JINSA Group Visits U.S. Southern Command and the Joint Interagency Task Force South

[Ed. Note: since the JINSA program in March three events have occurred that affect the command mission:
1. The U.S. Navy has re-established the 4th Fleet (May 2008)
2. The Colombia Free Trade Agreement was defeated in Congress
3. 15 hostages including three American citizens held by the FARC were rescued in a daring operation in Colombia.]

[Ed. Note: since the JINSA program in March three events have occurred that affect the command mission:
1. The U.S. Navy has re-established the 4th Fleet (May 2008)
2. The Colombia Free Trade Agreement was defeated in Congress
3. 15 hostages including three American citizens held by the FARC were rescued in a daring operation in Colombia.]

While the U.S. Government has expended enormous political, economic and military assets on the Middle East and Asia, benign neglect of South and Central America and the Caribbean could find America losing her neighbors economically to China and India, and politically to nations such as Iran that have aligned with Cuba and Venezuela. A March 2008 JINSA visit to the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) located near Miami and Joint-Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S) in Key West focused on the issues, challenges, successes and failures of U.S. foreign policy. The program was organized and led by Admiral Leon “Bud” Edney, USN (ret.), a member of JINSA’s Board of Advisors.

SOUTHCOM, with a focus on all territory south of the U.S. border excepting Mexico, is comprised of military and civilian personnel representing all four services of the armed forces including the U.S. Special Operations Command, the Coast Guard and a range of federal agencies. SOUTHCOM manages 25 security cooperation offices in host nations. It is also composed of the Joint Task Force BRAVO in Honduras; the Joint Interagency Task Force South or JLATF-S in Key West, Florida; and oversees transparent operations at Guantanamo.

The visit focused on SOUTHCOM’s theater strategy, particularly in the areas of Cuba after Castro, Venezuela and the success of Colombia-U.S. cooperation in combating drug trafficking and terrorist money laundering. It also covered the stability of democratic governments in Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean with an eye on India’s and China’s quickly growing economic interests in the hemisphere, and Iran’s aggressive outreach and diplomatic presence in the region.

The program opened with a welcome and detailed briefing by SOUTHCOM Commander Admiral James G. Stavridis, USN. He stated that even though the United States is the region’s top trading partner in exported goods, America continues to concentrate on Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Stavridis emphasized that the Monroe Doctrine is washed away, that South America must no longer be referred to as the America’s “backyard,” and that new attitudes, ideas and actions are required for growing partnerships in South America. This includes recognizing Brazil as an emerging superpower, recognizing South America’s profound diversity and demographic link with the U.S. Latino population of 15 percent, as well as common roots in European culture and religion. Furthermore, while the United States spends $2.5 billion weekly in Iraq, the Southern Command receives $1 billion dollars annually.

SOUTHCOM is combating security and criminal challenges that threaten to undermine the democratic stability of the continent including narco-terrorism, 21st century gangs, illicit trafficking (primarily but not exclusively cocaine), money laundering, mass migration, as well as cooperation between homegrown and international terrorists and the triangle of cooperation between such groups and governments in the region friendly to them. “We continue to be very concerned about [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah in South and Latin America. I am worried about narco-terrorism and routes into the United States,” Stavridis stated. “These terrorists are partially financed through the proceeds of drug trafficking. SOUTHCOM is tracking the areas where terrorist organizations operate, focusing on the Tri-Border Area of southern Brazil, northeastern Argentina, and Paraguay, as well as northern South America.”

Fuel for Misery

Admiral Stavridis reviewed statistics involving cocaine, the “fuel for misery” for the people of Latin America, as well as a primary revenue source for criminal and terror activity. In 2007 alone, SOUTHCOM prevented more than 250,000 kilograms of cocaine from reaching the United States.

A new tactic smugglers created to transport drugs, but has also since been adopted for human trafficking to the United States are semi-submersible vessels. These cost about $500,000 to manufacture and are extremely difficult to detect in open waters. They are built in the Colombian jungle under the tree canopy and ferried down river to the ocean. A daily reminder of this is the small, aqua-colored semi-submersible displayed in front of SOUTHCOM’s headquarters.

The JINSA group received several other detailed briefings on various aspects of SOUTHCOM’s activities, closing the day with Deputy Commander Lieutenant General Glenn Spears, USAF. Spears stressed the importance of working cooperatively with partner nations while respecting their sovereignty. This is a sensitive topic due to past American interventions in South America, primarily in the 1970s and the misconception that the United States looks out for itself over the interests of others. Therefore, SOUTHCOM functions as an inter-agency organization, cooperating with the private sector, the government and NGOs.

SOUTHCOM must be more innovative than its adversaries, Spears stressed. Recently launched broad-based actions involve cultural initiatives, non-combat military communications channels, and public-private partnerships such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief including the construction of warehouses to stockpile relief aid in advance, building emergency operation centers, establishing small medical clinics and conducting training for firefighters, medical first responders, and warehouse management operations. Furthermore, the program includes the building and renovating of schools, the provision of free or low-cost medical services and the establishment of a dedicated Human Rights Division. Ongoing economic stimulus programs include the provision of grants and loans to local entrepreneurs and contracts to local businesses to service SOUTHCOM’s in-country operations.

Another challenge facing SOUTHCOM is to disseminate the news of its successes. For example, while Cuba and Venezuela receive vast press coverage when they promote free medical care, the press ignores similar U.S. efforts. There is some good news, however. Spears especially praised Colombia’s efforts in combating terrorists and drug traffickers. He expressed hope that Congress would pass the free-trade agreement with Colombia to send a message to the Colombian people that America is a staunch ally.

Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S)

Led by Coast Guard Rear Admiral Joseph Nimmich, the JIATF-S mission is to concentrate on illicit air and sea traffic within the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern Pacific as well as provide the arena for international cooperation on areas of security and foreign policy with a staff composed of U.S. military, law enforcement and civilian personnel. JIATF-S oversees interagency integration (nationally and internationally) between agencies dealing with drug trafficking, immigration and security and multinational cooperation. JIATF-S includes military or police officers from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, El Salvador, France, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, the UK, and Spain.

JIATF-S focuses on the planning and execution of operations to interdict narcotics smuggling and human trafficking as well as terrorist-related activities. It is estimated that $45 billion a year flows from the United States to South and Central America through criminal activity. JIATF-S seeks to also provide and enhance military cooperation with South America except for Venezuela (Chavez severed these relations). The task force is engaged in building “partner-nation capabilities” so that these smaller countries can handle their own problems. This initiative includes partnering academic institutions such as the Inter-American Defense College, Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation and the Center of Hemisphere Defense Studies. Since only seven percent of those serving in the Department of Defense speak a foreign language.

Bolstering relations with Colombia

JINSA members had the opportunity to interact with JIATF-S liaisons including the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Department of Defense, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and other federal offices about migration from Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, as well as drug trafficking from the Caribbean and Pacific theaters

Area Overview

The JINSA group was informed that this used to be “our” region economically, but now we are sharing it with China. It is currently believed that China’s short-term goal is to obtain national resources, and by 2050 Beijing’s goal is to become the “partner of choice” for Latin American countries. China is already heavily invested and this generates foreign policy in a variety of ways. For example, in 2007 three South American countries changed their positions on Taiwan and no longer recognize it as an independent nation. An increase in Chinese regional military aid to $14 million per year (mostly non-lethal), training and intelligence sharing and a marked increase in South and Central American delegations hosted in China. In general, arms sales are up in the region but the percentage is small compared to global arms sales. Russia is the dominant supplier. Venezuela has started to buy offensive weapons that are of concern to Colombia and Brazil.

Regionally, support for democracy and market economies is stagnant, not because of ideology but depressed markets. In the last seven years, U.S. popularity has gone down, especially in the Southern Cone (the geographic region composed of the southernmost areas of South America, below the Tropic of Capricorn) mainly because of the widespread belief that the U.S. Government has forgotten about them.


The Tri-Border Area, the north of Venezuela including Margarita Island, Trinidad and Tobago and the Brazil’s west are showing signs of becoming key centers of terrorist activity. Throughout the region, home grown Islamic terrorist groups (both Sunni and Shia) as well as other organizations like FARC and Hezbollah, cooperate through front companies and engage in money laundering. Al Qaeda is established in the region, although there is no proof of training camps in Venezuela as has been alleged. The nexus between terror and crime includes recruiting, fundraising, communication fraud, arms trafficking, document forging, money laundering, alien smuggling, and building support networks. South American gangs generate revenue through the provision of fraudulent documents and alien smuggling into the United States and other countries.

Iran is creating unease. In 2006, the government in Tehran was the source of $9 million in direct investments in Venezuela versus $15.8 million from the United States. There are currently nine Iranian embassies in the region. Iran maintains weekly flights between Tehran and Caracas via Damascus. Visas are not required and there is no current information as to whether these flights are full. Another area of interest are the old and well-established Muslim communities of South America. These primarily Lebanese communities exist mainly in free-trade zones. Extremist Islamists from outside the region have begun to infiltrate into these communities.

Venezuela Threats and Challenges

Democracy has eroded in Venezuela under President Hugo Chavez. His desire to be a global anti-U.S. player has led to provocative arms purchases, the creation of a large civilian reserve force and military assistance to regional allies like Bolivia. Official Venezuelan citizenship documents are readily available to entities hostile to the United States.

