Oct. 19, 2016
Closing Remarks of SOUTHCOM commander, Navy Adm. Kurt W. Tidd
National Defense University, Washington DC
October 18, 2016
Good afternoon. I’d like to thank the complex center for operations and the Perry Center for the invitation to speak today. We value our academic partnership with NDU, and we’re excited about their latest publication. It’s great to be here, and I look forward to our discussion
Let me start with a premise. If I were to ask for a show of hands, I bet most people in the audience would say “drugs” are the main security challenge we face in Latin America. Pretty much every major problem in the region—from corruption to homicide rates to under-governed spaces—has some sort of linkage to the drug trade. Right?
Think again….if you only talk about drugs, you’re only talking about one part of the story. Contrary to what you might think about Latin America, drugs alone are not the principal security challenge. Nor are the millions of people who are trafficked, and the thousands more who are smuggled into and out of the region. Neither are the myriad illicit commodities that move through our hemisphere as part of a global flow of illegal goods and services.
These illicit flows—and the violence and corruption these flows introduce at home and abroad—are just the visible manifestation of amorphous, adaptable, and networked threats.
These networks, as a whole and in their parts, are woven into the fabric of our environment. And wherever they exist, in whatever form they take—be it extremist, criminal, or state-sponsored—threat networks pose a challenge to our security and stability, and that of our partners, allies, and friends.
I would argue that transregional and transnational threat networks are pressing problems that we, as a government and an international community, don’t fully understand…especially as it relates to the world we live in today…not the world we envision or strive to achieve, but the complicated and entangled one we live in today. And in that world, these networks—and the growing illegal economies that support them—undercut our national interests in multiple nations, multiple continents, and multiple regions.[i]
There are as many different networks as there are disparate goals and creative methods for conducting illegal activity. Some networks—like violent extremist ones—are ideologically or politically motivated. They focus on spreading their influence and moving money, weapons, and people.[ii] Criminal networks are focused on accumulating wealth and power by satisfying a demand for an illicit service.
Some networks smuggle desperate people from all over the world into our country, where they go on to find jobs or refuge from conflict…while other networks specialize at moving individuals with questionable backgrounds, worrisome intentions, and possible ties to terrorism through the region and into the United States.
Some networks have cornered the market on cocaine trafficking, and some dabble in poly-crime activities. Others focus on the ‘production’ side, working with corrupt businessmen in China to smuggle precursor chemicals into Central America and Mexico to make heroin and fentanyl. Many networks prey on the disadvantaged and the disaffected…
Many glamorize violence and use it as a tool to intimidate local populations and inspire legions of wanna-bes. And from Central America’s MS-13 gang…to Mexican cartels…and especially to groups like ISIL, many networks exploit social media and popular culture via slick, high quality videos and music that promotes killing, intimidation, and a code of silence. Many more have established local ‘franchises’ that have spread like viruses through our communities and, in some cases, across countries and continents.
So what does this mean for us, and for our partners in Latin America and the Caribbean?
Well, for one thing, it means that we require a different way of thinking about these challenges, both regionally, transregionally, and globally.
Now, I’m not talking about viewing threat networks in Latin America in terms of convergence, or a nexus, or a hybrid super-threat, or whatever the term-du-jour happens to be. I’m entirely uninterested in that debate.
What I am interested in is conditioning us to think differently, and to challenge our own assumptions.
As an example, lots of folks dismiss the possibility that violent extremist organizations and criminal networks would actively collaborate, especially in this part of the world. They’re likely correct when they say that drug traffickers may be reluctant to risk working with terrorists, especially to move something like WMD or an operative. The narcos aren’t stupid. They know it would be bad for business. And terrorists are great OPSEC practitioners…no way they’re going to collude with some group outside their tight circle of trusted extremists.
But here’s the issue I have with that assertion. It presumes that criminal networks exercise absolute oversight and control over their smuggling routes. It presumes they have their own version of TSA…that they conduct thorough background checks and screen everyone and everything that moves along the illicit superhighways that traverse the region.
It presumes that just because witting collaboration wouldn’t take place…unwitting collaboration couldn’t. It presumes that even if paid the right amount of money, the reward would never outweigh the risk.
What keeps me up at night is thinking about the many illicit pathways that thread throughout the Western Hemisphere…picturing that interlocking system of arteries that can move just about anything…and imagining a scenario that may not be likely, but is not totally impossible: that members of violent extremist organizations are thinking about those illicit pathways, too.
And the truth is, whether criminal and extremist networks collaborate or keep their distance from one another—in Latin America and everywhere else—threat networks of all stripes inhabit the same illegal orbits.
They all benefit from exploiting the same vulnerable populations and the demand for something people can get nowhere else. They all use key facilitators like lawyers, accountants, and corrupt officials to exploit weaknesses in our financial and security sectors. And they all excel at harnessing the very tools of globalization—free and open trade, technology, and globally integrated financial, communication, and transportation systems—that have made our societies more prosperous, more interconnected…and more vulnerable.
Thinking differently about threat networks goes beyond challenging long-held assumptions. It also applies to those of us that make up the ‘friendly networks’—the US government and our fellowship of partner nations and allies.
Collectively, we would all benefit from a better understanding of one another. While we are integrated well in certain areas, we can always do better. Different players have different pieces of the puzzle, but it’s not always clear how those pieces all fit together, especially as we try and figure out how the ‘not-so-friendly’ networks operate and interact.
[i] David Luna, “Fighting Networks with Networks.” Convergence: Illicit Networks and National Security in the Age of Globalization. Center for Complex Operations, National Defense University, 2013.
[ii] Joint Publication 3-25 (Draft). Countering Threat Networks.