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Diplomacy in Action

U.S. Southern Command Operational Update Briefing

FPC Briefing
Gen. Douglas Fraser
Commander, U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM)
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
April 28, 2010

Date: 04/28/2010 Location: Washington D.C. Description: General Douglas Fraser, Commander, U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), updates the foreign media on the relief efforts in Haiti and on other activities in the U.S. Southern Command at the Washington Foreign Press Center on April 28, 2010.  - State Dept Image


2:00 P.M. EDT

MODERATOR: Hello and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Today, we have for you General Douglas Fraser, who will deliver a U.S. Southern Command Operational Update. Without further ado, here is the general.

GEN FRASER: Good afternoon. It’s a great pleasure for me to be with you. 2010 has been an eventful year for the United States Southern Command. As you all know, we started the year responding to the crisis in Haiti, responded rapidly and within 24 hours we had the capability on the ground to support the airport as well as bringing in capacity to start opening up and providing relief support to the people of Haiti.

Over that timeframe, within the first three weeks, we continued to build our capability there to where we had, at the height, a little over 22,000 men and women supporting the relief effort in Haiti, 22 ships, 57 helicopters, and a number of aircraft that were then bringing supplies and capability into Haiti throughout that operation.

Today, we’re in a transition to other parts of the U.S. Government as well as NGOs. We have less than 2,000 men and women on the ground. We will continue to reduce and transition our relief efforts to what is normally a very traditional way of United States Southern Command supporting our efforts in the region.

So in the June timeframe, we will plan to disestablish the Joint Task Force Haiti and we will then have some medical readiness training opportunities. There are 10 of those throughout the hurricane season. We’ll also have an exercise that provides humanitarian assistance, roofs on schools, other medical facilities, and just providing infrastructure support, not focused in Port-au-Prince but in the Gonaives area is where we’re going to focus throughout the hurricane season.

We’ll also have a ship, an amphibious ship that will be in the region in the Caribbean during the entire hurricane season that will be closer in case there is a hurricane that strikes Haiti with all the numbers of displaced people who are there now, that we have an ability to respond quickly to whatever situation is there.

We’ll also have forces available within the United States that can respond to that situation as well. We work very closely with MINUSTAH, with Headquarters UN, to coordinate our response capacities and our plans so that we’re all very much synchronized with one another.

In addition to that, about a month and a half after the earthquake, the earthquake happened in Chile. We provided support to the Government of Chile also in the way of satellite phones. We provided a small field hospital there as well. We provided a capability to survey the port, as it had been damaged there, and provided the assistance that the Chileans requested from us.

As we look at other operations, a lot of our effort is focused on counter illicit trafficking. That efforts continue. In fact, we had the maiden voyage of the USS Freedom, one of the new littoral combat ships that the United States Navy is fielding. And it had a very successful operation within the 45 days that it was in the region. And during that timeframe, because it has a higher speed, because it has a shallow draft, it was able to intercept five different vessels that were carrying – go-fast boats that were carrying cocaine. So it had a very successful effort during its time there.

We are also just finishing a trade winds exercise, an exercise with Caribbean nations, 15 with 400 different participants. Part of that exercise was conducted in Belize, another part of it was in Jamaica, just coordinating our efforts with our partner militaries to improve our capacity to respond to whatever situation we might find within the region.

And finally, we did the first operational test on a vertical lift unmanned aerial vehicle onboard a ship, and so this just extends the capability of the ship to detect illicit trafficking within the Caribbean as well as the eastern Pacific, and it was able to again make its first interdiction on its first operational test.

So overall, we’re working to support our partners working to counter illicit trafficking in a number of different means throughout the South America/Latin American region and the Caribbean.

Throughout the rest of this year, we will continue to focus on conducting exercises with partner nations. We have eight exercises scheduled for this year. We have, in exercises similar to the one we’re going to continue within Haiti during the hurricane season, we have those exercises in five other countries throughout the region, primarily focused on engineering projects as well as medical assistance.

We have 50 different medical teams that will go out to various locations in the region, partly for our training, partly to assist with the medical needs there. They’ll be in 15 different nations.

We also have that amphibious ship that I mentioned that will be supporting Haiti. It will provide medical support also through various countries, various ports within the region, similar to what the hospital ship Comfort did last year, where it saw over 100,000 different patients in eight different countries.

