General Douglas M. Fraser, Commander of U.S. Southern Command, spoke with AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis about supporting relief efforts in Chile and Haiti, the fight against illicit trafficking, Iran’s growing ties with Latin America, and weapons modernization in the Andes.
AS/COA: The Americas obviously experienced two massive earthquakes since the beginning of the year, first in Haiti and now in Chile. In each case, what are the top challenges in terms of operational responses from a U.S. perspective?
Gen. Fraser: I think there are a couple things to keep in mind. One is that every situation is different and every situation is unique, so you have to understand the situation as it exists. And getting accurate information early—and comprehensive information—is always a challenge. Our efforts are always focused on supporting the government, wherever the crisis happens. So we look to support the government and work at what they need, when they say they need it. That’s very much what we see happening in Chile.
So it’s really about getting good information early, understanding the extent of the damage that’s there, working to identify the capabilities that are needed within the U.S. government and then get them moving in the direction they need to go as rapidly as possible.
AS/COA: U.S. troops have begun to pull out of Haiti where they’ve been supporting humanitarian efforts. Are there certain areas U.S. forces will cooperate on in the future, whether it be training or in some other capacity?
Gen. Fraser: We will continue to support the overall U.S. government efforts as it works to support the people and government of Haiti. That’s being headed by the U.S. Agency for International Development [USAID]—they’re the lead federal agency. That’s who the Department of Defense and Southern Command have been working with throughout. As the relief effort transitions into recovery and then long-term development, it is USAID, NGOs, and the UN who will help provide that long-term support to the government of Haiti.
Our work will go back to some of the traditional security-cooperation activities that we conduct—medical readiness, training exercises, and support. Haiti does not have a military, so before the earthquake, our efforts were targeted on supporting the coast guard of Haiti. We’ll continue those efforts.
We’ll also bring in what we call New Horizons, an exercise program that draws on engineering capabilities, some medical capability—targeted areas where that the U.S. Embassy and USAID think will best support the needs of the Haitian people. We’re increasing some of those activities because of the extent of the earthquake.
Also—and this was previously scheduled as it’s something that we now routinely do because of the hurricane season in the Caribbean—we’ll ensure there are some ships in the area. These will be handling some medical capabilities around the Caribbean but they’ll always be within a couple-of-days support from Haiti, should there be a hurricane or flooding that’s associated with the rainy season.
AS/COA: Secretary Clinton visited Brazil on March 4 and asked for President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s support in stepping up sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. Do you see Iran’s influence as a threat in Latin America?
Gen. Fraser: Well, I see what Iran and the governments within Latin America are doing, and they are looking for opportunities. In a globalized world, I see it as economic development, political development, and relation-building. And so those are all normal activities that we would expect all governments to engage in. From that aspect, I see that as normal government-to-government, nation-to-nation activity.
My only concern with Iranian activity is their historic relationship with a couple of terrorist organizations, meaning Hamas and Hezbollah, and the fact that both those organizations are resident in one form or another within Latin America and the Caribbean. So it’s just that relationship because of where and how it exists in other parts of the world and just a skepticism of whether or not that relationship translates from the Mid-East into our region. I don’t have any evidence of that. It’s just skepticism.
AS/COA: along those lines, a Spanish judge released a report on March 1 that tied Basque separatists to the FARC. And I was wondering to what degree you see terrorist groups from regions outside the Western Hemisphere as a concern.
Gen. Fraser: The only evidence we have right now is there is a relationship between Hamas, Hezbollah, and their parent organizations—primarily logistics support and financial support. I don’t see any evidence of terrorist activity within Latin America or the Caribbean from outside of the region. The only terrorist activities that we’re focused on right now are the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] in Colombia as well as Sendero Luminoso [Shining Path] in Peru.
AS/COA: Trafficking—whether of narcotics or other illicit materials—continues to be a top security problem in the hemisphere. What are some of the ways that you’re seeing trafficking tactics evolve, what are some of the new challenges, and what tools can be used to fight trafficking?
Gen. Fraser: The illicit trafficking enterprise is a region-wide enterprise and, actually, I would say it’s a global enterprise. It’s well-financed—roughly $320 billion a year is what the current estimates are, enabling traffickers to be fairly nimble.
As we focus on the detection and monitoring in supporting counter-illicit trafficking activities, and we gain some success and capabilities there in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific, we’ve seen the illicit traffickers develop new vessels—these semi-submersible aircrafts—that have a small crew. These aircrafts have a very low signature to the water line—obviously, they’re semi-submersible. They can carry four to 10 tons of cocaine and they can travel up to 5,000 miles. That’s a pretty innovative way to reduce your detection of capabilities in a maritime environment. We find traffickers with go-fast boats, using mass tactics such as sending a lot of boats with smaller loads at the same time. We find them staying closer to the coast and coming ashore in Central America earlier than they would otherwise.
And now, coming on land, we see underground tunnels as people look to cross borders. On the aerial side, we see them not always landing, but flying up, dropping the bundles of cocaine at a drop site—sometimes dropping them in the ocean close to shore, sometimes dropping them on land.
They’re varying their tactics based on what they see the international community doing to counter them. So it continues to be an evolving effort on both sides.
AS/COA: Are there certain tools you’re seeing as successful measures to target and fight those kinds of activities?
Gen. Fraser: It evolves, and so as we get better detection capabilities and coordination capabilities with partner nations and increase capacity, the traffickers are just—again, going back—they used to be spending a lot of time in moving through the maritime environment away from shore, but now they’ve transitioned closer to shore where it’s harder for an international community to intercept them because of territorial waters and national jurisdictions.
It involves coordination between those national jurisdictions. Wherever we find a way to stop a normal practice, they will adjust, and then we need to adjust. It continues to be a tactical fight as we work to counter the traffickers.
AS/COA: I have one last question for you. In the past year, there’s been a lot of discussion about concern over an Andean arms buildup. To what degree do you think it’s a cause for concern and why?
Gen. Fraser: I’m not concerned about it. I see it more as a modernization of fairly old, difficult-to-maintain capability. In almost every case as I look around the region, I see it more as modernization than I do as an arms race.
The only acquisition effort that bothers me is the number of weapons—small arms, AK-103s—Venezuela is purchasing. And my concern is the potential for those weapons getting into the hands of terrorist organizations and illicit trafficking organizations. There’s in the tens of thousands of AK-103s that have been purchased, and moreover, that they will be able to produce as part of a factory they’re developing. That’s my biggest concern: the potential proliferation of those weapons. I haven’t seen any of that to date, but there is a big potential.