A U.S. military general says gangs and organized crime rings have turned a part of Central America into one of the world's deadliest regions. He spoke about the U.S. Southern Command's efforts to boost regional stability and combat transnational criminal organizations.
General Douglas Fraser, commander of U.S. Southern Command, said transnational criminal organizations that traffic drugs, weapons, money and people operate without regard for laws or lives.
"And I think the best example of that is the northern triangle of Central America, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, which has become probably the deadliest zone in the world outside of active war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and others around the world," he said.
Fraser said United Nations' statistics illustrate the danger. "If we look at Iraq in 2010, the violent deaths per 100,000, according to U.N. numbers, was 14 per 100,000. In Honduras last year, it was 77 per 100,000. In El Salvador, it was 71 per 100,000," he said.
Fraser blamed gangs and well-financed criminal organizations for the deadly violence. He said, throughout the world, transnational criminal groups make about 300 to 400 billion dollars a year, giving them an advantage over governments and militaries.
And the fight is not just on land or in the skies. Fraser said criminals are using fully submersible vessels more frequently. "Vessels that can operate shallow, but beneath the surface of the ocean, and transit between the northern parts of South America into the northern parts of Central America and into Mexico," Fraser said.
Fraser added this is not a contained problem, saying criminal groups traffic goods and people throughout the region and into Europe and Africa.
The general said what is contained is the U.S. Southern Command's non-traditional role. The command builds and sustains military-to-military relationships with partner nations that are actively countering the threats. Fraser said activities include training exercises and expert exchanges to help boost the security capabilities of these nations. He said the U.S. also provides interceptor boats and communications equipment to partner navies.
As the U.S. builds upon its partnerships in the region, Iran is trying to expand its influence in Latin America. Fraser said Tehran, which does not have diplomatic relations with the United States, has doubled its number of embassies in the past five years and opened cultural centers in more than a dozen countries in the region.
"So I see them working to establish those relationships throughout the region in an effort, again in my assessment, to reduce the potential for international isolation and also to reduce U.S. influence, if you will, wherever they are partnering," Fraser said.
Fraser added that while Southern Command helps nations combat transnational criminal activity, the military remains ready to respond to natural disasters that could devastate the region.