And then we, as I said, will continue to conduct multinational exercises with our partners.

We had a very successful year last year countering illicit trafficking. We were able to disrupt or seize over 229 metric tons of cocaine. We estimate that’s roughly about 25 percent of the cocaine that’s transiting through the maritime environments. We were able to treat in the various methods over 300,000 different patients in various countries through our medical readiness training opportunities. And we responded, as I said, to the crisis in Haiti, but also to support El Salvador as they suffered floods in the latter part of last year.

Our focus continues to be support the security and stability within the region, build our partnerships with our companion militaries within the region, and that effort continues as our focus throughout the year. So with that, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you. I’ll answer any questions.

MODERATOR: Please wait for the microphone, which will be coming from either side, and state your name and publication when you ask a question. We’ll come down here.

QUESTION: Thank you, General. My name is Sonia Schott with Globovision Venezuela. You described a lot of activities the U.S. is having with their partners in the region. I would like to know more about Venezuela. It is – it seems to me that you’ve been more one step forwards, two steps backwards. You first announced that there is some presence of Iranian – the Revolutionary Guard in Venezuela, and then you just, like, denied that. I would like to know, there is any possibility that Venezuela and the U.S. can improve their relations, their cooperation, in terms of security, in working together with the Southern Command in the near future. Thank you.

GEN FRASER: Thank you. We have over many, many years had very close, very strong relations with the armed forces of Venezuela. We continue to seek the opportunities to engage with the armed forces of Venezuela. At Joint Interagency Task Force South in Key West, there is a liaison position that remains available for Venezuela to fill. There are 13 other nations who have liaison officers there, both from a military standpoint as well as law enforcement. We continue to look for those opportunities.

We invite the armed forces of Venezuela to conferences, to attend education opportunities, and it has been their choice not to attend those. It has not been our desire to restrict them.

QUESTION: My question is regarding – so you don’t see in the near future that this relationship could change? And in the other case, in the other part of my question is, do you deny that there are presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Venezuela? Are you in any way in any position or do you have any information to say yes or no to these remarks?

GEN FRASER: What we have seen is a growing relationship between Iran and Venezuela over a number of years, primarily focused in the diplomatic as well as the commercial realm. But that’s what I know. I can’t tell you one way or the other how and what the extent of that relationship is in conjunction with that commercial and political activity.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

GEN FRASER: And as far as opportunities, as I look around Latin America and the Caribbean, my biggest concern is the impact that illicit trafficking is having on the security and stability throughout the region. We all need to cooperate to address that issue. The traffickers don’t respect borders. In fact, they exploit the borders – the political boundaries as well as the natural borders – and we all have to work together to be able to counter that effort.

MODERATOR: Okay. The gentleman down front here.

QUESTION: Thank you. Ruben Barrera with the Mexican news agency Notimex. I have two questions, General. One is on the issue of the illicit traffic of drugs. And that is, the figure that you gave us about the amount of cocaine that you seized last year seems to imply that there has been an increase in activity in the waters. I don’t know if you were talking about the Gulf of Mexico or the – excuse me – Pacific. But since I recall, you were very successful shutting down the air transit drugs through Miami, I would say maybe 20 years ago. And now, you know, because of this number, it seems like, you know, activity is growing. I would you like – you can clarify or go further in that sense?

And the second question is related with the possible deployment of an unmanned aerial vehicle in the border between Texas and Mexico. I think that there is a request. And if I’m not mistaken, I think that that part of the job is related to the Southern Command. I’m not sure about that, but I wonder, if that’s the case, I understand that there had been a request. I wonder, also, you can give us an update about that process.

GEN FRASER: Okay. Let me answer your second question first. From the way the United States has divided responsibilities within our armed forces, our relationship and coordination and partnership with the Mexican armed forces is really the responsibility of U.S. Northern Command, so I can’t answer your question on a UAV on the border, northern border between Mexico and the United States.

From an illicit trafficking standpoint, we see that the drug trafficking organizations – and we talk illicit trafficking because we see it as much than just drug trafficking. We see it as trafficking in arms, trafficking in humans, trafficking in bulk cash. So there’s a lot of different aspects to the trafficking. And so we’re looking to disrupt, disable any part of that effort.

