Defense Media Network


With an area of responsibility (AOR) encompassing 31 countries and 15 areas of special sovereignty – a region representing about one-sixth of the world landmass assigned to the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) regional unified commands – the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) has a mission profile matched to the conditions underlying the region’s unique security challenges.

The predominance of organized criminal groups, engaged in the trafficking of illegal drugs and other contraband, is a problem aggravated by poverty, income inequality, and feelings of disenfranchisement among many in Latin America and the Caribbean. These conditions present security challenges whose impacts and outcomes are shared among all nations in the AOR, and transcend the charters of individual U.S. departments and agencies. As a result, each of the command’s missions is carried out not only in partnership with the militaries of international partners, but also with representatives from literally dozens of civilian government agencies, private-sector organizations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Transnational organized crime (TOC) is a growing threat. Financed largely through the trafficking of illegal drugs into North America, these criminal organizations grow wealthier and more powerful with each successful delivery.

SOUTHCOM’s primary mission areas include:


Countering Transnational Organized Crime

In the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, transnational organized crime (TOC) is a growing threat. Financed largely through the trafficking of illegal drugs into North America, these criminal organizations grow wealthier and more powerful with each successful delivery.

Joint Task Force-Bravo (JTF-Bravo)

Master Sgt. Steven Fadden, deployed to Joint Task Force-Bravo (JTF-Bravo), hands out ice-pops to children during a Chapel Hike, June 28, 2013. More than 100 volunteers from JTF-Bravo delivered 120 bags of groceries and supplies to 86 families in the La Villa de Amatillo, Honduras, community during the bi-monthly Chapel Hike. U.S. Department of Defense photo by Staff Sgt. Jarrod Chavana

SOUTHCOM plays an important supporting role in the international and interagency effort to counter TOC networks. Its primary focus is on strengthening the partnerships that foster regional security, with the assumption that the greater a nation’s ability to fight these criminal groups at home, the less likely the organizations are to become expeditionary. SOUTHCOM’s efforts in strengthening regional security are a natural fit with the White House’s Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime, as well as with the goals of two key regional partnerships: the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI).

“Support” is the key SOUTHCOM role in countering TOC networks; the command is focused particularly on strengthening the security of partners in Central America. While other U.S. agencies foster commitment to, and investment in, building the institutional capacities of judicial, law enforcement, and social organizations, SOUTHCOM personnel provide partners with training, support, nonlethal equipment, information-sharing, and TOC network analysis. A recent effort has been the deployment of the Whole-of-Society Information Sharing for Regional Display (WISRD) program, a geospatial mapping application that allows partner organizations to visualize a range of variables in the TOC environment, such as locations of go-fast boat interdictions; neighborhoods with high rates of illiteracy or dissatisfaction with government; or the predominance of other social factors often exploited by criminal organizations. The WISRD environment offers a more holistic understanding of TOC activities, and supports the development of strategies to combat the complex and fluid problems inherent in transnational organized crime.

One of SOUTHCOM’s most significant strategic partnerships in countering TOC is the Colombian Strategic Development Initiative (CSDI), a model for integrated collaboration that aligns U.S. government support to Colombia with the Colombian government’s own effort to expand its presence and services in targeted areas where poverty, violence, illegal crop cultivation, and drug trafficking are known to be persistent.

In addition to its predominantly supporting role in countering TOC, the DoD leads one major program element: the detection and monitoring of aerial and maritime illegal drug transits toward the United States. These trafficking routes concern the United States and its regional partners for several reasons, the most obvious of which is the high social cost of the illegal drug trade. The routes are the primary means by which criminal organizations enrich and strengthen themselves, and U.S. officials also are increasingly concerned about the phenomenon of “convergence” – the potential for terrorist and criminal groups to collude along trafficking routes in order to clandestinely move people, cash, guns, or perhaps even a weapon of mass destruction. As SOUTHCOM Commander Gen. John F. Kelly, USMC, has pointed out, Iran has made a concerted attempt, in recent years, to increase its influence in South and Central America – and while there’s no evidence that Iran is sponsoring terrorism in Latin America, it is a known sponsor of terrorism in other parts of the world. This fact, along with the knowledge that terrorist organizations often use illegal drug profits to fund their activities, has led to heightened concerns about the nexus of terrorist organizations and Latin America’s sophisticated, well-financed criminal networks.

For these reasons, the interdiction of drug trafficking is a primary focus for SOUTHCOM and its partners. The Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF-South), headquartered in Key West, Fla., is responsible for detecting and monitoring suspected aerial and maritime drug trafficking in the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and eastern Pacific Ocean, and also supports the integration and synchronization of counter-drug operations among regional partners. JIATF-South also collects, processes, and disseminates counter-drug information, including WISRD data, for interagency and partner-nation operations.

In areas with a history of illicit trafficking, aerial surveillance is conducted by U.S. military, interagency (i.e., Department of Homeland Security [DHS] agencies such as the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection, or CBP), and partner-nation aircraft located throughout the AOR and at two Cooperative Security Locations in Comalapa, El Salvador, and Aruba-Curaçao, in the former Netherlands Antilles.

Maritime surveillance in the Caribbean and Central American transit zones is conducted by surface assets of the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and partner nations (the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, France, Canada, and Colombia). Embarked on U.S. ships – and at times on the naval vessels of allied partners – are Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachments (LEDETs), who have legal authority to board suspected vessels, seize illegal drugs, and take suspects into custody.

The reason for SOUTHCOM’s focus on Central American security is clear: 80 percent of illicit trafficking is conducted by sea, and the vast majority of that travels along the coasts of the Central American isthmus and up the Mexican coasts to the United States. To concentrate its assets on these routes, SOUTHCOM and its partners launched Operation Martillo (Spanish for “hammer”) – a U.S., European, and Western Hemisphere initiative to target the Central American littorals – in January 2012. JIATF-South is the lead for U.S. military participation in Operation Martillo.

Since its Jan. 15, 2012 launch, Operation Martillo has enabled 365 military and law enforcement disruptions by participating nations, resulting in the seizure of 242 metric tons of cocaine, 53,512 pounds of marijuana, and 4,000 grams of heroin; the detention of 551 international criminal suspects; the recovery of $10.7 million in bulk cash; and the seizure or destruction of 171 conveyances, including speedboats, fishing vessels, aircraft, pangas, and difficult-to-detect self-propelled semi-submersibles (SPSSs). According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s estimate, based on the wholesale Miami price, the value of the cocaine so far interdicted through Operation Martillo is nearly $4.9 billion.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...