WASHINGTON – The rapid diversification of crime syndicates in Mexico, Central and South America has pressured U.S. Southern Command’s efforts to combat illicit trafficking of drugs across the nation’s border, top military brass said Tuesday.
“The threat confronting our nation [from the region] is not diminishing,” said Sen. John McCain. “It is increasing in scope.”
Gen. Charles Jacoby, Jr., head of the U.S. Northern Command, and Gen. Douglas Fraser, leader of the Southern Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee to explain how the military hopes to combat threats to the Americas, despite the strategic shift in focus to the Asia-Pacific region.
The Northern Command, a military branch that oversees Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, provides defense support to the Mexican military in securing borders against crime organizations. It partners with the Southern Command, which works with militaries throughout Central America to provide training for counternarcotic efforts, in the region.
Fraser said the interconnected relationships between the regions will force the military command to use its “modest budget and small footprint” in innovative ways. He said the command would provide support through counter-narcotic exercises to local regional militaries. The force will also offer a defense presence on a rotational basis.
“The inability of one country to effectively respond to the intertwined threats of transnational organized crime and illicit trafficking is troubling,” Fraser said.
The general said the emergence of countries unable to curb transnational groups, such as drug cartels, gangs and terrorists groups, presents a threat to the United States.
These organizations have diversified what they smuggle across borders. These include drug precursor chemicals from India, China and Bangladesh; commercial weapons from the United States; human trafficking; and drug payments from the United States, he said.
Crime syndicates have also altered the way they transport cocaine shipments, much of which moves through Central America in some fashion, Fraser said.
He calls organizations with the ability to use “submersible vessels capable of transporting 8-10 metric tons of cocaine in one trip,” an emerging concern.
McCain, R-Ariz., challenged the witnesses on the effictiveness of the forces’ partnerships with law enforcement in the region, particularly in Mexico where 13,000 Mexican citizens were killed as a result of violence.
“Mexican citizens are in a tough fight with a brutal, adaptable enemy,” Jacoby said. “They haven’t blinked. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
He said Northern Command is working closely with the Mexican military to coordinate strategies against the drug gangs. About 18 Mexican citizens are killed for every 100,000 people each year, according to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime study.
Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., pointed to U.S. investment in the building up Colombia’s military and law enforcement over the past two decades as a sign of success against criminal organizations.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said a “troubling, troubling pattern” is emerging around Russian arms sales to “despotic regimes,” such as Venezuela, Cuba, Syria and Nicaragua. Venezuela became the largest importer of Russian arms in the world in 2011, according to the Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., worried the cuts to both commands’ budgets would constrict their ability to fulfill their responsibilities. The Defense Department is expected to cut $65 million from Southern Command’s budget over the next four years.