We see and we have most knowledge of the maritime environments – Caribbean, eastern Pacific – and so that’s why you saw the numbers. We estimate that there are somewhere between 1,200 to 1,400 metric tons of cocaine that are trafficked from the northern part of South America to various parts of the world. Roughly 60 percent of that is destined for the United States, but a growing number of that – 30-some percent – is headed to Europe, a lot of it through western Africa, and then to markets also in the Middle East.

So it’s well-financed, and so as we try to stop and disrupt traffic in the maritime environments, the traffickers adjust their tactics also. We have been very successful and Colombia has been very successful at denying the air transit out of Colombia into the Caribbean, and the traffickers have just shifted to the east, and so we see more traffic emanating out of Venezuela now than we do out of Colombia.

If you look at the maritime environment, we see it coming out of both coasts, the Caribbean coast and north coast of Colombia, the western coast, as well as further south. But they tend to intercept in the Central American isthmus earlier and then now traffic up through the pan-American highway through the countries in Central America in through Mexico to the United States.

So we continue our efforts with our partners within each country there with our partner militaries, where we conduct the detection and monitoring, and work in coordination with law enforcement. So it is an ongoing effort to restrict this illicit trafficking.

MODERATOR: Okay, right there.

QUESTION: Hi, I’m Andrea Murta from Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil. My question is about the cooperation between the U.S. and Brazil in – against drug trafficking. There’s a summit on drug trafficking going on there, and the federal police of Brazil has used a term contrary to U.S. policy in describing their own proposals in regards to co-responsibility between production – producing countries and consuming countries, as opposed to a warfare policy, as they described it, because of the presence of U.S. troops around the region. And the way that the U.S. described the presence as necessary because of drugs. So if you could comment on that.

GEN FRASER: We’re working very closely with the Brazilian armed forces and through law enforcement, United States Government law enforcement is working with Brazilian law enforcement. We have an organization for United States Southern Command that is an interagency organization that’s headquartered in Key West. It’s called Joint Interagency Task Force South. It has 17 different agencies from the United States Government. It has 13 liaisons from various partner militaries as well as law enforcement, not only within Latin America but also from Europe. And so that is the organization where we coordinate between intelligence organizations, law enforcement organizations, and military organizations all together to try and disrupt the traffic through the maritime environment. And so that relationship is a growing relationship with Brazil.

There’s also a similar organization in Portugal, the MAOC, that we’re working to support as well and there’s good connectivity with. And I just visited Brazil about two to three weeks ago, and there is a discussion within Brazil of forming a similar type of organization – the Brazilian national police describe this – within Brazil to just make sure we can coordinate efforts throughout the region to diminish this issue.

From our standpoint, we look at illicit trafficking as an enterprise. It’s supply, it’s transit, it’s demand, it’s financing, and we have to address each one of those. And the U.S. Government has plans to do that. It’s working to coordinate those efforts with all our partners within Latin America and around the world, for that matter.

The U.S. military, much like many militaries and every military leadership I talk with, has a very defined role and a very supporting role. And our job is the detection and monitoring of illicit trafficking as it comes through the maritime environment. That’s our sole mission within this.

The reason I pay as much attention to it as I do is because of the destabilizing impact that it has potentially within countries in which drug trafficking organizations and also gangs are coming into and I don’t want it to become a military issue, and so the way to address that is to address it now while we still can cooperate and work between all our partner agencies.

MODERATOR: Lady in blue.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m Vanessa de le Torre with Caracol Television from Colombia. At this point, I don’t really understand what is the relationship between the Venezuelan Government and the Iranian Government, because what you said yesterday is across – I mean, it doesn’t go with the same sense that the Pentagon said at the beginning of last month. So I would like to know if there is an Iranian military presence in Venezuela or not. Are there guards from Iran in Venezuela or not? And if it’s – if it is yes, what is the – how do you understand that? Like a threat for – is it a threat for Colombia or how do – I mean, like, what is the sense that you see there?

GEN FRASER: Well, first, I can’t answer the specific parts of your question because only the governments of Venezuela and the governments of Iran understand the real extent of your question. So I’d ask those governments what the extent is.

What we see is a growing relationship between Iran and Venezuela, and that has been a diplomatic and a commercial activity, and that’s what we see. There is a military connection just from the arms sales to Venezuela. There is unmanned air vehicle capacity that Iran is supporting within Venezuela. So that is the military connection that I see between Iran and Venezuela. It’s just arms – support for arms.

