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The Caribbean: The third U.S. border

Hilton A. McDavid







Source: Hilton A. McDavid

Caribbean and North American security challenges are intertwined. The basin has become a major conduit for illegal trafficking whose profits are reinforcing terrorist networks. North American leaders should recast their security agenda accordingly, and deal with these emerging challenges jointly.

The end of the Cold War and 9-11 have produced a more complex international security environment. The threats of terrorism and transnational crime cannot be mitigated by any single country regardless of its military might. This new paradigm led Foreign Policy editor Moisés Naím to term the booming illegal trade in drugs, arms, intellectual property, people and money as “the five wars of globalization.” Naím remarked that, like the war on terrorism, the fight to control these illicit markets pits governments against agile, stateless and resourceful networks empowered by globalization. Governments will continue to lose these wars until they adopt new, co-ordinated strategies to deal with this unprecedented struggle.

In the new security environment we are faced with entangled international and domestic issues, linking threats inextricably. As Figure 1 demonstrates, Caribbean security challenges have become North American challenges, as the basin is a major conduit for illicit trafficking and can facilitate the terrorist link to transnational organized crime.

The Caribbean nations lie largely along an arc. Belize, Guyana and Suriname have land boundaries whereas all the other nations along the arc are island nations. According to 2009 United States Southern Command data, 970 metric tons or 67 per cent of South American cocaine production passes through Central America, including its Caribbean maritime territory; 220 metric tons or 15 per cent transits directly through the Caribbean island territorial waters into the U.S. However, with the current violent situation in Mexico and U.S. intensive counter measures, more is bound to be redirected through the islands’ territories.

As the U.S.’s southern flank or third border, the Caribbean basin provides space for organized crime and terrorists to attack American interests directly and indirectly. For instance, two Caribbean Community (CARICOM) countries —Antigua and Barbuda, and the Bahamas— facilitate U.S. military infrastructure critical to its space program. The Bahamas is home to the Atlantic Underwater Testing and Evaluation Center (AUTEC), which is responsible for the research and development of undersea warfare.

Jamaica provides a significant proportion of total U.S. bauxite and alumina imports. In addition, three CARICOM countries are oil producers —Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname and Barbados. Trinidad and Tobago also supplies most of the liquefied natural gas consumed in the U.S.

More indirectly, the region is key to North American vital interests since vessels with critical supplies that transit the Panama Canal have to negotiate the Caribbean Sea to and from U.S. East Coast destinations.

Clearly, the global security situation has made this geographical space a political space.

The Caribbean is now of particular importance to Canada and the U.S. in their fight against transnational organized crime and what they refer to as their “War on Terror.” The penetration of the Canadian and U.S. borders by drugs trans-shipped through the Caribbean and the use of the islands as an in-transit destination for human trafficking into North America are well documented.

But the Caribbean basin also provides some protection against terrorism and attacks on Canada and the U.S.

U.S. national security experts, such as Stephen Flanagan and James Schear of the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, suggest that Washington’s strategy for homeland defence is characterized by “an active, layered defence to deter, intercept, and defeat threats at a safe distance.” Mexico, mainland Central America, northern South America (which includes the CARICOM countries of Guyana and Suriname), and the Caribbean archipelago make up the southern geographic approaches that offer comparable depth to that afforded by Canada to the North. This has definitely created a need for a multi-dimensional approach to enhancing mutual security in the Caribbean. The basin should now be treated as a geo-strategic whole rather than a series of bilateral relationships. This approach would proceed from the recognition that there is a direct connection between the disruption of entrenched transnational criminal networks and the ability to effectively counter terrorism.

It is therefore critically important that the CARICOM bloc be factored into North American defence plans. The governments of the CARICOM countries have as their major security concerns transnational crime and its societal impacts, and they are also addressing human trafficking. This should be considered consistent with the North American defence strategy, as there is a strong potential for collusion among gangs, criminal networks and terrorist groups to advance their separate missions. The 2004 Madrid bombers, for example, morphed from transnational criminals to transnational terrorists. There is also significant evidence of functional networking and financial support among these disruptive groups. Indeed, CARICOM governments themselves are highly aware of and sensitive to the role they can play in North American security planning —perhaps more aware than their American counterparts.

Hilton A. McDavid is Adjunct Professor of National Security Affairs at the National Defense University, Washington, D.C.

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