While the nation debates constructing a wall on the southwest border to combat immigration flow, it fails to address the cancer growing in U.S. Southern Command’s (SouthCom’s) area of responsibility: violence and instability caused by transnational criminal organizations (TCOs).
The primary economic engine driving TCOs is cocaine. Using the seas, these organizations transport hundreds of tons of it, a feat impossible through the dense jungles of Central America. In 2017, the Coast Guard seized more than 223 metric tons of cocaine at sea—eight times the amount seized by the federal government at the Southwest border1—but even this record total represented just 8.2 percent of the total maritime cocaine flow.2
In addition, cartel violence has bled into the civilian population, including targeting members of governments and the media. Given the region’s worsening socioeconomic climate, it is easy to see the reason U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported a 142 percent increase in families apprehended at the southwest border in the past year.3 If TCOs continue to grow unchecked, the humanitarian crisis along the nation’s border will only be exacerbated.
This is the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) most critical vulnerability in the near-home littorals, ripe for influence from peer rivals. Stability in this region will require more than the traditional military-to-military approach. The best recipe for success is interagency cooperation and law enforcement efforts, led by the service that brings this special blend of expertise to the table—the U.S. Coast Guard. It’s time for a Coast Guard admiral to take SouthCom’s helm.
Public perception of southwestern border security is grounded in an old understanding of the domestic migration problem and does not fully reflect the complexity of this region or its importance to U.S. security interests. While migration from Mexico to the United States has been a problem historically, in recent years net migration between the two countries has been negative.4 In contrast, migration from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—known collectively as the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA)—has risen 25 percent in the past three years.5 The NTCA is the most politically and economically unstable area in the Western Hemisphere, and its borders with Mexico are the gateway between North and South America.6 Stability within the region is a key national interest, critical both now and in coming years.
As noted by the International Organization for Migration, NTCA countries “face critical humanitarian issues [including] . . . lack of job opportunities, limited social services, food insecurity due to protracted drought and pests, insecurity due to escalation of violence; and family disintegration produced by migration.”7 Without the requisite stability, it is difficult, if not impossible, for their governments to attract the international capital investments needed to spur legitimate economic development and change the status quo. This has provided an environment for TCOs to prosper by providing jobs and opportunity to a young population with few other outlets.
As bad as it is, the current situation is the lull before the storm. In 2014, DoD recognized climate change as a “threat multiplier,” with the potential to aggravate today’s national security problems.8 Each country in the NTCA routinely ranks in the top ten countries in terms of current and predicted impacts from climate change–related disasters, and stakeholders express serious concerns about their resiliency to short-duration disasters such as hurricanes and flooding and longer-duration disasters such as droughts.9 As noted in the fourth U.S. National Climate Change Assessment, “The potential for conflict increases where there is a history of civil violence, conflict elsewhere in the region, low GDP or economic growth, economic shocks, weak governance, and lack of access to basic needs.”10
In the aftermath of a natural disaster, these countries will need DoD disaster assistance, but DoD’s approach is based on short-term logistical efforts to provide maximum impact. Such postincident response is critical, but it does not create long-term resiliency. To do that requires the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) mind-set of building local authorities’ capability to respond and providing higher level capabilities as needed. This dual requirement underscores the need for a leader who can bring both a DoD and a DHS strategy to the table.
An Opening for Influence
If NTCA economies are unable to provide legitimate economic opportunities for their people, and private capital and international development organizations are unwilling to invest in a region rife with instability, corruption, and entrenched TCOs, it is difficult to see a path to prosperity for the region. This leaves these nations desperate for a partner who will offer them support.
In December 2018, the U.S. Department of State announced an economic recommitment of $5.8 billion through public and private investment in the NTCA.11 A DHS-oriented approach of coordinated interagency development falls in line with new State Department efforts—enhancing security, governance, and prosperity—and will strengthen the democratic orientation of governments, reducing the power accrued by TCOs. Larger scale investment will be feasible once such regional and governmental stability is established.
Absent this type of continued support, NTCA leaders likely will seek economic backing outside the Western Hemisphere, leaving them susceptible to encroachment by U.S. rivals such as China. To date, Chinese interests generally have steered clear of the Western Hemisphere, but China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is beginning to shift focus.12 Sold as a peaceful path toward prosperity akin to a modern Marshall Plan, the BRI increasingly appears to be a global version of predatory lending, using control of a nation’s transportation infrastructure as collateral.
There currently are more than 20 debt-distressed countries involved in major BRI-financed infrastructure projects, each representing a potential Chinese foothold for future military expansion should these countries no longer be able to service their debts.13 Previous attempts such as the failed Nicaragua Canal illustrate how willingly Central American states accept outside support, even with the most dubious terms and prospects.
