Written by Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft
Transnational organized crime is a 750 billion dollar enterprise. Motivated by profit, criminal organizations drive widespread instability in South and Central America as they exploit vulnerable populations by trafficking drugs, children, bulk cash and weapons. Responding to the United States’ insatiable demand for illicit drugs, criminal organizations are the source for many of the challenges we see along our southwest and maritime borders, to include increased drug and immigration flows.
As Commandant of the Coast Guard, I also chair The Interdiction Committee, an interagency coalition dedicated to disrupting these illicit networks, specifically through efforts in the Western Hemisphere transit zones. Last week, the committee engaged senior officials and military leaders from Ecuador, Colombia and Panama as we continued our work to advance the partnerships that ultimately promote regional security and prosperity.
In Ecuador, we held the first U.S. government meeting with José Serrano Salgado, president of the National Assembly. We discussed challenges associated with increased drug flow across the Andean region, to include coca cultivation, production and shipment. The U.S. and Ecuador have enjoyed diplomatic relationships for nearly two centuries, and The Interdiction Committee is proud to continue this tradition. As we solidify our collective resolve to dismantle transnational criminal organizations (TCO), the Coast Guard stands ready to partner with President Moreno and the Government of Ecuador to identify opportunities for combined multilateral operations.
Colombia, Ecuador’s neighbor to the northeast, is another strong partner in the fight to dismantle TCOs. One of the founding members of the Multilateral Maritime Counter Drug Summit, Colombia works with the Coast Guard and 60 international agencies from more than 35 countries to deter, detect and disrupt criminal networks. As Colombia transitions to life after its historic peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), installing legitimate economies will be critical to stem coca cultivation, stave off TCOs and support long-term security and prosperity. Speaking with Colombian Vice President Óscar Naranjo, we conveyed our commitment to Colombia and its campaign, which calls for a whole-of-government approach to countering narcotics and fostering regional stability. Vice President Naranjo, the former director of the Colombia National Police, is the perfect person to lead this effort.
In Panama, our high-level security dialogue built upon a June meeting between President Donald Trump and Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela. Panama is a firewall for the U.S. against drugs and migrants and regional leader in biometrics collection. In 2016, Panamanian Forces supporting Joint Interagency Task Force-South accounted for the largest number of interdictions by a partner nation, removing more than 18 metric tons of cocaine. Despite these successes, Panama remains a primary maritime transit point for illicit contraband departing South America on its way to the U.S. Going forward, we will work with President Varela and our U.S. country team to expand information sharing and multilateral operations.
The Interdiction Committee’s engagements in Ecuador, Colombia and Panama demonstrated the unity of U.S. Government and international efforts as we advance regional partnerships to counter drug trafficking networks. Dismantling TCOs is only part of the problem. As a nation, we need to address the public health epidemic that is our drug use, as TCOs have great incentive to produce and deliver their illicit drugs to the myriad users looking for them. In the interim, The Interdiction Committee and Coast Guard’s balanced and networked approach will help promote security and prosperity of partner nations, the United States, and the Western Hemisphere.