Coast Guardsmen stationed on the Cutter Sherman from Honolulu search a suspected drug smuggling vessel following a three-hour chase 270 miles south of Guatemala in the Eastern Pacific Ocean on July 27, 2016. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Capt. Aaron Moshier)

SOUTHCOM: ‘Layered Defense’ Needed on Ocean, Land Smuggling Routes as Threats Mount

A SOUTHCOM official stressed the importance of “real-world training” for partners throughout the Caribbean and Latin America in “countering illicit financial flows, the employment of biometrics, intelligence fusion, open-source analysis, border security, and maritime interdiction” as drugs, gangs and potentially terrorists explore all routes to the United States.

The end result of comprehensive training is “capable partners who can do more with us and with each other in a layered defense to stop threats against our homeland and our shared home,” Rear Adm. Brian Hendrickson, director of U.S. Southern Command’s Network Engagement Team, told the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere Subcommittee last week at a hearing on transnational criminal threats.

Chairman Paul Cook (R-Calif.) noted crimefighting partnerships such as the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative and  border security task forces to “strengthen regional border security capacity, military and law enforcement tools to monitor and interdict contraband headed to the United States,” coupled with “various sanctions regimes such as those targeting transnational criminal organizations, drug kingpins and terrorists.”

“Yet, with all these efforts, we’ve seen that the arrests of drug kingpins and fragmentation of the large criminal organizations have led to the emergence of newer, smaller, criminal groups in the region,” Cook added.

Hendrickson acknowledged that “every day our southern approaches are under assault by criminal networks whose smuggling operations reach across Latin America and the Caribbean and deep into the United States.”

“These groups exploit every land, sea, and air border to traffic drugs, people, weapons, and other illicit goods throughout the Western Hemisphere and beyond. The corrosive activities pose a threat to the stability of our partners and to our national security,” he said. “It is no coincidence that some of the most violent places on this planet are located right here in our hemisphere. They’re home to the criminal networks like MS-13, the Sinaloa Cartel and others. While our partners bear the brunt of this violence, these networks and many others have a significant footprint in the United States. ”

The admiral also noted regional networks that “specialize in smuggling illegal immigrants from places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, all places where terrorist organizations like al-Shabaab, ISIS, al-Qaeda and their affiliates operate.”

“Now, migrant smuggling is not uncommon. What makes these networks different is the type of people who enlist their services to attempt to enter the U.S. homeland undetected,” he added. “Some of these people have ties to terrorism and some have intentions to conduct attacks in the homeland. It is unclear if these attack plans are at the explicit direction of a terrorist organization or self-inspired.”

“But that intent and the regional vulnerabilities these networks exploit is deeply concerning. Stopping these threat networks is truly a team effort. It involves the FBI, HSI, the Departments of Defense and State and partners like Panama, Costa Rica, Brazil, Colombia and many others. In addition to our collective U.S. governmental efforts to target criminal networks, U.S. Southern Command, INL, DHS, Treasury and others also build the capacity of vetted police and military units throughout the region.”

Hendrickson emphasized that “it takes a network to defeat a network,” and added “this is a governance problem, a public health and safety problem, and above all a national security problem, because as our awareness and understanding grows, we learn that more and more of these networks are being leveraged by those who seek to do us harm and those who seek to do our partners harm.”

The commander of U.S. Southern Command, Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, stressed to Congress in February that “sustained forward presence at sea” is “essential to stemming the flow of drugs towards our borders,” and expressed “strong support” for investments in recapitalizing the U.S. Coast Guard fleet because without the cutters SOUTHCOM “would have virtually no afloat maritime forces.”

Hendrickson resubmitted Tidd’s full testimony to the committee, stating how succinctly it conveyed SOUTHCOM’s concerns and priorities.

Raymond Villanueva, assistant director for international operations at Homeland Security Investigations, told lawmakers that as of this May HSI “maintains more than 130 open investigations targeting MS-13 members and their criminal organizations globally by working with our law enforcement partners including those in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.”

“While combating TCOs domestically, thus protecting Americans from harm, violence, and TCO exploitation, HSI continues to push the borders out by capitalizing on our international partnerships with foreign law enforcement officials,” he said.

Ranking Member Albio Sires (D-N.J.) lamented that, with all of the threats originating so close to home, there wasn’t enough focus in Washington on protecting the Western Hemisphere.

“Unfortunately, we just don’t seem too focused,” he said. “I asked the secretary of State this morning, something that I am very concerned with: You have the ayatollah promoting this revolution throughout the world, in the Western Hemisphere, you never had cultural centers. So, the ayatollah seems to be funding these ‘cultural centers’ now throughout all these countries. There are over 100 of them. We have to focus on that because they’re not there to promote culture.”

“You have Nicaragua. You have Russia wants to build a base in Nicaragua, with all the buying tanks and so forth. I mean, when we overlook some of these areas in our backyard, somebody fills the gap,” Sires added. “I know China is doling out money all over the place. I met with one of the presidents. I go to Colombia because I work with some people there, raising money for an orphanage. And I met with the president in one of the colleges. He told me that the second most studied language in Colombia today is Mandarin. Obviously, English is the first one. But, I mean, that is pretty high up there. We talked to the president of Peru. They tell you the same thing.”

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) asked how the United States can help other countries in the region prevent their crises or instability from “benefiting international criminal organizations.”

Hendrickson replied that “continued assistance to Colombia, especially Colombia since it neighbors Venezuela, is crucial,” focusing on mostly cocaine or coca cultivation and cocaine production and “giving the ability and greater ability to the Colombian National Police and the Colombian military to eradicate coca and to interdict those drugs that are moving across borders and coming out of Colombia whether it be to Europe or more importantly to the United States.”

Hendrickson assured lawmakers that Mexico is “actually quite involved” in interdiction on Pacific Ocean smuggling routes.

“We hosted at Southern Command earlier this year a meeting that had the head of the Mexican Navy, the head of the Colombian Navy, our own commandant on the Coast Guard, the Northern Command commander and the Southern Command commander, and all of that discussion was about the eastern Pacific and how we better utilize every one’s assets,” he said.

A recent operation led by the Colombians and the Mexicans, the admiral said, underscores how “the better we can get in improving the efficiency and trust in our communications, the more opportunity we have to leverage each other’s strengths — and we all recognize that that’s something necessary.”

“So, I will tell you that was the first time we’ve had this kind of meeting with those partners, but everyone is actively engaged and they understand collectively how big of a problem that is.”

Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera and SiriusXM.

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