COMALAPA, EL SALVADOR - The top U.S. commander in Latin America and the Caribbean says illicit narcotics money is now a “big part” of financing Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government.
“If you're a cartel leader, you now see an easy pathway through Venezuela into commercial shipping and air to distribute your product, and Maduro and his illegitimate regime are getting a cut,” Admiral Craig Faller, the commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), told VOA in an exclusive interview.
He added that illicit narcotics trafficking through Venezuela is now making it more difficult for the United States and its allies to detect, monitor and interdict illegal drugs.
SOUTHCOM helped interdict 280 metric tons of illegal drugs last year, and U.S. drug deaths were down for the first time in 25 years, albeit only a decrease of 5%.
“We had very, an excellent year in 2019, Fiscal Year ‘19, but it's never enough. We've got to be able to do more on the interdiction,” Faller said.
The interview, edited for brevity, is below:
Admiral Craig Faller, U.S. Southern Command: We're making an important and good progress in the (drug) interdiction. A lot of this is assisted with our partners, and there's no better partners than El Salvador. El Salvador is actively engaged in defending the homeland of the United States, helping us stop the flow of illicit drugs.
Carla Babb, VOA: If we were to lose the access that we have the partnership with El Salvador, what would that do? Would we be blind in the war on drugs on the Pacific?
Faller: It's critical that we have our access, our placement and the information that we gain here in the maritime patrol aircraft that hub out of here are absolutely essential in piecing that together. Would we be blind? We wouldn't be blind, but we would, we would be degraded in our ability to see the picture. And that would impact the interdictions, which would impact lives and families in the United States. We had very, an excellent year in 2019, Fiscal Year ‘19, but it's never enough. We've got to be able to do more on the interdiction. We've got to be able to put more pressure on the supply side, and our really good partners like the Colombians have stepped up. I was out eradicating coca with Colombian Defense Forces, and they're working hard because they know how important this is for the United States, and it also affects their security.
VOA: Is 2019 shaping up to be a record year for the amount of drugs collected?
Faller: We're analyzing the statistics. We had it, we had success. We made a difference. We know we saved lives. It's too early to say where that number will come, but the team worked hard because they know how important the mission is. And we worked hard with our partners. That's key. Between 40 and 50% of our introductions were partnerships with countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, where we work together.
No one nation can go alone when it comes to the security of this neighborhood, this hemisphere of ours — it's our neighborhood, these are our neighbors. We are all Americans. And so that's been one of the real areas of progress is the amount of partnership, the amount that other nations have stepped up to really get in this because they know that flow of material through El Salvador affects their security as well.
VOA: And so when we talk about the making a difference, drug deaths are down in the United States for the first time in 25 years. What do you make of that?
Faller: It is a whole government effort. I credit that to the hard work of our team at SOUTHCOM. The Coast Guard — our United States Coast Guard — is critical in that and they have really stepped up in a way that should make every single American proud. Our Navy has supplied critical assets like the P/8. So this, this team working together and the partners. Our security cooperation programs have developed partnerships with El Salvador. These are professionals that we trust. That don't succumb to corruption and do the right thing. And they're working with us because it's important to both of our countries.
VOA: Now, you had mentioned recently earlier this month that drug trafficking in Venezuela had increased by about 50%. What exactly does that look like for the war on drugs, the US war on drugs?
Faller: The illegitimate Maduro regime, at the expense of his people, it’s sad, has facilitated an increase of all types of illicit activity. And that's drug flow, that's terrorism, it's illegal mining. This drug flow has been part of that. So if you're a cartel leader, you now see an easy pathway through Venezuela into commercial shipping and air to distribute your product, and Maduro and his illegitimate regime are getting a cut. Maduro does whatever it takes to keep his team in self in power, and this is a big part of keeping his finances going--illicit narcotics money.
VOA: So how does that affect us?
Faller: It complicates our ability to interdict narcotics, because when it leaves Venezuela, it could leave hidden in cargo of a commercial fishing vessel, commercial ship or in a commercial airliner or an airplane. And that complicates our ability to detect, monitor and interdict certainly, and we see that particularly in the air and on the sea that those pathways have increased. And that's to the advantage of Maduro and no one else.
VOA: And you said recently also that Venezuela is exacerbating the situation in your region. What did you mean by that exactly?
Faller: So the migration, now close to 5 million, has strained the social services of the hemisphere. So that's one. Certainly the illicit narcotics traffic that is now a pathway that makes it more difficult for all of us to detect, monitor and interdict is another.
The ties to Cuba, ties to Russia, the ties to Iran and to some extent China are unhelpful as they work to prop up the illegitimate regime and support a nation that's not a democracy. Our response has been primarily in planning and the deployment of the United States Naval Ship (USNS) Comfort two times in one year. Where (USNS) Comfort has brought hope to the people that need it the most, those that are affected by that crisis and the social systems. Unfortunately, it hasn't gone to where it's needed the most in Venezuela because it's not a democratic nation and we can't port our, bring our ship in there to provide the Comfort. With hope, maybe one day.
