Telephonic Press Briefing with U.S. Southern Command’s Civilian Deputy to the Commander and Foreign Policy Advisor, Ambassador Jean Manes, and Director of Operations, Rear Adm. Andrew Tiongson
U.S. Department of State
August 28, 2020
The Miami Hub
Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Media Hub of the Americas in Miami, Florida. I would like to welcome our participants who have dialed in from the United States and across the region.
This is an on-the-record conference call with U.S. Southern Command’s Civilian Deputy to the Commander and Foreign Policy Advisor, Ambassador Jean Manes, and Director of Operations, Rear Adm. Andrew Tiongson. The speakers will discuss U.S. security cooperation in Latin America and the Caribbean with a focus on enhanced counternarcotics operations. Each will give opening remarks and then answer questions from participating journalists. And with that, I’ll turn it over to Ambassador Manes.
Ambassador Manes: Great. Thank you, Namita, and thank you to the Miami Media Hub for hosting us today. It’s a real privilege to be here, and so thanks everybody for joining. I hope that you and your loved ones are all safe and healthy in this complicated time.
I just want to focus this morning for a few minutes on the hemisphere and why it matters. It’s obviously the hemisphere that we share, that we live in, and our commitment from the United States is strong. And as part of that, we want to ensure that this hemisphere is secure, prosperous, and free. And that has a whole range of components to it.
And so here at U.S. Southern Command, we work daily – excuse me – we work daily with the chiefs of defense and security officials from around the hemisphere, from Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, including just yesterday we hosted a South American defense conference for security officials, and we’ve done the same over the past two months with the Caribbean and with Central America. Those are annual events. Of course, this time we did it virtually, and so hopefully next year we’ll be back to in person. But in those events, we discussed the full range of security challenges and how the United States can be the best partner to help ensure this hemisphere continues to be secure and prosperous.
And so with that, I just want to turn to the humanitarian assistance components of our support. U.S. Southern Command has a humanitarian assistance program, and we have for many years. We use it in combination with exercises with other support. It can be help building a school. It can be medical supplies. And over the last five months in this new, shared crisis that we’ve been in together, we have done over 300 projects for $17 million across 24 countries. And really, it has been a 24/7 operation to support our partners in the hemisphere.
And so everything from medical supplies to cleaning supplies to assistance in general, we’ve tried to get rapid first responder assistance on the ground to support the needs of our partners. And I’ll mention at U.S. Southern Command, I think we all think of the military, but it really is an interagency operation.
So at Southern Command there’s obviously myself in this position as the civilian deputy, but we also have other interagency representatives, including a representative from the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, as well as Department of Homeland Security and other U.S. government entities. What that allows is for us to really take an integrated approach to humanitarian assistance and make sure that we’re getting the right things in a country at the right time to make use of taxpayer money. And so we’ve done a combined effort.
And so in doing that, we look at USAID, we look at what we’re doing, and we combine those efforts. And overall the United States has delivered over $200 million worth of assistance to this hemisphere. And just in ventilators alone, over 2,200 ventilators have been delivered by USAID, and that is more than any other region in the world where we’ve made those kinds of deliveries. Why is that? Because this hemisphere matters. It matters to the security of the United States. It matters for economic reasons. It matters because of our – our family ties. All across the board.
And so we’ve really been sprinting every day to try and work with our partners across the hemisphere. And so with that, we’re going to roll out new assistance, and we started this week, including medical field hospitals. And so if you go online – and Namita can help direct you to that – at our SOUTHCOM social media, we started with Costa Rica where there’ll be field medical hospital tents, and we’ll be delivering 24 of these to 11 countries in the hemisphere. And so again, we’re trying to get out with what our partners need: rapid assistance to ensure the stability of the region.
And so with that, I’m going to pass it over to my colleague, Adm. Tiongson, who is going to focus on our enhanced counternarcotics operations that we’ve been engaged in since January with the approval of the President. So over to you, Admiral.
Rear Adm. Tiongson: Thank you, Ambassador, and good morning. Thank you all for dialing in to participate in this teleconference. I’d like to especially thank our colleagues in the State Department for their support and collaboration in setting up this call.
As many – as you know, and the Ambassador just referred to it, in this year President Trump and Secretary of Defense Esper took decisive action and directed that U.S. Southern Command conduct an enhanced counternarcotics effort in our area of operations. This enabled us to more effectively detect the illicit trafficking of deadly narcotics and to disrupt transnational criminal organizations who are well-financed, well-equipped, and highly adaptable.
This enhancement to our operations has allowed us to continue to fight and disrupt the vicious circle of threats that exists in our shared neighborhood and depends on criminal opportunists who have no regard for human life and are intent on making a profit off of their poisonous and illicit trade.
This operation includes maritime patrol aircraft, flight deck-capable ships, embarked helicopters, and law enforcement detachments. It has increased our targeting capability by 80 percent. These force packages support our objectives to degrade the capabilities of drug trafficking organizations, save lives, and defend the homeland.
I want to underscore that our efforts against this threat are multinational, and they take a whole-of-government, all-domains approach. Twenty-two nations are contributing to this operation and 16 federal agencies, all represented at the task force that is leading this operation: The Joint Interagency Task Force South in Key West, Florida.
Our partner nations in the region have participated in almost 60 percent of all of our disruptions during this operation. That is up over 50 percent over last year’s participation levels. These partnerships are key to the success of our security operations, and these operations are a significant part of our enduring commitment to our partners here in the region.
In conclusion, as evidenced by the cocaine offload at Port Everglades, Florida, yesterday – the Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton offloading 28,500 pounds of seized illicit narcotics – our multinational, whole-of-government, all-domains approach for counternarcotics is detecting, disrupting, and defeating drug smugglers.
These drugs will not be added – these 28,500 illicit drugs will not be added to the devastating effects of drug-related crime and deaths in our cities, towns, parks, and playgrounds. And there are many, many more drugs, illicit drugs, that have been seized. Our effort is about national security. Nearly 70,000 people die from drug-related deaths each year. Every interdiction is a defeat for the transnational criminal organizations they work for. And our goal is to get after these enterprises leading to a secure, free, and prosperous hemisphere. Again, thank you for listening. And with that, I’d like to yield to any questions that you may have for the Ambassador and myself. Thank you very much.
Moderator: Thank you both. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. For those asking questions on the English line, please state your name and affiliation and limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing.
Our first question was submitted in advance by Amilcar Avila of Publinews in Guatemala, and the question is: “What does your support consist of for the strategies that you are coordinating with the Government of Guatemala in the fight against drugs? Do you – have you identified places in Guatemala where the passage or transfer of drugs has increased?”
Ambassador Manes: So this is Ambassador Manes. I’ll start with that and then pass it over to the Admiral. So overall, the U.S. Southern Command’s role in the drug interdiction process focuses on detection and monitoring, and then we pass it off to what are called law enforcement elements who either action it in the United States or local law enforcement that actions it in a host country. And so what we’ve seen over time, particularly over the last five months with COVID-19, is that drug traffickers are transitioning methods.
Because of the port closures, because of the airplane closures, the drug traffickers have had to adapt. And they have. And so you’ve seen different routes increase. And I’ll let Admiral – I’ll let Adm. Tiongson talk about those, including the different routes and the – the relationship to Venezuela with that. But you have seen an adaptation of the drug traffickers, which you would expect, and it also comes as we’ve enhanced maritime assets, and they’ve chosen not to go the sea route. So I’ll pass it over to the Admiral to answer some of the more specific questions.
Rear Adm. Tiongson: Well, thank you, Ambassador. And I want to – I want to foot-stomp on what you said there. I think what we are observing is that with our enhanced counternarcotics operation, with a great deal of focus on the maritime aspect of the drug-smuggling issue, what we – what we see is we see transnational criminal organizations potentially adapting to this force that’s out in those traditional routes. Of course, I also think that that is – that COVID-19 is – is playing a role here as well.
And as the ambassador was leading to, in terms of traditional routes in availability of, I’ll say, maritime vessels and ports and those things, as things are tightening up all around the world, but certainly, if you combine those things with our enhanced operations and COVID impacts, transnational criminal organizations are forced to change their typical methods. And I think what we’re seeing is we’re seeing air trafficking that’s happening.
And what I would like to point to with air trafficking is that I mentioned earlier our partner nations, 22 of them are involved with us in working in this enhanced counternarcotics effort. And what that means is that our reach is much further than just the maritime. And as I mentioned before, it’s all domains. So these air-trafficking events, we’re getting after those too. We’re seeing more of these. This is – this is, I think as I mentioned earlier, a result of enhanced maritime that we have out there, advanced maritime assets that we have out there, and COVID-19. And we’re adjusting to get after this, just as I said previously. So thank you for that question. I appreciate that.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Alex at InSight Crime. Alex, if I could ask you to please pronounce your full name since I’m sure I’m going to get it wrong.
Question: Yeah. Hello? Can you hear me?
Moderator: Yes. You’re a little fuzzy, though. Are you able to be closer to your phone?
Question: Okay. Sure, yeah. Hi. So my name is Alex Papadovassilakis. I’m a researcher for InSight Crime in Guatemala City. So kind of in the same vein as the last question, so one of the things we’ve been noticing here in Central America is a rising amount of cocaine seizures along the land routes that starts in the Honduran Caribbean, passes through northern Guatemala, and then continues to the Mexican border. And that includes seizures in trucks, in ports and in [inaudible] jets. Could you say or does it mean that the Central American Caribbean land route has returned to the same or similar level that it was at in the early or mid-2010s before the fall of major drug cartels like the Cachiros in Honduras or the Mendozas in Guatemala?
And if I may follow up with a related question: Do you have an idea of who are the main groups running the show in Central America now that so many Guatemalan and Honduran kingpins have been extradited to the U.S.? Thank you.
Ambassador Manes: Great. I’ll start with that and then pass it over to the Admiral. When we look at the partnership that we have with countries across the hemisphere on the enhanced counternarcotics operations, it’s really quite remarkable in the sense of in a very difficult environment where there is a lot of domestic requirements for security forces to assist, that not only did they not step back from joining with us on enhanced counternarcotics, but they’ve done even more, as the Admiral has pointed out.
