Written by Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft.
It was an honor returning to South and Central America last week accompanied by my partners on The Interdiction Committee. Throughout the week, we observed our international partners’ capabilities and earnest intent to defeat illicit drug networks that continue to threaten stability and prosperity throughout our Western Hemisphere.
At each of our stops in Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama and El Salvador, we listened to presidents, senior elected officials and military and law enforcement partners to better understand illicit networks’ tactics and pathways each country is working to defeat. Their insight will help shape The Interdiction Committee’s future engagement strategy to enhance hemispheric security by achieving meaningful effects against transnational organized crime networks.
Cartels and gangs throughout Central and South America, as well as Mexico, continue to promote fear, violence, corruption and death as they devastate natural resources and exploit citizens and institutions to move drugs, children and weapons for profit. Americans see the symptoms of these nefarious networks when children flock to our borders to escape violence and the U.S. consumer demand for drugs and the associated societal costs continues to rise.
The success of dismantling illicit drug networks hinges upon international partnerships forged in trust and focused on common goals. We discussed such goals with Colombia’s Minister of Defense Luis Villegas and heard from the newly appointed Presidential Counter Narcotics Advisor Eduardo Diaz regarding Colombia’s National Drug Control Strategy in context with their country’s plans to transition coca territories to other crops while retaining a strong interdiction capability. Our field stops to multiple Colombian counternarcotics task forces highlighted just how committed their military and law enforcement officials are in the fight against narco-trafficking.
In Costa Rica, we met with President Luis Guillermo Solis, Public Security Minister Gustavo Mata and other ministers and agency chiefs. We explored how inter-governmental structures, as well as multi-national partnerships, could be harnessed by the Costa Ricans to advance regional effects against drug trafficking and reduce a climbing national homicide rate.
In Panama, a geographic gateway exploited by maritime drug traffickers from South America, we witnessed their capabilities to counter illicit drug flows. President Juan Carlos Varela engaged with our committee to build on recent successes disrupting narco-trafficking on both sides of the Panama isthmus and to apply counter-network tactics as part of the Panamanian citizen security initiative to dismantle upper echelons of criminal organizations.
We concluded in El Salvador to meet with President Salvador Sanchez Cerén and his ministers of security, justice and National Civil Police. There we learned of his country’s strategy to stem the significant number of extortions and homicides inflicted by gangs that are also paid to protect the drug trafficking routes through the country. We also discussed how bilateral mechanisms such as operational procedures could be effectively leveraged to help coordinate at-sea interdiction response. Seeing Salvadoran National Police and U.S personnel working in tandem from Comalapa to conduct counter-narcotic operations was an added element of inspiration.
We are doing great things to train and foster international partnerships across our militaries and law enforcement communities – these ties are achieving shared success and we should be proud, but not satisfied, with our earned accomplishments.
With this approach, we’ve already seen results. In the past year, interagency and international assets seized or disrupted 191.8 metric tons of cocaine in the Caribbean and the waters bordering South America. This is 21 percent more than the previous year and the most since 2009. In addition, 664 suspected traffickers were detained, a 64 percent increase from the previous year. These partner nations continue to bear witness to the detrimental affects posed by criminal drug networks that all too often operate with impunity as they threaten, extort, manipulate and kill to move products for financial gain. While military and law enforcement officials in these countries are working together to stem the flow of illicit drugs, there are indicators that the problem is getting worse both internationally and within our own borders.
Last week was focused on our international partners, and we transition this week to focus on our domestic partners. I met with the directors of our High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas in Chicago to discuss information sharing and intelligence-driven operations as enablers to strengthen unity of effort across federal, state and local law enforcement.
Although interdicting drugs and prosecuting drug criminals is an essential element to a comprehensive strategy aimed at enhancing security as a foundation for a vibrant and prosperous Western Hemisphere, performing drug seizures alone is not enough.
We must continue to build active partnerships and advance innovative practices to seek and disrupt the very core dependencies that drug trafficking organizations rely on to remain resilient and profitable. Our Nation’s security and prosperity is at stake.