Special Report From Key West, FL: What US Southcom Sees In Belize
Almost 200 years ago, the Monroe Doctrine was put forth by the United States. In simplest terms it stated that all of South, Central and North America should remain under the prevailing influence of the United States, and not the European powers that had colonized it.
The term was used by American leaders as recently as 30 years ago - and while it has fallen out of vogue recently as the Superpower's attention has shifted to the Muslim world, the US remains very interested in the political and security affairs of Central and South America.
And the clearest expression of that is the US Army Southern Command, known as SOUTHCOM. According to its charter, it is responsible for "providing contingency planning, operations, and security cooperation for Central America, South America and the Caribbean." Last week, Janelle Chanona and other Belizean journalists were invited to SOUTHCOM's Joint Inter-Agency Task Force South in Key west Florida.
That's where the US Army tracks drugs moving north to the United States. It's a rare opportunity to see inside a tremendous military machine - and working with Jesse Mendoza from PLUS TV, Janelle put together this report on the US Army's perspective on security risks in our region:
Janelle Chanona Reporting
Colonel Greg Julian - Chief Public Affairs Officer, US Southern Command
"We all have combined security interests, in particular, transnational organized crime that affects all of us. And because we have limited resources, we can combine our resources and have great effect."
"In the Central American underworld, cocaine is king. 95% of the cocaine destined for the United States now passes through this part of the world."
John Murphy - Vice Director, Joint Inter-Agency Task Force South
"Still the primary movement, bulk amounts of cocaine come by the way of the go fast; other means of movement would be by airplane. However, there's also a more insidious way of moving large amounts of cocaine and as you can see behind me here, we have a semi-submersible vessel that can move very large quantities, up to about 8 metric tonnes at a time; very difficult to detect."
Strategically located in Key West Florida, the United States Southern Command's Joint Inter-Agency Task Force South works with 31 Caribbean, Central and South American countries to track the narcotics moving north and the money and weapons heading south...information that ultimately aids its law enforcement partners in the interdiction, apprehension and prosecution of transnational criminals.
And through operations like Operation Martillo, Belizean authorities are helping to drop the hammer on the drug trade. So far, Operation Martillo has netted thousands of tons of cocaine, with a street value in the billions of dollars. It's not everything but it's enough to keep the task force motivated.
"And we don't take credit for all this, let me tell you something, this is the great work between the Central American countries, South American countries, the United States, Mexico, all coming together and working hard against something that's very evil. Last year, this agency alone took down 152 metric tonnes; that's over 30% of all the world took down of cocaine; that's over 60% in the Western Hemisphere. So we think that employing our means and our methods of going as close to the source zone and trying to stop things in bulk is the most efficient means."
"When you wrap your head around the fact that drug dealers are so well funded that they are now able to use nearly undetectable devices like submersibles and submarines, it does beg the question, why just not legalize and regulate cocaine. On that point, the Vice Director's position is clear."
"There's nothing good about legalizing a dangerous drug. Cocaine is made of various components the major components being hydrochloric acid, soda ash, diesel fuel; do you really want your kids more exposed to a product like that, And putting that up their nose, I don't think so. And the corrosive effect that comes with the use cocaine in society, it's been my experience as a law enforcement officer for 20 years, legalizing anything that is dangerous is not a good thing."
The US has deployed marines in both Honduras and Guatemala to support the Task Force's anti-drug operations. And while Belize is not an area of high priority, Murphy says the country must remain vigilant.
"Criminal organizations prey, and they develop primary routes usually for three reasons, it's for geographic location to one's primary route; topography, how can you move the product in and through a country and it is the inability to defend one's self. Belize is situated just to the north of the primary flow. It is not within the primary flow. Right now, you're taking a defensive stance. Keep up with that defensive stance and keep pushing those corrosive effects south of your country."
Col. Greg Julian
"It's important that this is a whole of government effort from all our nations. It's not just a law enforcement effort, but there are other capacities that can be brought to bear to deal with this challenge and by making a whole of government effort, I think we'll have greater impact."
"In the context of ever reducing resources of authorities and the impressive innovation of the criminals, the Joint Inter-Agency Task Force South readily concedes that the best weapons in the war on drugs are strong working relationships with countries like Belize."
From Key West, Florida, I am Janelle Chanona.
The 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report released last week by the US State Department, ranks Belize among the major countries listed for narco-trafficking and money laundering. Belize appeared on the list of major narco-trafficking countries with, among others, Afghanistan, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, and Jamaica,.
The report says, quote, "Belize's overall counter-narcotics efforts suffer deficiencies in intelligence gathering, analysis, and capacity of the judicial sector, in addition to corruption and inadequate political will."
