Security Agenda in United States-Caribbean Relations

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward

the Ward Post - Ambassador Curtis A. Ward

There are new and developing trends which portend grave danger to Caribbean societies.  Increased drug trafficking through the region, the threat of diminishing security assistance, and signs of radicalization leading to violent extremism threatens Caribbean societies.  Understanding what is at stake calls for proactive engagement, action if you will, to prevent further progression of what could develop into a dangerous level of risks to Caribbean security.  The facts are quite ominous and it would be a mistake to dismiss this warning as alarmist.  Forewarned is to be forearmed.  Are Caribbean governments aware of the scope of the problem?  Is there the political will to recognize and admit to lurking dangers; and are institutional capacities present to deal with emerging threats to Caribbean security?  Will the U.S. government respond to the security partnership needs of the region?  What is at stake?

Increased Threat from TOC and Violent Extremism

The threat to Caribbean security comes from two unrelated fronts–transnational organized crime (TOC), in particular, drug trafficking through the region is trending upwards even as interdiction capacity is being adversely affected by decreases in security assistance from the United States; and there is an alarming increase in violent extremism in the region and elsewhere sparked by the propaganda machinery of the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL) or Da’esh (aka IS or ISIS).

These imminent threats to the region’s security were placed on the agenda of United States–Caribbean security partnerships by General John F. Kelly, U.S. Marine Corps Commander of U.S. Southern Command (SouthCom), in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on March 12, 2015.  Gen. Kelly’s dire warning to the Senators of these impending threats on the U.S. “third border” was made in the context of the deleterious effects of sequestration–cuts in U.S. defense budget allocations–on SouthCom’s capacity to protect the United States from transnational organized crime.

It is ironic that, while Gen. Kelly praises regional governments for their partnerships and cooperation on security matters, in particular countering drug trafficking from and through the region, as well as countering other transnational organized crimes, United States assistance for security capacity-building will be reduced in the near future should the U.S. Congress fail to ameliorate the effects of sequestration on future security-related programs.  Gen. Kelly is quite pleased with the progress being made in the region to build countering transnational organized crime (CTOC) capacity and wishes to see these programs receive adequate funding in the future.  At a time when United States security is threatened from so many disparate sources, Gen. Kelly said the effect of sequestration would be a “catastrophe,” putting SouthCom out of business in helping countries in the region.

President Obama’s visit to Jamaica – the Security Agenda

President Obama at CVE Conference

Caribbean and U.S. leaders, rather than eschewing warnings of the growing security threats, should embrace Gen. Kelly’s counsel on security issues in the region–America’s “third border,” and the significant collateral security implications for the U.S. Homeland.  As Commander of SouthCom, his opinion matters.  That is, should the U.S. government fail to increase current levels of support, or should current levels of support are reduced due to sequestration, the risks to U.S. and Caribbean security will increase exponentially.Gen. Kelly’s testimony before the SASC provides an opportune backdrop for shaping the security cooperation agenda for President Barack Obama’s discussions with Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller and with other CARICOM Heads of Government.  Gen. Kelly, in issuing his warning of impending cuts in security assistance to the region, also highlighted the importance of maintaining and building on current security partnerships between the United States and Caribbean nations.  This reinforces the timeliness of this issue for discussion during President Obama’s visit to Jamaica on March 9, 2015.  The President’s visit provides an opportunity for both the United States and the Caribbean, and brings to the fore the deleterious effect of U.S. budget cuts on assistance to Caribbean partners in CTOC programs and other related U.S.-Caribbean security partnerships programs.  It is incumbent on Caribbean leaders to urge President Obama to respond to these ominous security threats.

It is an opportune time to emphasize the importance of these programs in the security architecture of the region and the region’s security partnership with the United States.  Similarly, it is an opportune time for Caribbean Heads of Government to stress to the U.S. President the critical nature of the whole-of-government approach to the security problems of the region, not only to maintain and enhance military and law enforcement security-related programs, but to advance the argument for additional resources to be made available to Caribbean nations to improve their capabilities to deal with the social and economic issues which have the potential to contribute to radicalization and recruitment to violent extremism in the region.

Experience shows that countering violent extremism is not merely a law enforcement or military response but requires a whole of government approach that takes into consideration all conditions conducive and attractive to vulnerable individuals in becoming radicalized.  As President Obama stated, during his recently convened countering violent extremism (CVE) conference in Washington in February 2015, “Efforts to counter violent extremism will only succeed if citizens can address legitimate grievances through the democratic process and express themselves through strong civil societies.”  He stated further, that “Those efforts must be matched by economic, educational and entrepreneurial development so people have hope for a life of dignity.”  America can play a positive supporting role in helping Caribbean nations pursue such an approach.

CTOC and CVE programming in the Caribbean region

In the context of CTOC and CVE programming, it is important for Caribbean governments to stress their commitment, and the process of building their capacities to protect human rights in all areas of the process, in governance and security.  In this context, enhancing CTOC programs and building Caribbean nations’ capacities to engage in effective CVE programs jointly serve the interests of the United States and the interests of the Caribbean region.

