The Drug Challenge and the Imperative for Active Layered Defense

IDGA Editor

The region of Central America and the Caribbean has long been used by drug traffickers as a major transit and trans-shipment area.

While the Caribbean route is largely preferred by Colombian traffickers, Mexican criminal groups engaged in drug trafficking opt to exploit the Central American corridor.

Either of these routes constitutes clear and present threats to the safety and security of the southern approaches to the U.S. Homeland, a fact that has been acknowledged by U.S. authorities and its neighboring allies.

From a maritime perspective, this is a region of strategically important sea lanes, holding key routes and approaches to the continental U.S from the Atlantic Ocean, namely the Windward Passage and the Panama Canal.

In addition to its strategic location relative to commercial shipping routes, the region is a reputed locale for hundreds of ports, marinas and harbors complemented by major cargo and cruise ship terminals and facilities for the handling and shipping of petroleum, natural gas and ammonia.

The latter are considered high premium cargo items by world standards and this fact brings into sharp focus the significance of geography.

The UNODC in its Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment deemed drugs "the highest value commodities trafficked internationally."

According to the assessment, which meticulously traces illegal flows internationally, drugs now represent a long-term source of income for organized crime groups operating out of the region with linkages in North America, Africa, and Europe.

Like all illicit activity, market forces drive transnational crime. The Financial Action Task Force estimated in the late 1980s that roughly U.S. $424 billion (0.8 %) in the United States or 0.5 % of the global GDP would have been available for laundering money.

Based on 2009 data this would have amounted to U.S. $1.2 trillion. IMF figures stated that money laundering amounted to an estimated 2 % to 5 % of the global GDP – approximately U.S. $0.6 to US $1.5 trillion in the late 1990s.

William Baker, founder of Global Finance Integrity, undertook a more recent study in the developing world, focusing on key categories of transnational crime, including illicit drugs and firearms trafficking.

The Baker study arrived at an estimated U.S. $650 billion in criminal proceeds per annum, the largest sources being derived from illicit drugs (50%), followed by the sale/use of counterfeit (39 %), human trafficking (5%), and illicit trade in other sectors. These facts have significant implications for the integrity of the world’s financial systems, more so that of the Americas.

Caribbean Basin tax shelters, and especially those countries located within the cusp of primary drug shipment zones, have fallen within the radar of the United States in its publicized Narcotics Control Report 2012.

The Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, and the Dominican Republic have been registered as nations "of primary concern" to the U.S. government; while Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Guyana and Suriname have been deemed jurisdictions "of concern." Dominica and Barbuda remain "under monitor."

The significance of this notification lies in the fact that despite having adhered, albeit at an uneven pace, to the global regime of the Financial Action Task Force Recommendations, as well as the Multilateral Evaluation Mechanism of the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (which provides oversight and technical support for the implementation of the Hemispheric Drug Control Strategy), many Caribbean Community Member States are identified venues within the region that are considered risks to US interests and/or that of the wider global community.

Alongside this phenomenon, countries have been recipients of both Chinese firms and the government of China’s preponderance of lucrative contracts and foreign direct investments.

This was recently reinforced by the award of concessionary loans to certain countries by President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China in the course of his visit to Port of Spain Trinidad as a part of his Latin American/ Caribbean itinerary, that extended to Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico and the United States.

Some analysts at the National Defense University view the ensuing unprecedented level of commercial trade activity as exceeding the usual parameters, wagering on its potential risks to the integrity of the region’s financial systems.

They are closely monitoring the trail of business and banking transactions emanating out of Beijing, along with the corresponding incoming and outgoing flows of Chinese nationals within the region.

Creative Methods of Shipment

Economic and environmental incentives have led to the development of increasingly creative methods of transshipment, one being the use of semi or fully submersibles.

Cocaine distribution is extremely lucrative. While the wholesale value of a kilogram of cocaine in Peru and Colombia is approximately $1,300.00 to $2,300.00, respectively, the same kilogram yields $27,000.00 in the US, $60,000.00 in Europe, $150,000.00 in Russia and $170,000.00 in Saudi Arabia.

But there is another equally significant factor, the fact that the Caribbean Sea is noted for extremely high levels of shipping activity matched by correspondingly low levels of maritime policing.

Between 2001-2010, approximately 175 documented drug transits between South America and global destinations occurred, involving the use of SPSS-type platforms.

In the absence of a law that proscribed the operation of such platforms until 2008, the U.S. proceeded to enact the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act.

The statute criminalizes the operation of semi and fully submersibles that are without nationality, and are navigating or have navigated outside of a nation’s territorial sea, with the intent to evade detection. The conveyance has thus been fully outlawed irrespective of its contents.

More recently, in measures clearly calculated to maintain maritime dominance in the drug war and stave off the impact of budgetary cuts on defense spending, the U.S. Navy has been testing the use of aerial tools that would allow authorities to detect and monitor suspected drug shipments from afar in the south-west Caribbean region. Specifically, these assets are:

  • The aerostat formally Aerostar TIF-25K, a balloon-like craft that is tethered up to 2.000ft above a ship’s stern. The device was assembled by a division of Raven Industries, Sioux Valley, South Dakota, and previously used for surveillance in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • The drone, officially a Puma All Environment unmanned aircraft system, which has been supplied by Aerovironment Inc. based in Simi Valley, California.

Defense through Cooperation and Interoperability

Based on the forgoing, it is clear that successful drug interdiction by land and sea requires a combination of verifiable intelligence, sophisticated technologies and capabilities, interagency and cross-border collaboration, and flexibility and adaptability to changing circumstances.

The Joint Inter Agency Task Force–South, based in Key West, Florida, has an established track record of maritime and airspace collaboration and joint operational responses in the form of a naval presence of fleets in the Caribbean Basin representing British, French, and Dutch interests. This is fortified by:

  • U.S. Southern Command Missions such as the annual Trade Winds exercises which afford opportunities for interoperability test runs for interdiction, response to national emergencies, regional search and rescue, maritime policing, and protection of Exclusive Economic Zones.
  • The joint multinational Panamax exercises instituted by the U.S. in 2003, the overarching goal of which is to develop, test command and control forces at sea and provide forces and Title 10 support to Combatant Commanders.

The Obama administration, through its official foreign policy pillar - Safety of the Hemisphere’s Citizens - has invested in two major schemes that ensure collaboration with regional partners.

These are the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) and the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).

This commitment was reiterated during the recent visit in May 2013 to the Caribbean and Latin America of U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, who collaborated closely with political leaders to discuss mutual interests and common concerns, and provided assurances of continued partnership.

Some of the issues raised in this article will be addressed at IDGA's Counter Narco-Terrorism and Drug Interdiction in September. For more details, go to