Narcotics And Terrorism Are Linked, Pose Threats To Hemisphere

December 2008
By Rita Boland

Adm. James Stavridis, USN (l), commander, U.S. Southern Command, was a keynote speaker at SOUTH 2008 in Miami. The admiral is concerned about semisubmersibles in the drug trade and their potential to accommodate terrorist activities. Here, Adm. Stavridis tries out the Navigation, Seamanship and Ship-handling Trainer aboard the USS Boone.
Warriors in the counternarcotics and the counterinsurgency battles converge to discuss issues and the way ahead.

The war on drugs has lost prominence in recent years to the war on terror, but the two dangers are not entirely separate. Leaders and other members of the anti-drug, anti-terror battles met in October to discuss the connections between illicit substances and insurgents and to emphasize the continued problem in the Americas posed especially by cocaine. And while terrorism may be high in the general public’s mind as people fear another attack, drug use is killing thousands of American citizens, including children, every year.

Narcotics, their effects on society, the difficulty in stopping their proliferation and their link to terrorists were the focus of SOUTH 2008, a new AFCEA International event held in Miami. The conference brought together members of the military, other government organizations such as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the private sector. In a rare occurrence, the event featured two combatant commanders who gave keynote addresses, one at the beginning and one at the end of the conference.

Adm. James Stavridis, USN, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), which hosted the event in conjunction with AFCEA International, shared his perspective on the drug problem. The drug problem, he emphasized, is not in the United States’ backyard, and the Americas are not the United States’ front porch. Rather, the Americas are a home shared by everyone on these two continents, and the principal challenge of the area south of the United States is poverty. Narcotics and terrorism are symptoms of the poverty issue, he added.

The admiral focused his speech on the problems posed by cocaine, which is produced almost exclusively in the Andes region of South America and makes it way to the United States, Europe and other areas of the world. Adm. Stavridis revealed that 35 million Americans have tried cocaine, and each year 5,000 to 7,000 die from its use. Other negative effects include cocaine production’s negative ecological impact because of slash-and-burn farming methods and chemical dumping, and the violence used by drug runners. Mexico’s northern region alone is on target to record 5,000 deaths this year from narcotics-related violence.

Perhaps the most serious effect is how cocaine and its smuggling relate to insurgents. “I believe there is a direct linkage between terrorism and narcotics,” Adm. Stavridis said. According to him, 300,000 people in the Americas are involved in a gang structure linked to narcotics. What worries the admiral most, however, is the semisubmersible, an almost-submarine that has had numerous versions and upgrades, has satellite communication capabilities and can travel from South America to the United States without refueling. “This is clearly the next big thing,” the admiral explained.

The most recent version of the vessel has only four inches of structure above the water and nine feet below and can carry more than   $200 million worth of cocaine in a single shipment. “If it can carry seven tons of cocaine, what else can you put in that semisubmersible?” he asked. Then he answered his own question by referencing weapons of mass destruction, but elaborated that no link between those weapons and semisubmersibles is in evidence today. However, he believes the United States and its partners should be concerned about the threat. Semisubmersibles are difficult to track and intercept, and future versions likely will be totally submersible and more sophisticated.

To counter the drug threat, nations and agencies must partner and cooperate to defeat the enemy. “Narcotics are an enormous challenge globally and in the United States,” Adm. Stavridis stated. The fight must include action against supply and demand, though the admiral said he believes that through education, “Cocaine, I’m convinced, is a winnable argument on the demand side.”

The key to defeating the supply aspect is to break into the chain and use it against itself. “It’s a brain-on-brain challenge,” the admiral said to the crowd, sharing that the enemy thinks about ways to improve smuggling every day, and these foes are clever and dedicated. Adm. Stavridis has a first-generation semisubmersible displayed outside SOUTHCOM’s headquarters to inspire personnel and visitors and to remind them of how the United States and its allies will defeat narcotics suppliers. “We will prevail the old-fashioned way,” he said. “That is to say, we will outthink them.” During his speech, the admiral commended Colombia and Mexico for their efforts against drugs in their nations and promoted the Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) South as a fine example of interagency and international cooperation.

Gen. Gene Renuart, USAF, commander, U.S. Northern Command, gave the first plenary address at SOUTH 2008, discussing the dangers drugs pose to the United States and all of the Americas. He stressed the importance of international and interagency cooperation in the counternarcotics fight. Pictured here, Gen. Renuart (l) signs a civil assistance plan with Lt. Gen. Marc Dumais, CF, commander of Canada Command.
The other four-star military leader responsible for part of the Americas, Gen. Gene Renuart, USAF, commander, U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), emphasized the direct impact drugs have on U.S. society. “This isn’t somebody else’s people we are talking about,” he stated. “These are our own children, our own coworkers, our own families.” Illegal narcotics use affects children’s lives, workers’ performances and the eligibility status of those who could serve in the military, he said.

In other countries in the Americas, drugs pose higher-level dangers. “This problem has destabilized democratic governments in our hemisphere for the last 20 years,” Gen. Renuart said. If proliferation of narcotics and the problems associated with them are not controlled, the growth of democracy in the Western Hemisphere could be reversed. Drug trafficking organizations are becoming more sophisticated, violent and efficient in their military operations. Increasingly, drug cartels are mixing with Southern California gangs, and they are becoming part of the weapons trade.

Gen. Renuart echoed Adm. Stavridis’ call for greater interagency effort, explaining that groups must work together to interdict drugs in the maritime domain, referencing the semisubmersible threat, and added that tunnels are becoming a dilemma as well. In addition to cooperating with each other, U.S. agencies also must work with other countries and the private sector to succeed in reducing the drug trade. “We’ve got to find a way to be better virtual partners, if not better real partners,” he said. One of his suggestions was to install OnStar—technology that can transmit data communications between systems and devices—on all boats 30 feet or larger to help differentiate between legitimate and illicit vessels.

Lt. Gen. Glenn Spears, USAF, deputy commander, SOUTHCOM, remarked in his speech that, “The scourge of illegal drug trafficking … unfortunately is alive and flourishing in the Americas today.” The United States must address its demand problem through education, and SOUTHCOM’s role is to support interdiction and help other nations do the same, he said.

One of those other nations is Colombia. Sergio Jaramillo Caro, that country’s vice minister of defense, gave the plenary address on Thursday. Jaramillo Caro elucidated the connections between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency. In addition to talking about recent successes in his country against drug cartels and insurgents and the way forward, he  addressed parallels to the problems faced in Colombia and those in Afghanistan. Cocaine production and profit by cartels in Colombia are similar to opium and the Taliban in the Southwest Asia nation. “I think there are some things we’ve done in Colombia [successes and failures] that may be of use,” he shared.

Lt. Gen. John Dubia, USA (Ret.) (l), executive vice president of AFCEA International, introduces the “How Do We Promote Public-Private Partnerships to Win the Counter Narco-Trafficking Fight?” panel at SOUTH 2008. Standing behind the table is panel moderator Vice Adm. Tim LaFleur, USN (Ret.), principal, Navy Marine Corps Market at Booz Allen Hamilton. The panelists are (l-r) Stephen Carmel, senior vice president of Maritime Services at Maersk Lines; Ambassador Charles Ford, business engagement adviser to the commander, Headquarters U.S. Southern Command, and former U.S. ambassador to Honduras; Nate Harrison, corporate vice president for security worldwide, UPS; and Rear Adm. Joseph Nimmich, USCG, director,
Joint Interagency Task Force South.  
Jaramillo Caro said he disliked the term counternarcotics because it suggested reaction and stressed that efforts to impede the drug trade must not confuse the symptoms with the disease. “You have to disable the system,” he related. He also explained that the goal is not to destroy the enemy, but to establish a political order. Winning is not the elimination of the enemy, but a demonstration to the populace that the government is in control and making progress. “You have to show them in both counterinsurgency and counternarcotics that you are the ones running the show,” he said. Later he added, “The key thing is not to win in the classic sense … the key thing is to get a kind of dynamic going where time is on your side.” The goal is to get to the tipping point of progress against the foe.

Colombia has achieved critical mass against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and record numbers are abandoning that terrorist group. As citizens begin to feel secure and have trust in the government, they turn away from the insurgents and cartels and begin to assist the government. “The key problem with the drugs is not the coca fields themselves, it’s the people behind them,” the vice minister explained.