On patrol with the US Southern Command
Belize is considered a main transit point for drugs that make their way to the United States by land, sea and air. In the fight against drug trafficking, the US has established a major anti-drug operation center in Florida and because of its sensitive nature; it is off limits to the public. Last year alone, Operation Martillo organized by the Southern Command, seized a hundred and fifty three metric tons of cocaine. News Five’s Isani Cayetano and representatives from other media houses got a tour of the facility last week which coincided with a huge cocaine bust. Here is his report.
Isani Cayetano, Reporting
The southernmost city in the continental United States, Key West, Florida is a popular tourist destination. Every year in the month of March, a mass migration of thousands converge on the island to party along Duval Street during spring break. Others flock to Monroe County for a little sightseeing, primarily to breeze in on the museum home of Nobel Prize laureate Ernest Hemingway. But, Key West is more than a seemingly endless drive along the Overseas Highway or just another attractive weekend jaunt. It is also the seat of JIATF South. Joint Interagency Task Force South, as it is formally known, is a subordinate of the United States Southern Command.
John Murphy, Vice Director, JIATF South
“JIATF South is the premiere agency for stopping illicit trafficking coming from the source and transit zones, making its way up through Central America, Mexico [and] into the United States. Our job is to stop bad things and bad people from harming the region in the Western Hemisphere, as well as bad people and things heading out globally.”
Located at the farthest reach of the Florida Straits, it is the nerve center of all maritime and aerial anti-drug operations within Central and South America. JIATF South is headquartered at the Naval Air Station Key West, an area off limit to visitors. Its mandate is to circumvent the illegal movement of drugs and weapons, as well as money laundering by forging meaningful relationships with its allies.
Col. Gregg Gillian, Chief Public Affairs Officer, U.S. SouthCom
“Our main objectives are to develop partnerships with the countries in this area and improve regional security.”
Belize, in the context of transnational organized crime, is not only a corridor for the shipment of drugs; it is also a hub for the secondary flow associated with such activities. The residual effects of unsanctioned traffic are widespread corruption, crime and violence.
“If we’re aware of any illicit movement that’s heading up the Central American isthmus towards the country of Belize we do immediately notify law enforcement in Belize to take action.”
To do so, JIATF South employs intelligence to detect, monitor, and handoff suspected drug traffickers to relevant authorities. During our overnight stay in Key West, Operation Martillo, headed by the multi-service agency, led U.S. law enforcement to bring the hammer down on dealers attempting to smuggle thirty-five bales of cocaine into the country.
Col. Gregg Gillian
“We’ve seen a significant impact in the interdiction of illicit traffic, especially through our efforts in Operation Martillo and far greater impact in interdicting the drug trafficking than can be achieved in the distant end of traffic routes, and because of those results we are encouraged to continue our efforts.”
Operation Martillo was launched in mid-January 2012. Participating in the ongoing exercise are a host of countries, including ours. While Belize is strategically positioned in the upward path of the transshipment route, Honduras has emerged as the destination of choice for cocaine suppliers. Eighty percent of all drugs heading north lays over along its coast.
“We do see the highest amounts of flows that are coming from the maritime and air environment coming through Guatemala and Honduras and making its way up to criminal organizations in the country of Mexico and across the southwest border into the United States. There is a direct correlation with the amount of murders within, for example, the country of Honduras. The country of Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world. The country of Honduras has the highest homicide rate for any city in San Pedro Sula of one hundred and sixty-two murders per one hundred thousand. That is also the highest rate in the world and it is dead center in the primary flow of cocaine coming through their country.”
In the most expensive initiative in Latin America since the Cold War, the United States has militarized the war on drugs, spending north of twenty billion dollars in the past ten years. But that is about to change. Sequestration, as it is called, is the result of significant belt-tightening within the defense budget. The work of the United States Southern Command, particularly through JIATF South, has been remarkable over the past fifty years; however, ongoing and future efforts are being threatened by budgetary constraints. These limitations have compelled member states to work closer with each other towards achieving a singular objective.
Col. Gregg Gillian
“We’re working hard to bring together the combined resources of all of our nations and we’ll continue to partner with all of the countries in the Southern Command area of responsibility to improve our capacity to work together, to share our techniques and tactics.”
Traffickers, on the other hand, are equally up to par with innovation by improving on speed and stealth. The past few years have seen the rise of the semi-submersible, or what is known in military parlance as a narco-sub.
“The primary means of movement of bulk amounts of cocaine comes by way of the go-fast. Other means of movement would be through airplanes; however, there’s also a more insidious movement of large amounts of cocaine, as you can see behind me here we have a sem-submersible vessel that can move very large quantities, up to about eight metric tons at a time.”
Since its launch a little over a year ago, approximately one hundred and fifty-three metric tons of cocaine, divided into bales, have been stopped from making shore in the United States as a result of Operation Martillo. Over twenty-six thousand pounds of marijuana and a little over seven million U.S. dollars in dirty money, as well as a few hundred drug runners have also been busted in international waters, all from this Naval Air Station in Key West. Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.