By Karen Parrish, American Forces Press ServiceSeptember 22, 2011
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md., Sept. 22, 2011 -- There have been several "good news" trends observed across the Caribbean and Central and South American regions over the past decade, yet narco-terrorism and corruption remain serious security concerns, U.S. Southern Command's chief said here yesterday.
Trade has increased in the region, while unemployment and poverty are down, Air Force Gen. Douglas M. Fraser told an audience at the Air Force Association's 2011 Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition.
College enrollment and literacy rates increased in the region over the past 10 years, Fraser said. And, he added, more than 60 percent of the people support democracy.
"A lot of times we don't realize just how much [good] progress has been made," the general said.
Yet, poverty remains a serious issue in Southcom's area of responsibility, which includes Latin America south of Mexico, the waters off Central and South America and the Caribbean Sea, the commander said.
"Over a third of the population still lives below the poverty level -- $2 a day -- in some countries, specifically in Central America," Fraser said. "In some cases, 50 to 60 percent of the population is living below the poverty line."
Twelve percent of the regional population lives in extreme poverty, the general said, earning just $1 dollar a day.
Corruption remains an issue, Fraser said, and justice is a related concern.
"In many cases, there's only a two to three percent conviction rate for those who are detained," he added.
Fraser said the United States' security concerns in the region encompass transnational organized crime, illicit trafficking, violent extremist organizations, narco-terrorism, criminal gangs and natural disasters.
The two primary narco-terrorist groups in South America are the FARC in Colombia and Sendero Luminosa, or Shining Path, in Peru, the general said.
While the FARC -- Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- has been a concern in Colombia for more than 40 years, he said, the last decade has seen a decline in the group's size and power.
"With support from the United States, Colombians have made a significant impact on the ability of the FARC to operate -- but they're still there, and [the Colombians] are still engaged with addressing that concern," Fraser said.
Sendero Luminosa is a much smaller group, reduced in number from the 1990s but is starting to grow again, Fraser said.
"It's still a significant problem for Peru, and we continue to support their efforts," he added.
These groups and the cartels represent a complex problem, combining illegal trafficking in drugs, bulk cash, weapons and people with activities including money laundering, violence, bribery and corruption, the general said.
"It is all levels and all different types of illicit activity," Fraser added.
Mexican drug cartels including Sinaloa and Los Zetas are moving south into Central and South America, and expanding beyond the region into Africa and other places, Fraser said.
"Cocaine is still produced largely in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia," he said.
Cocaine trafficking is an $85 billion industry worldwide and the market is expanding, Fraser said. The United States is the largest consumer, with Brazil the second largest and the United Kingdom the greatest per capita consumer, he added.
Criminal networks find their greatest cocaine profits across the Atlantic, he said.
In South America, a kilogram of cocaine sells for $2,000 to $5,000; the price increases to $20,000 to $40,000 in the United States, $80,000 to $100,000 in Europe, and $100,000 to $140,000 in the Middle East, the general explained.
Illegal drug trade in the region also moves methamphetamine precursors, marijuana and heroin into U.S. and other markets, Fraser said, while commercial-grade weapons and billions of dollars flow back to criminal groups in Central and South America from the United States.
Competition related to this traffic has contributed to an alarming homicide rate in some countries, he noted.
From 2007 through 2010, there were 67,000 homicides in Central America, twice as many among half the population as in Mexico during the same time, Fraser said.
Southcom's efforts combating criminal activities in Central and South America are largely focused on building partner nation capabilities, the general said.
The command supports ground, air, and sea and freshwater interdiction and apprehension efforts with training, vessels, and detection and monitoring technologies, Fraser said.
Southcom integrates joint capabilities and interagency efforts throughout the region to aid local government surveillance of and access to criminal operations, he said.
Some of the same capabilities -- intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms; light and rotary lift aircraft -- also assist disaster response force access, emergency evacuation and medical evacuation, Fraser noted.
"It is a great mission. It is a unique mission," the general said. "It is one that stresses us, if you will, to think differently."