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Adm. Tidd prepared remarks: AACLA “Outlook on the Americas" conference

Miami, Feb. 8, 2017



AACLA Luncheon

February 8, 2017

Keynote Speech


Good afternoon.  I’d like to thank Jodi Bond and Tom Kenna for the invitation to speak today.  I’d also like to recognize Reuben Smith Vaughn for his efforts to promote collaboration between the business community and U.S. Southern Command.

It’s great to be here, and I look forward to our discussion.

First, for those of you who don’t know much about U.S. southern command, here’s a quick overview of what we do.  To keep our homeland safe, our job is to look south: to focus on the Americas.  That’s 1/6th of the globe, 15 million square miles, with more than half a billion people in 31 countries…

We’re connected by centuries of history, united by shared values, and linked by the billions of dollars in trade that flow through our economies every year.

When people ask me to describe what it’s like working in this part of the world, I always find myself saying “it’s different down here.”  One of the ways it’s different is we don’t see any traditional military threats.  There are no state-on-state conflicts…no regional adversaries.  No aggressive actors seeking to destabilize the region. 

However, we do see nations like Russia and china being somewhat opportunistic in their approaches to regional defense and economic partnerships.  I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on these actors, and on how we can strengthen our competitive advantage when it comes to partnering with Latin America.

While the region is at peace, we and our partners do face complicated security challenges…just not the ones you might think. 

If I were to ask for a show of hands, I bet most of you would say “drugs” are the main security challenge in Latin America.  From corruption to homicide rates, pretty much every major problem in the region has some sort of linkage to the drug trade.  Right?

If we only talk about drugs, we’re only talking about one part of the story.  The global flow of drugs, weapons, people, and illicit goods are just the visible manifestation of powerful, networked organizations and groups.    

At SOUTHCOM, we use the term ‘transregional and transnational threat networks.’ 

You probably know them better as cartels, gangs, drug trafficking and criminal organizations, violent non-state actors, narco-terrorists, and the like. 

Whatever you call them, these networks prey on weak institutions.  Through bribery, violence, and subversion of legitimate commerce and banking, these networks undercut the interests of every company represented in this room.  

Who are these groups, and what makes them so dangerous? 

Think of threat networks like the dark side of our modern, integrated world.  They exploit the interconnected nature of our financial, transportation and technological systems…and the uneven benefits of globalization.

Like the private sector, many of these networks have diversified, and function more like multinational corporations, with branches all over the world.

Some networks smuggle desperate people from all over the world into our countries, where they may 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 are globally-integrated enterprises with worldwide reach—and profit margins that rival fortune 500 companies.   Others dabble in poly-crime activities, from cocaine trafficking, human trafficking, and extortion. 

Still 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.  Some reap enormous profits by illegally mining gold in Guyana, Peru, and Colombia.

Some networks, like extremist ones, though small, are focused on spreading their influence and exploiting vulnerable populations.  Some of their supporters straddle the line between legitimate (and illegitimate) business and terror financing, exploiting the cover of free trade zones and the lack of anti-terrorism laws to launder money and funnel it back to organizations like Lebanese Hezbollah.

And from Central America’s MS-13 gang – which just happens to operate in 46 of our 50 states…to Mexican cartels…and especially to groups like ISIL, many networks glamorize violence and use it as a tool to intimidate local populations. 

They exploit social media and popular culture via slick, high quality videos and music that promote killing, intimidation, and a code of silence.  Many networks have established local ‘franchises’ in our cities and towns…proliferating at a rate that seems impossible to contain.

What’s worrisome about these networks is their ability to connect people and groups—dangerous in their own right—and much more so when empowered by others.  And what keeps me up at night is thinking about all the illicit pathways these networks use and the corruption and violence left in their wake.  These are highly efficient systems that can move just about anything and anyone into our countries.  And that’s very concerning, in this day and age.

So what does this mean for us, for our partners in Latin America and the Caribbean, and for all of you?

Well, for one thing, it means there’s no way we’re solving this on our own, and certainly not through military force. 

These challenges are just too big, and cover too many aspects—from development, to governance, to economic opportunity.  

But what it really means is that those of us who make up the ‘friendly networks’—the U.S. government and our partner nations, allies, NGOs, and members of academia and the private sector. 

It means we need to find new ways to work together…to build our own networks that are stronger than the ones that threaten the prosperity and security of our hemisphere.   

Broadly speaking, I think we all know what needs to be done.  Security and economic prosperity go hand in hand.  Money is a coward; it only goes where it’s safe.  So that means we need to better integrate our economic development efforts with our security and stability ones.  We need to increase regional cooperation and share more information.  We need to coordinate more effectively among and across agencies, departments, and ministries, civil society, and the public sector.   

We need to harness technologies that don’t just make us smarter, but make us better than those ‘not-so-friendly’ networks.  We have to stay ahead of them—and that’s no easy feat. 

We’re talking about groups who constantly find new ways to transport their illicit products and conduct their illicit operations.  As one expert recently noted, the only law these guys don’t break is the law of supply and demand.[1]   

I’ll give credit where credit is due: some of these networks are pretty creative.  There’s nothing they won’t try.  They’re building million dollar submarines in the jungles of Colombia and Ecuador.  They’re revamping old products and make new synthetic drugs like meth and ecstasy.  

And when it comes to extremist networks, they’re finding new ways to connect with people via social media and market their ‘brand’ to new audiences. 

So we’ve got to find way to out-innovative a very innovative adversary.  We need to forge new regional partnerships in innovation.  We need to leverage revolutions happening in commercial space and machine learning to transform how we and our partners use things like nano-satellites to provide critical situational awareness of threat network operations. 

We need visualization tools that help us better understand how these groups interact and, and how illicit funds move through the global financial system.

We also need to develop advanced data analytics of publicly available information to understand who is attracted to becoming a member of these groups and how these groups operate in the cyber domain.

These kinds of innovation partnerships aren’t just good for us—they’re good for U.S. and Latin American companies.  They provide a platform for engagement in the region, drive economic growth, and create jobs for all countries involved. 

We also need to better leverage the power of corporate social responsibility programs.   Many of the companies in this room have an amazing portfolio of community-level projects in Latin America. 

At SOUTHCOM, we’d like to find ways to work together, to align our humanitarian activities like building schools, wells, and infrastructure in under-served communities with your efforts.

Last year we integrated 18 different U.S. and regional NGOs, private sector, and academic organizations into various exercises and humanitarian missions.  I think there’s enormous opportunity to expand that type of integration.

If this sounds like a call to action…it is.  For a long time, SOUTHCOM has focused on what we can diminish or degrade…how many metric tons of cocaine we can disrupt…or how many coca or marijuana plants we can help our partners eradicate.

And while that remains important…it’s time we start building something, too. 

Ultimately, we want to help our partners—in the U.S. government, civil society, the private sector, and across Latin America and the Caribbean—build an interconnected network of security and prosperity that extends throughout the Americas. 

And this conference is a great place to start.

With that, I’ll stop talking so we can begin our discussion!