China is now laying the foundation for a new stage of the BRI in this region.14 Its recent moves toward establishing deep-water ports and bases in Djibouti, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka should put SouthCom leaders on notice that having Chinese-controlled ports in the Americas is neither far-fetched nor far off.15 SouthCom must lay a path toward stability in the NTCA and reshape the battlespace to allow Western investment in the region. If a bulwark is not established now against the BRI, the next great Pacific war may be fought in the Caribbean Sea.
A Mission Tailor-Made
Safety, stability, and economic prosperity in this region will help allay the continuing migration crisis, lay the groundwork for disaster-resilient communities, and prevent a Chinese foothold in the Western Hemisphere. The traditional DoD approach of building partner-nation military capabilities through training and access to U.S. equipment in trade for forward-deployed staging access will not suffice to achieve these goals. It will require a focus on building local civil, law enforcement, and military authorities capable of rooting out TCOs—a mission tailor-made for the Coast Guard.
As the only military service with law enforcement authorities, the Coast Guard brings an understanding of the regulatory processes and interagency cooperation necessary to succeed in these close-to-home nation-building efforts. It has established credibility throughout the world with more than 60 bilateral agreements, forming key intergovernmental relationships within the maritime domain. The Coast Guard is well-versed in establishing cooperative legal frameworks meeting U.S. and partner-nation objectives, the core of stabilizing efforts for regional governments. The small service also is closer in both scale and scope to the navies in this region and appreciates the challenges of accomplishing lofty goals on a shoestring budget.
Stabilizing this region will require the law enforcement and regulatory expertise of the Coast Guard. Once that foundation is laid, it will provide a firm footing for the investment necessary to build resilient communities.
Time for Coast Guard to Command
Coast Guard leadership in SouthCom is a natural fit. Coast Guard officers have led SouthCom’s J-3 directorate for nearly a decade, and its primary component command, Joint Interagency Task Force–South, for nearly three decades. SouthCom’s lines of effort—building relationships, countering threat networks, and enabling rapid response—all align with the Coast Guard’s statutory missions.
And because SouthCom’s mission has a direct impact on domestic border security efforts overseen by DHS, it must be able to merge the needs and strategic objectives of both DoD and DHS and understand the capabilities their respective services and agencies bring to a whole-of-government effort to enhance security in the Western Hemisphere. The Coast Guard, seated at the intersection of DoD and DHS, brings this expertise.
The 2018 National Defense Strategy charges the “workforce to integrate new capabilities, adapt warfighting approaches, and change business practices to achieve mission success.”16 A fresh approach to the SouthCom region, informed by both DoD and DHS strategic objectives, is needed to achieve mission success. The Coast Guard has led the battle to dismantle the TCOs that destabilize this region; now it’s time for the Coast Guard to command the battlespace.
Listen to a Proceedings Podcast interview with the authors below:
1. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, CBP Enforcement Statistics FY2018.
2. Office of Inspector General, Review of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Fiscal Year 2017 Drug Control Performance Summary Report (Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security, 30 January 2018), 3.
3. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Southwest Border Migration FY2018.
4. M. Bearak, “Even before Trump, More Mexicans Were Leaving the U.S. Than Arriving,” The Washington Post, 27 January 2017.
5. D. Cohn and A. Gonzalez-Barrera, “Immigration from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador Up,” 4 June 2018, www.pewhispanic.org.
6. S. E. Giorguli-Saucedo, V. M. García-Guerrero, and C. Masferrer, “A Migration System in the Making: Demographic Dynamics and Migration Policies in North America and the Northern Triangle of Central-America” (policy paper, Center for Demographic, Urban, and Environmental Studies, El Colegio de México, 2016).
7. International Organization for Migration, “El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras 2017.”
8. Environment, Safety, and Occupational Health Directorate, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Installations, and Environment, 2014 Department of Defense Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap (Department of Defense, 2014).
9. A. Barcena, et al., Climate Change in Central America: Potential Impacts and Public Policy Options (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, August 2018).
10. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Fourth National Climate Assessment, ch. 16, “Climate Effects on U.S. International Interests,” 23 November 2018.
11. U.S. Department of State, “The U.S. Strategy for Central America and Southern Mexico,” press release, 18 December 2018.
12. D. Thorne and B. Spevack, Harbored Ambitions: How China’s Port Investments Are Strategically Reshaping the Indo-Pacific (working paper, C4ADS, 2017).
13. J. Hurley, S. Morris, and G. Portelance, Examining the Debt Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative from a Policy Perspective (Center for Global Development, March 2018).
14. LT Allison Scott, USN, “China is Gaining Access, Influence in the Americas,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 12 (December 2018): 10.
15. Thorne and Spevack, Harbored Ambitions.
16. U.S. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge (Washington, DC: 2018), 7–8.