U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told leaders from the Eastern Caribbean Friday the United States is prepared to do more to help them fight the drug trade and tackle other regional security challenges.
Secretary Gates stopped here for a meeting of the seven-nation Regional Security System, an organization that tries to coordinate the security efforts of the region's small island-states, particularly in fighting illegal drug trafficking. Secretary Gates acknowledged that the region is under more pressure from traffickers, in part due to Mexico's counter-narcotics effort, being made with U.S. assistance.
"Wherever you put pressure, the traffickers will go where there is less pressure and where there is less capability," said the US defense secretary.
Gates said he would like to see closer links between the regional security system and U.S. anti-drug efforts, and those of other countries, such as Peru and Colombia, which the secretary visited earlier in the week.
The secretary also noted that the United States is giving the Caribbean region $45 million in security-related assistance this year through the new Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, and hopes to raise that to $70 million next year. The money is used to help local military and police forces, but also to help create educational and employment opportunities on the islands in order to address what Gates called the "root causes" of many of the region's problems.
The host for the meeting, Barbados Prime Minister David Thompson acknowledged the link between crime and the poverty on many of the islands.
"We consider it to be a threat to our individual national and regional well-being, in every sense of the word, because every dollar that we have to divert to security expenditure is a dollar less that we can spend on social programs, on programs that deal with the real challenges that our people face on a daily basis," he said..
Prime Minister Thompson also said the powerful drug cartels can have disproportionate influence in small countries like those of the Eastern Caribbean.
But former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Noriega, who is now at the American Enterprise Institute research organization, says even relatively small amounts of well-targeted U.S. aid can also have a disproportionate effect.
"We need to look at the economies of scale, where we can make a big impact with a large part of the hemisphere that is vulnerable to drug trafficking and migration trafficking," said Noriega. "We can make contributions with few inputs," he added.
Secretary Gates said he heard from the Caribbean security officials at Friday's meeting that they feel the United States reduced its presence in the region after the September 11 attacks in 2001, as it focused on global terrorism and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he said the security initiative and his visit here are evidence the Obama Administration is changing that.