The Venezuelan military has been co-opted with political allegiance required to secure promotions. Arms acquisitions from Russia include Su-30 Flanker fighters, attack helicopters, surface-to-air missiles, and submarines. Russia was also granted authority to open an ammunition factory in Venezuela. Venezuela buys the big items primarily for show; U.S. intelligence believes the Venezuelan military lacks the capability to use them at this time.

Venezuela is the world’s sixth largest oil exporter and the United States fourth largest supplier. Sixty percent of Venezuela’s oil is exported to the U.S., providing 12 percent of America’s energy supply.

Chavez has reached out to Iran, Russia, China, Syria and North Korea that could provide easy transit for terrorists. Under his direction, the price of Venezuelan oil is subsidized for sale to Caribbean countries through the Petrocaribe organization. Furthermore, Chavez lavishes oil profits on a broad charitable program targeting the poor countries of the region.


President Alvaro Uribe is considered to be America’s best friend in the region. Since his election both democratic and economic institutions have increased dramatically. Today, the economy of Colombia is as large as all of Central America. Colombia has border issues with Venezuela over trafficking in persons and until recently providing a haven for FARC terrorists.

The recent defeat in Congress of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade pact was a great blow to the expanding the U.S.-Colombia partnership and undermined the message to the region that the United States is a trustworthy ally.


Fidel Castro oversaw a masterful transfer of power to his brother Raul, and there will be little change while Fidel is still alive. Opposition groups remain ineffective. Any time there is an increase of Cuban immigration to the United States, it is considered a sign that the people are getting uneasy over the sputtering economy. In response, Raul Castro has relaxed some economic restrictions since taking power.

Plans for a post-Castro Cuba include an immediate diplomatic engagement with the Cuban military, the strongest institution and the one likely to be in charge of the country at that point. Contingencies planned for include a Cuban transition to democracy, massive and chaotic two-way boat traffic between Cuba and Florida, and the provision of humanitarian disaster assistance.

Latin America Public/ Private Cooperation and Strategic Planning
It was emphasized that benign neglect of Latin America will end up hurting the United States. Humanitarian assistance currently includes the “Beyond the Horizon” program, medical readiness training exercises, and the Continuing Promise medical relief deployments running from May to December 2008. Currently two large Navy ships crammed with medical personnel and supplies pays a two-week visit to each country. The mission aims to foster goodwill and demonstrate U.S. commitment and support to Latin America and the Caribbean.

The priorities for today to ensure security and prosperity for tomorrow include persistent U.S. regional engagement, robust counter terrorism and counter narcotics measures, interagency integration and cooperation and continued efforts to reach out to the American private sector to sustain and expand these programs.

Examples of Islamic Terrorist Activities in the Region [source: JINSA]

Although these developments have been under the radar, the U.S. military has been paying close attention to the activities of Islamic terrorist organizations in Latin America.

  • Islamic terrorist groups have used the Tri-Border Area (TBA) at the intersection of the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay (TBA) for fund-raising, drug trafficking, money laundering, plotting, and other activities in support of their organizations.
  • Hamas, Hizballah, al-Qaeda, Egypt’s Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group), al-Jihad (Islamic Jihad) and al-Muqawamah are present and active in the TBA.
  • Hezbollah used the TBA to carry out the 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Argentina, and the 1994 attack on the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.
  • During the 1999-2001, a group of 42 Arabs in the Paraguay area of TBA remitted abroad, mostly to Lebanon, approximately $50 million. An informal tripartite alliance exists among the Islamic terrorist groups, the organized crime mafias, and the many corrupt government or police officials in the TBA.
  • Free Trade Zones in many areas in South America allow terrorists to generate undetected financial and logistical support. Venezuela is distributing identity documents to citizens of Middle Eastern states, including Syria, Pakistan, Egypt and Lebanon. These are subsequently used to obtain Venezuelan passports and even American visas, which could allow the holder to elude immigration checks and enter the United States.
  • Support cells for Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamiyya al Gammat are active on Margarita Island, a free zone on the north coast of Venezuela run largely by Arab merchants from Lebanon and Iran. These groups generate funds through money laundering, drug trafficking, or arms deals and make millions of dollars every year via the multiple illicit activities. These logistic cells reach back to the Middle East.
  • Saudi Arabia has financed the construction of mosques and Islamic centers in Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil.
  • The Sheikh Ibrahim mosque in Caracas, Venezuela is the continent’s second largest, was built with funding from the Ibrahim bin Abdul Aziz Al Ibrahim Foundation. According to published reports, the FBI uncovered ties between the foundation and Osama bin Laden while investigating the U.S. embassy combings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.


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