To combat those persons, the government in Colombia had to consolidate its efforts and organize its resources into a fusion center. That cooperation has led to a more efficient fight against the cartels. Jaramillo Caro said that international help is important for nations trying to fight drug production within their borders, but aid, whether in South America or Afghanistan, must come in the right form to the right place. If citizens view a good effort from an outside country as a gift from Santa Claus, they will fail to get behind the project because the assistance does not show that their own country is strong, he said. The vice minister mentioned that a free trade agreement with the United States would be a boon for Colombia and its people against drug cartels in the country.

SOUTH 2008 featured two additional speakers—Nicholas Negroponte, the chairman of One Laptop Per Child, who explained the work his nonprofit conducts to spread education and innovation to disadvantaged nations, and Vice Adm. Nancy Brown, USN, the director of command, control, communications and computer systems (J-6) on the Joint Staff. Adm. Brown did not discuss counternarcotics, but instead spoke about the Global Information Grid 2.0 and how it will put the warfighter at the center of communications. Relating it to SOUTHCOM’s work, she shared that network efforts underway will make sharing among services and other partners easier and more efficient. Adm. Brown also mentioned her goal to eliminate the Defense Messaging System and move to a more effective mode of information sharing.

In addition to the six speakers, SOUTH 2008 featured five panels focused on different elements of the counternarcotic effort. The first was “Narco-Trafficking: What is the Nexus with the War on Terror?” The moderator, Vice Adm. Brian Peterman, USCG (Ret.), kicked off the discussion by saying that while others are worried about overstating the possibility of drug trafficking methods being used to smuggle terrorists and their goods, “I don’t think it can be overplayed.”

Panelist Charles Allen, undersecretary for intelligence and analysis at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), spoke about the danger of drugs and cartels. He said that the DHS is aware of the potential for terrorists to employ narcotics transport methods. However, the goal of cartels is to make money from the drug trade and that they do not want to provoke the United States through terrorist activities, he added. Unless they become desperate from lost income, cartels could block and even highlight terrorist efforts in their regions.

Allen disclosed that financial and recruiting operations for Islamic extremist groups are believed to be ongoing within the Americas. He reiterated that interagency and international partnerships are essential for countering drug and insurgent efforts.

Michael Braun, chief of operations, DEA, revealed a stronger link between terrorism and drugs than many at the conference. Of 43 foreign terrorist organizations, 19 are linked to the global drug trade, he said. Besides cartels that operate mainly in the Americas, groups connected with the Middle East also are benefitting from cocaine profits. “We have unequivocal evidence—not intelligence—evidence that that is happening,” Braun explained. He also shared that Hezbollah, Hamas, al-Qaida and Latin American drug organizations all are present today in West Africa. “It’s not in the nation’s best interest to allow that potpourri of world scum to come together,” he stated.

Braun also shared that drug trafficking organizations are more sophisticated than many terrorist groups and should be prevented from mingling with the insurgents anywhere on the globe. Governments should work as hard as possible to drug traffickers and terrorist groups apart “or we will all pay the price,” he concluded.

The final panel of the conference focused on the public-private partnerships necessary to defeat drug traffickers and potential terrorists. Representatives from Maersk Lines, a shipping company, and UPS shared how their companies are reporting oddities and anomalies to authorities who can then investigate. Stephen Carmel, the senior vice president of Maritime Services at Maersk, said employees on ships are like human intelligence collectors in the maritime domain, passing information at no cost to the government. Nate Harrison, the corporate vice president for security worldwide, UPS, said his company is providing information to law enforcement and could do more because of its tracking abilities, but certain actions require new legal protections. He also mentioned that UPS has a duty to respect and protect customers’ privacy and return profits to shareholders while contributing to national security.

The three other panels were titled “The Global Impact: Where is the Unity of Effort to Combat Transnational Threats?,” “How Do We Build Capacity for Joint and Combined Counter Narco-Trafficking Operations?” and “Narco-Trafficking Technology and Innovations: How Do We Counter Emerging Threats to National Security?” The final panel featured remarks on the importance of encouraging thoughts and new ideas to counter drug traffickers, as well as the need for experimentation with the understanding that some projects will fail.

Throughout the conference, many speakers and panelists touched on the same topics, including the lack of discussion of narcotics problems by candidates running for office, the threat posed by semisubmersibles and the need for increased and better partnerships. Several people at the podium highlighted JIATF South as a model of interagency and international cooperation.



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