QUESTION: Well, what that means for the region, in your opinion?

GEN FRASER: I see that there is that growing relationship. My concern in the relationship with Iran in the region is their historic connection with Hamas and Hezbollah, which we define as terrorist organizations. And so there are elements of those organizations within South America, within Latin America. And so we don’t see any direct threat or any concern with that now. Those organizations have been really focused on providing financial support to parent organizations within the Middle East.

MODERATOR: Down here to the front row.

QUESTION: Thanks, General. My name is Sergio Gomez from El Tiempo of Colombia. Recently, President Chavez denounced the presence of an RC-12 from the Air Force overflying the border because Colombia and Venezuela, and he said that it was conducting electronic warfare. Can you comment on that? Can you tell us if there was actually a plane overflying? And what was the plane doing there?

GEN FRASER: Well, the allegation is false. The United States has supported the Government of Colombia and the efforts in Colombia to counter the FARC and to counter the drug trafficking for a number of years, and we continue to support that effort. And so the flight activity that we have supports those efforts.

MODERATOR: Down here?

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m Julio Marenco with NTN 24 [TV, Colombia]. Let me go back to the issue of Iran and Venezuela. There seems to be a contradiction between this report coming from the Pentagon – excuse me – stating that there is a growing concern of the presence of the Iranian guard in Venezuela and you saying that you don’t have a specific concern – only Caracas and Tehran know what’s going on between them. How can we understand such different positions coming from the same branch of the government?

GEN FRASER: Well, I don’t see them as different positions. And there is a growing relationship between Iran and Venezuela. And so when you hear that report that is a report that talks about presence, there is a growing relationship and presence of Iran in their relationship with Venezuela. And so that’s what we see. So they are the same, and so I’d ask you just not to misinterpret the “presence” word, if you will. So we see a growing relationship.

MODERATOR: Are there additional questions?

QUESTION: Regarding drug trafficking, have you seen any improvement in the Venezuelan Government cooperation for the drug trafficking situation in the south – in the Latin American region?

GEN FRASER: There are continuing efforts, and we see efforts by and reports from the Government of Venezuela on their capture of parts of drug traffickers and cocaine. So there is those efforts ongoing on a routine basis. We don’t see that international cooperation that we would like to see as we work with all our partners within the region to address this issue.

MODERATOR: Okay, down there.

QUESTION: Hello. Melissa Cavo from Telam News Agency from Argentina. Besides the illicit trafficking, I would like to know where does the South Command have its attention today.

GEN FRASER: Well, it really is that focused. And the rest of the focus is just watching the security within the region. The other concern we have is the fact that – but it’s also related to drug trafficking, and it is the growth of gangs and criminal bands within the northern part of Central America. So that also is a concern. But again, all this activity, all the real issues that we deal with and are concerned about – and I hear from my counterparts increasingly throughout the region – is the focus and the concern on the illicit trafficking.

MODERATOR: Okay. Are there other questions? Perhaps from people who’ve not asked a question yet? (Laughter.) Just want to be fair. Okay, we’ll go to Brazil again.

QUESTION: Andrea Murta, Folha, de Sao Paulo, Brazil. When there was the announcement that the U.S. was going to restore the Fourth Fleet, there was a lot of talks and criticism in Brazil regarding that. And I was just wondering how that situation’s being treated right now between the two countries.

And another one, so that I can free the mike: Has there been any progress on the security agreement that was just made between the two countries?

GEN FRASER: The Fourth Fleet has provided us with great capacity. And just to make sure we’re all on the same level, the Fourth Fleet is an administrative fleet, so it’s an organization that helps us when it’s time to respond to a situation – that they have the command-and-control capacity to support the naval part of any response we have. Haiti is the perfect example of the support that the Fourth Fleet provided us. So in their hat – and they wear two hats; one is the Fourth Fleet but the other as the Navy South Commander. In their hat as Navy South, they coordinated for the ships and the capability that responded so quickly to be able ready and able to support our efforts in Haiti. We could not have done that without the command-and-control capacity and the ability of that fleet and that Navy South to be able to orchestrate that effort. So it’s provided us with superb capability.

And they continue to engage with all our partner navies throughout the region. And that’s a very cordial relationship. The navies have a very close relationship throughout the region. So that continues to grow. So I don’t see it as an issue that I hear about very much anymore. In fact, I don’t hear about it at all. It’s an issue that has helped us all engage and respond appropriately with – to issues and crises within the region.