As Gen. Kelly explained to the SASC, radicalized individuals traveling from the Caribbean to Syria may return at some point more radicalized and better trained in explosives and weaponry than before they left the region; and they will have established ties to other international Muslim extremists and possibly return with intent to do harm in the hemisphere.  These individuals could use the Caribbean as point of entry, using human smuggling routes to enter the United States.  As pointed out by Gen. Kelly, Caribbean nations lack capabilities to track such individuals.  This is yet another reason why sequestration should not be allowed to affect the level of security assistance programming in the Caribbean.

There was a certain level of despondency in General Kelly’s statement to the SASC and in his press conference subsequently at the Pentagon, as he explained the need for increased rather than decreased resources to deal with the drug trafficking trends in the Caribbean. We are aware, already, of drug trafficking through the Caribbean moving in an upward trajectory, as more resources target drug trafficking networks in Central America and Mexico.  The greater the interdiction successes in that region, the greater will be the transfer to drug trafficking routes through the Caribbean.

With sequestration, the military (SouthCom) is not and will not be able to effectively interdict drug trafficking through the region.  According to Gen. Kelly, transnational organized criminal networks pose a direct threat to the stability of Caribbean and other regional partners and pose “an insidious risk to the security” of the United States.  In this regard, the forward security of the United States which extends out from the immediate borders of the United States throughout the hemisphere would be severely impacted.

Successful drug interdiction programs rely heavily on information gathering and analysis and actionable intelligence.  In this regard, Gen. Kelly lamented the fact that SouthCom’s ability to gather and share information is already affected by underfunded surveillance and intelligence capacities.  Accordingly, Gen. Kelly confirmed that “sequestration will likely eviscerate (American) already limited ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) capacity.”  Gen. Kelly pointed out that budget reductions will “affect all aspects of (American) operations and engagements with (American) partner nations, including capacity-building activities, multinational exercises, information operations, interagency support, and our ability to respond to crises or contingencies.”  These are all areas of collaboration the Caribbean region can least afford to lose.

The second source of potential future threat to the United States and the Caribbean region is what General Kelly described as “Sunni extremists …actively involved in the radicalization of converts and other Muslims in the region and also provide financial and logistical support to terrorist organizations within and outside Latin America.”  According to Gen. Kelly, “partner nation officials throughout the region have expressed concern over the increasing number of suspected Islamic extremists from the hemisphere who are travelling to Syria to participate in jihad.”  He noted that some take part in weapons training before departing for Syria, citing a case of “19 Trinidadian Muslims (who) were detained in Venezuela (last year) for conducting training with high-powered weapons.”  Gen. Kelly also posited that just under a 100 individuals have already left the Caribbean region to fight in Syria.  This revelation should raise the level of concern across the region.

Economic Citizenship Programs

The economic citizenship programs (ECPs) of certain Eastern Caribbean (EC) nations have been under scrutiny by the U.S. government for several years.  Such scrutiny falls squarely into U.S. CTOC programs in the region.

This is not a new concern to the United States.  Eastern Caribbean governments engaged in this ill-conceived practice have been warned since the early years of the post-9/11 period about the risks posed by their respective programs to the region and to the United States.  Some Eastern Caribbean Ambassadors at the United Nations in New York clearly understood the potential problems with the ECPs vis-à-vis the United States government, and they raised this issue with me during my tenure at the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee in search of solutions to the concerns raised by the United States. The issues raised by the U.S. government in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States of the possible abuse of the ECPs by TOC networks and terrorists are as relevant today as they were then.  With the ease of access to international travel, individuals with bad intentions are attracted to the ECPs.

In his presentation to the SASC, Gen. Kelly “spotlighted” and characterized these economic citizenship programs as providing “a quick path for foreign nationals to acquire citizenship.”  Gen. Kelly’s concern, which is reflective of the concerns expressed by the U.S. government as far back as 2002, is that these “cash for passport” programs are subject to exploitation by criminals, terrorists, or other nefarious actors to obtain freedom of movement throughout the Caribbean, facilitate entry into the U.S., or launder illicitly gained funds.

Although other countries, including the United States and Canada, have foreign investor programs that are well managed, and applicants are well vetted by the FBI, the DEA, the CIA, Treasury Department and other agencies of the U.S. intelligence community, Caribbean governments lack the capabilities to undertake the level of scrutiny necessary to ensure citizenships are kept out of the hands of individuals who seek to avoid criminal and other sanctions and detection. Furthermore, the low cost of, and the speed at which ECPs applications are processed expose Eastern Caribbean programs to abuse.  The U.S. program, on the other hand, grants immigrant resident status and not U.S. citizenship and passport, the application process is very complicated, and the qualification requirements are difficult to fulfil.

Economic citizenship programs of Eastern Caribbean countries should be a concern for all Caribbean governments and not just of the United States.  The risks engendered by these programs should alert Caribbean governments to the possibility of such individuals obtaining CARICOM passports affording holders freedom of movement across the region with the ability to do harm in whichever country providing the greatest prospect for nefarious gains by TOC networks and the highest level of impact and notoriety by terrorists.

Recent reports of the revocation of the U.S. visa of the former Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis is the proverbial “chicken come home to roost.”  I can only wonder why it took so long.  Others are forewarned.

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward