All Is not Quiet on the Southern Front

September 15, 2008
by Robert K. Ackerman
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The Monroe Doctrine of ensuring Western Hemisphere security by keeping out nonregional powers has given way to a more complex activity that combines humanitarian and military operations with partnerships among various governmental agencies across national borders. The number of groups and international partners is almost as great as the variety of challenges facing the many nations composing North America and South America.

The U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) is tasked with maintaining security throughout 45 countries and territories—every country south of the United States except Mexico, with which the United States has a cooperative relationship through the U.S. Northern Command. The United States is tied closely with the economies of these SOUTHCOM nations. About 40 percent of U.S. trade runs north and south within the Western Hemisphere, and the United States has strong military relationships with many of these nations.

“This is not America’s backyard,” says Adm. James G. Stavridis, USN, SOUTHCOM’s commander. “It is a home that we share together, and it is very clear that the United States needs to be very deeply involved.”

Adm. Stavridis describes this era as “a golden time in the Americas politically.” With the lone exception of Cuba, every country in the hemisphere is a democracy, although some of those countries have been displaying some hostility toward the United States. The admiral expresses concern about the potential for the region to drift away from the United States politically.

Yet terrorism is a major challenge. In Colombia alone, more than 9,000 armed terrorists continue to threaten to overthrow the government by virtually any means of terror at their disposal. Their organization, known by its Spanish acronym FARC, has suffered setbacks recently with Colombia’s rescue of key hostages and the deaths of major FARC leaders. Peru still is plagued by the Maoist Shining Path movement, although it has not yet returned to its peak levels of a few years ago when a Peruvian government crackdown diminished its influence considerably.

And Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terror group that traces its origins to Iran, also has a presence in the Western Hemisphere. Adm. Stavridis states that elements of Hezbollah are established in the region, and Iran is expanding its diplomatic presence throughout the area. “I see more and more Iranian activity and linkages between Iran—an internationally known state sponsor of terrorism—and nations in the region, and that concerns me a great deal,” he says.

Cocaine is another threat to U.S. security. Adm. Stavridis cites 7,000 deaths in the United States each year from cocaine that enters the country from the Andean ridge, and the negative effects of that cocaine traffic are felt throughout the hemisphere. Narco-trafficking is undermining democracy and creating corruption in governments throughout Latin America. Many of these organized drug cartels are driving forces behind the high crime rate that plagues these nations, and they are joined by smaller gangs that engage in a number of profitable criminal activities.

And above all, poverty is the common link in many of these challenges. About 40 percent of the people living in SOUTHCOM’s area of responsibility live on less than $2 a day, and the terrorist and criminal activities both appeal to some poor and inhibit their economic growth.

Meeting these challenges will require more than just military activities, the admiral posits. Solutions will require working with international partners and nonmilitary U.S. governmental organizations. So SOUTHCOM is adapting to support interagency activities, he says.

But the command also has its technology wish list. High on the admiral’s list are persistent long-dwell sensors that can help find fleeting targets moving through the region, particularly cocaine smugglers. He says the command’s current sensors, though effective, are not as effective as they need to be to combat the flow of drugs. Only about 25 percent to 30 percent of the cocaine flowing to the United States is interdicted, and smugglers continue to refine their techniques and technologies.

For example, smugglers increasingly are using semi-submersibles to move large amounts of cocaine by sea. These vessels are not submarines, but they move low along the surface and are camouflaged to blend in with the sea. They can carry as much as 10 tons of cocaine. Their diesel propulsion systems are noisy, so acoustic sensors might help find the nearly invisible craft, Adm. Stavridis offers.

The admiral also cites the need for more effective intelligence sharing. He wants systems that can differentiate between various levels of classified information so that he can parse which information can be shared with which participant. “We need information sharing and information distribution systems that allow us to share between our own interagency partners and, most importantly, our international partners,” he emphasizes.

Better medical technology will be important for SOUTHCOM’s missions of medical diplomacy, the admiral continues. Many of the command’s humanitarian missions are repetitive and consistent, and it can use inexpensive telemedicine units that can be left in small villages so that SOUTHCOM experts can help provide long-distance diagnoses and advice.

Disaster relief is another key mission. The past month alone has seen several devastating tropical storms ravage the Caribbean, including powerful hurricanes Gustav and Ike. The admiral calls for “a clinic in a box” that can be set up in a disaster area, along with solar-powered systems that can support an operations center and provide field communications and medical equipment when local electricity is out.

Among the good trends developing in SOUTHCOM’s area of operations is a growing awareness among international partners of the need to work together on many of the transnational threats challenging the region, particularly narcotics smuggling. Adm. Stavridis cites “a consistent vision throughout the region that narcotics are the fuel of misery in this vehicle careening down the highway.” Cutting off that fuel will help solve many of the problems plaguing the region, he says.

However, many of the negative aspects are expanding their reach across traditional borders—both geopolitical and functional. Terrorist groups are operating across national lines, and many of them are joining forces with narcotics smugglers for profit. This requires greater involvement by and cooperation among multiple government agencies.


AFCEA International and the U.S. Southern Command are presenting “South 2008—Drugs and the Americas: What Are the Challenges and the Global Impact?” October 7-9 at the Miami Mart Airport Hotel, Miami, Florida.

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