The agreement in – the Defense Cooperative Agreement that we’ve signed with Brazil enables us to just continue our efforts to grow our partnerships within one another. And those have been going on for a long time. And I think the best example of that is – and I’ll use Haiti again as an example – General Keane happened to be there, who is my deputy commander, happened to be in Haiti at the time. Major General Peixoto was the commander of MINUSTAH at the time. They had served and trained together as captains in Brazil in a training exercise. General Keane had attended the staff college, the Brazilian staff college. So it’s those relationships that we form over a number of years that become so critical when we have to respond in crisis. And so that’s the relationship that we’ve grown. The DCA enables us to continue to enhance that relationship between our two militaries.

MODERATOR: Okay. We can take a couple more questions. I’ll go to Notimex.

QUESTION: Thank you. Ruben Barrera. General, going back to the issue of drugs, you say that the amount of cocaine that you seized last year as a percent – or you estimated that a percent – 25 percent of the total amount that you suspect moved in those waters. So again, the question is if – did this represent an increase of activity?

And just to have an idea – I wonder, you can give us the number for 2008 on all – in these type of issues.

GEN FRASER: Actually, if I remember right – and we’ll make sure we get the right numbers. In 2008, I think we were able to disrupt about – a little more, about 250 metric tons. And so all that shows to me is there is a change in tactics on the part of the drug trafficking organizations to counter the efforts that we have. So we continue to see about – in the last couple years, about a level amount of cocaine coming from the region.

Now, it’s changing in where it’s being grown. As Colombia becomes more successful and they have been able to eradicate and reduce the growth there, the traffickers have moved to other parts of the region. So they have begun to move into Peru and other places. So they continue to move as our individual government efforts are successful. And that’s why it’s important from my standpoint that we all work together, because we need to avoid that ability of them to move from one place to another. So we’ll continue to work those efforts.

The other thing that we see is the price of cocaine has been going up within the United States and the purity of the cocaine being sold has been going down. So that is our other indication of the fact that our efforts are having some effect.

MODERATOR: Okay, come down here again.

QUESTION: [Sonia Schott with Globovision Venezuela] I’m sorry for being that persistent. I just wanted to be clear. So, President Chavez yesterday welcomed your declaration (inaudible) saying that there is no Iranian military presence in Venezuela. So this is a fact. So what is the source of your concern specifically on Iran and Venezuela? Thanks.

QUESTION: First, are you concerned? (Laughter.)

GEN FRASER : Iranian activity in conjunction – and let me take it from beyond just Venezuela because Iran is involved with more countries in the region than just Venezuela, so they are engaged with – from a diplomatic standpoint and a commercial standpoint with many different countries within the region. And their interest has been growing, and their interest – from what I understand, it is a focus area for Iran to help support their political positions within the international community and to be able to get access to resources that they need. That’s as I see that relationship evolving. So my concern is, again, that the relationship that they have traditionally with Hamas and Hezbollah and the potential that that relationship bring parts of – that that relationship can cause us to have a illicit or a terrorist group that now enters into the Latin American region. And we have seen attacks in the past – 1994, Argentina, as an example.

And so my concern is with the illicit trafficking and a number of illicit trafficking avenues that there are there in the region, that it provides an opportunity for – an avenue to enter the United States. So that’s my concern at the potential. I don’t see any of that activity right now. I don’t – but I’m a skeptical person, I’m paid to be skeptical, so I’ll continue to watch.

MODERATOR: Are there any final questions? Perhaps not on Iran-Venezuela relations? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: I could – I was going to ask about Venezuela.

MODERATOR: One final question.

QUESTION: [Vanessa de le Torre with Caracol Television from Colombia] Do you have any information about FARC presence in Venezuela?

GEN FRASER: I don’t. What I have is that there is a relationship and it has been documented, a linkage between the Government of Venezuela and the FARC. That has been documented over a number of years. And the understanding I have is that that continues, and so that’s the focus and that’s the information that I have on the relationship between Venezuela and the FARC.

QUESTION: What kind of relationship?

GEN FRASER: It’s financial support. It’s enabling their capacity from a logistics standpoint. So it’s enabling their operations.

MODERATOR: Thank you all for coming. This event is now concluded.

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