VOA: You mentioned the two deployments. Is there anything more than the U.S. military can do? I mean, this is a real crisis. People are starving. People are, you know, have nowhere to go. I believe the number of Venezuela’s refugees are going to surpass the number of Syrian refugees in 2020. It's expected to grow to that large of a number. What more can the military do?
Faller: It’s, having been out there on the (USNS) Comfort a couple times and seeing the face of the people and how it’s tearing apart moms and dads, and we're looking at Thanksgiving here and we brought them hope. So, our military working with the rest of our government is bringing hope, and we're with the people of Venezuela. I think there's a lot, there's a lot in that.
Beyond that we're planning for a range of contingencies. It's what you expect us to do. It's what our chain of command has asked us to do so we would be ready. I won't go into any more detail than that. There's going to be a day after. There's going to be a legitimate government. (It) can't happen soon enough for the people of Venezuela, unfortunately. And when that happens, they've got to restore social services, sewage, water, electricity, everything else that the inept, corrupt, illegitimate Maduro regime has destroyed and ruined. They've all got to be built up. It’s not a military role there, but we would be in support of that to provide the types of things that militaries do: planning, perhaps some lifts, whatever we're asked to do.
VOA: You mentioned hope, and so that makes me think about another crisis that we have — not just the Venezuelan refugees, but we've got the people trying to get to the United States from here, from Honduras. You've spoken to your counterparts. What are these countries doing to try to alleviate the problems that are sending these migrants to the US border?
Faller: Earlier this year, we had the opportunity to go out in some neighborhoods in El Salvador and Honduras and sat with some young men and women that had participated in a caravan, gone all the way up into Mexico and come all the way back down. They came all the way back down and returned. And so you ask them, “Why do you leave your home?” And it's all, it's basic. It's no hope, didn't feel safe, no food, no job.
“Didn't you know it was going to be dangerous?” We knew. But when you don't have anything and you need something, you move out. “Why'd you come back?” Because it was even more dangerous along that migration route than what we expected. And with assistance, they had found employment and were gaining some hope. And so there's a complex array of factors that go into this. And when I meet with military members, militaries in these countries, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, they're in support of their government.
They're doing their part to try to explain to the people that this isn't the best option. It's hard to convince somebody that doesn’t have any food that it's not the best option. But we're seeing progress, the numbers are down. And we're working hard to do our part in the U.S. military, Southern Command, and work with our partners. A lot of that is sharing information, looking for where the migration intersects with other illicit activity. So there is a connection between transnational criminal organizations that principally work in the counter, in the narcotics to other illicit. They'll do whatever they can to make a buck. And if that means working with illegal migration of people, they'll do it.
VOA: Do we have teams that are targeting these criminals?
Faller: We assist our partners at the US Embassy in sharing information, intelligence primarily, about what we know and what we don't know. And then we work in some partner capacity building — building intelligence networks, surveillance that supports the nation, But it's all assistance.
VOA: Should we do more than that? Should we do more than information sharing? Should we go outside the wire ourselves?
Faller: I think we're doing exactly what we should be doing. And these, the nation's, this is primarily a policing effort for the partner nations or border nation. And most of their militaries are in support of that. And that's, I think, the right balance. And I don't, I don't think we should be in actively engaged in that. Look at a nation like El Salvador. These (are) extremely capable armed forces. They fought with us in Iraq. They fought with us in Afghanistan. And they currently are deploying a helicopter company to Mali as part of the UN peacekeeping mission. A lot of their force right now is focused inward to help their police, but they truly understand that they play a role regionally and beyond and that's because the training and assistance that we provide.
VOA: We’re here in El Salvador where China has been courting El Salvador, trying to put a port here. Does it concern you as a military officer that China could be this close to the United States?
Faller: I don't ask for partners that choose. I don't, but we do talk about values, democracy, human rights, rule of law, respect, integration of women and non-commissioned officers into our formations. And we see it the same. These officers and enlisted have been trained with us and trained in U.S. schools. We are on the same page, the same sheet of music when it comes to those basic principles. I do then pivot and I say, “China's going to come dangling some very attractive offer, perhaps, but remember where they stand on all those things democracy rules based order, respect for property. And you make a choice.”
VOA: What is the biggest threat now in the region? And then where does the concern of the rising violence--we look at Bolivia, right now and we see violence. Are you concerned that that could go from protest to something bigger?
Faller: There's a vicious circle of threats that affect the security of the United States that jeopardize a peace and prosperity and democracy right here in our neighborhood. Right here. And that vicious circle is on young governments. These are young democracies, civil wars within our lifetime right here. They have young, emerging institutions, and institutions are the strength of our democracy, like the United States military. They're susceptible, these young institutions here, to corruption. They're susceptible to transnational criminal organizations, which breed on corruption and will deal in anything they can to make themselves a buck and stay powerful and strong. And they're often better funded than the security institutions that they face here. Those external powers that we talked about — China, Russia — they thrive on those same sorts of conditions. And that's a threat.