Gen. Douglas M. Fraser is commander, U.S. Southern Command, Miami, Fla. A joint command comprising more than 1,200 military and civilian personnel representing the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and several other federal agencies, SOUTHCOM is responsible for all Department of Defense security cooperation in the 45 nations and territories of Central and South America and the Caribbean Sea, an area of 16 million square miles.
Prior to his current assignment, Fraser was deputy commander, U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii. Fraser’s operational assignments include Europe, the Pacific, Air Combat Command, and Air Force Space Command. He has previously served as commander, Space Warfare Center, Schriever Air Force Base (AFB), Colo.; commander, Alaskan Command, U.S. Pacific Command; commander, 11th Air Force, Pacific Air Forces; and commander, Alaskan North American Defense Region, with headquarters at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska.
The general is a command pilot with more than 2,700 flying hours, primarily in the F-15A/B/C/D, F-15E, and the F-16. He recently sat down with Defense senior writer John D. Gresham to discuss SOUTHCOM’s growing importance to U.S. defense.
John D. Gresham: Each of the regional theater commanders like yourself has a unique view of their own area of responsibility (AOR). What is it that you see as the unique features in your AOR here in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico?
Gen. Douglas M. Fraser: We tend to think of it as a homogenous region, meaning a Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking region, and a lot of times we forget the Portuguese piece of that. And because there’s a common or similar language, we tend to see the viewpoints of all the inhabitants in the AOR as similar. And I’ll tell you – it’s a very diverse region.
There has been a good trend here in the last 10 years. Latin America has weathered the worldwide economic downturn in a pretty robust fashion. Last year they had a 4.3 percent [growth in] GDP, which is pretty significant. In addition, I don’t see a conventional external military threat to the region today. I really don’t see a state-on-state military concern in the region. There are disputes and there are differences. But the region has largely determined and addressed those in international forums and in diplomatic fashions, rather than military means. So that’s a good thing.
But the other part of it is there is a tight connection between the U.S and Latin America. The United States is the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. The fastest- growing ethnic segment of the U.S. is Hispanic, so that fully one-third of our nation is going to be Hispanic in the next 40 years. That will have a dynamic change for us. There’s a lot of money that goes back into the region from Latin America workers in the U.S. There’s a lot of trade that happens. And we have very close cultural historic ties with the region. So that all influences how we engage here at SOUTHCOM.
And the one last thing I’ll put in, especially in the Caribbean, is that Latin America is very prone to natural disasters. Hurricanes, we know, will impact the region every year. In fact, today [June 1] is the official start of the 2012 hurricane season. But also earthquakes, volcanoes, a lot of potential for natural disaster, are unexpected events we’re always prepared to support.
In your mind, has Latin America become the first, or the one part of the world that’s actually embraced the promise of the post-Cold War world, evolving into a region of relative peace and prosperity?
I think from a routine military standpoint and the threat of a conventional military conflict, yes, it has, at least today. As I said, there isn’t a threat of a conventional military conflict to the region. One reason is that they have a lot of differing forums that give them the opportunity within the region to have a regular and positive diplomatic and governmental discourse.
That said, there are still issues and concerns here. There are non-traditional issues as you look at it from a military standpoint. And the area that I’m most concerned about is transnational organized crime [TOC]. TOC is impacting most in Central America right now, evidenced by the current rates of violence, but violence is not necessarily directly associated in all cases with transnational criminal organizations. Gangs have a role to play in violence also, and in some cases are more violent than the TOC organizations. Also there are internal disputes that people in the AOR have – and are causing violence.