.S. Navy Hospital Ship, the COMFORT, on a first-ever deployment to Central America and the Caribbean to visit various nations on both sides of the Panama Canal—a four-month tour that is intended to treat more than 85,000 people who lack access to basic medical care. This tremendous first has provided a highly visible and meaningful symbol of our commitment to the people of the hemisphere.

Recently, we began another new initiative designed to harness the vast potential of public-private sector cooperative ventures. We have created a staff structure and engagement plan to tap into these private sector resources and combine their goodwill efforts with our outreach programs. As an example, we use the U.S. Navy’s global outreach program, Project Handclasp, to transport materials donated by the U.S. private sector, such as ambulances, school supplies, high-nutrition meals, and children’s bicycles and distribute them when Navy ships pull into ports.

We have also sent a new type of Navy vessel on a seven-month voyage into the Caribbean and Central American region. This converted car-ferry with enormous cargo space will carry a wide variety of training teams and their gear. This unique crew and vessel will pull into our partners’ ports and train local counterparts on small boat and engine repair, port security operations, seamanship and navigation, and various other security cooperation fields. Our hope is to repeat and expand the capabilities of this voyage each year as part of our commitment to long-term security partnerships.

Southern Command has also created a unique and dedicated group of experts to assist the region’s militaries in human rights. Several nations in Latin America are still dealing with a not-so-distant history darkened by abuses committed by uniformed militaries, militias and guerrilla groups. We sponsor a Human Rights Initiative that has created a consensus document on human rights, and through which the militaries of eight nations and a multinational organization have committed to advance institutional respect for human rights and promote a zero-tolerance environment for violations. We support development of doctrine, education and training programs, internal control systems, and civil-military outreach efforts by military and security forces. We also have proposed a Center for Excellence in Human Rights that will allow us to expand our human rights program to collaborate with an array of agencies and organizations in public-private partnerships and to extend the reach of these critical efforts. The proposal, approved by the Department of Defense and the President, is currently before Congress.

More Than a Facelift

Meeting today’s and tomorrow’s challenges requires organizational change for U.S. Southern Command. This change needs to be much more than mere cosmetic surgery: it needs to be real change that matches the unique threats and opportunities of the 21st century. We are currently working toward redesigning the entire command into a leading interagency security organization, with interagency, multinational and private sector partnering as core organizing concepts. Given the worrying security trends in this hemisphere, the transformation of Southern Command into a more capable and comprehensive security organization is a critical step in a needed transformation of the greater U.S. security apparatus.

Only through building new, capable relationships inside and outside government, on both the domestic and international fronts, will we be able to match our strategic outlook to effective unified action. Only through a robust commitment to partnering will we be able to gain and maintain the critical regional friendships we need for the security of our hemisphere. For better or for worse, we’re all in this together. Collectively, the nations of the Americas are better poised to confront the “worse” that the future holds in order to bring about the “better:” a stable, prosperous and secure future in this special part of the world that we share.

About Southern Command


Tags: Admiral Jim Stavridis, Anti-U.S., Drug traffic, Terrorism, U.S. Navy, U.S. Southern Command, We're All in This Together
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