In particular for Guatemala, if we want to talk about the change and the adaptation of transnational criminal networks and the narcotraffickers, again, they have adapted routes to adapt to the closures of ports, the increased maritime patrols from us and other countries. And whether that’s going to last or not or whether once the ports open up or once the air flights open up, will they go back to those routes? That’s a good question. I think I’ll turn it to the Admiral for that.
But we’ve also noticed a stockpiling of drugs. And so, because of the lack of availability of traditional routes, we do expect, once COVID-19 starts to move through the region and we come out of it, we do expect larger shipments, which is why this enhanced counternarcotics and the partnership is so important that we continue pressing ahead so that we’re ready for those. Over to you, Admiral.
Rear Adm. Tiongson: Thank you again, Ambassador, and thank you for really answering that question. I think what I would like to add to the question is – and I want to focus on this part again, as I mentioned – a multinational effort, a whole-of-government effort in all domains. That includes this land domain.
And what’s key to running a massive effort like this is certainly those partnerships and continuing to build those partnership capacities. And the Ambassador mentioned some of those things and what we do, but there is other things, too, that we’re doing to build those partnership capacities. And I would say that this humanitarian assistance program is also part of that. So we can’t lose track of how it all is intertwined and helps us, in general, get after this thought of a secure, prosperous, and free hemisphere.
To answer that question directly, what I’d like to say is if we are forcing the drug‑trafficking organizations to move closer inland instead of going on long routes, for example around the Galapagos and up, then we are being successful, and we are causing those transnational criminal organizations to change their methods. And now what that calls for, again, is that multinational, whole-of-government approach on all domains and the land domain.
And I think what we’ve heard is that those seizures are increasing on that land domain in Guatemala. And that, to me, is confirmation that we are having an impact – an impact in the region. And I think that’s important for all of us. Thank you.
Moderator: Our next question goes to Nora Gamez of The Miami Herald.
Question: Hi, good morning. Thank you for doing this. Can you point to specific interdictions involving drugs that have been smuggled by the Maduro regime or that have passed through Venezuela?
Ambassador Manes: So again, over – on that question, we have seen a significant increase in drug trafficking over and through Venezuela. And I’m going to turn it over to the admiral to talk specifically about some of those interdictions. Some of them we’ve seen recently in Guatemala and other countries where those flights have been tracked leaving – leaving Venezuela, going to Guatemala and then intended a road route up. So, Admiral, over to you for that.
Rear Adm. Tiongson: Thank you again, Ambassador. And again, I’ll foot-stomp exactly what you just said. In terms of what we see with the – I’m going to say the illegitimate Maduro regime, is we see that Venezuela is becoming kind of a safe haven for these illicit drug traffickers and narcoterrorists. We believe that people within the government are involved in drug trafficking. We have seen a significant increase in drugs that are flowing out of Venezuela, heading to Central America, heading to Europe.
And we – and we have also just – we want to always support what the Venezuelan people need, which is their right in their democratic government to be installed. So we are watching that closely and, again, that is part of our fight, if you will. We are getting after those drug shipments to the best means and capabilities that we have. So thank you very much for that question.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Yoranmi Santiago of Noticias SIN from the Dominican Republic. “What actions have you considered for supporting the Dominican Republic in order to reduce narcotrafficking and drug dealing?”
Ambassador Manes: So for that, I’m going to turn it over to you, Admiral. We’ve got – again, for U.S. Southern Command, we focus on supporting detection and monitoring and how we can support in country, whether that’s maintaining of assets, so in terms of perhaps it’s purchasing ships or boats that they can use to monitor their own ports and their own waters; whether that’s intelligence sharing that we do across countries; and whether that’s training of officials to identify those networks. We have a range of assistance that we do for detection and monitoring.
And then the other members of the U.S. Government interagency, like INL, which is International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, they focus on working with the police forces in country that go after those interdictions. They focus on other assets. So it really is an interagency effort that partners with individual countries to try and increase their own capacity to go after these networks. And so with that, Admiral, I’ll pass it over to you.
Rear Adm. Tiongson: Thank you again, Ambassador. I think what I would like to focus in on in your response is exactly what the U.S. Southern Command’s role is, and you mentioned it, and that is detection and monitoring. So all of those assets that I talked about, what we – what we do, and I referred to it as targeting, is through our detection and monitoring processes, we have increased that targeting to about 80 percent over previous years. That’s tremendous. And what we do with that targeting information is we provide that to law enforcement agencies, international and/or U.S., and those law enforcement agencies conduct the interdictions, the arrests, if you will, the prosecutions, the actual seizures.
So our role is really to detect, monitor, and hand off to have a successful – I’ll call it an end game. And how we – how we do that is what the Ambassador was talking about. We do that with other countries, with other countries’ law enforcement agencies. We work, we partner, we build that partnership capacity, if you will. It helps them improve, helps us improve, and together it improves how we get after this problem, this horrible problem of illicit drug trafficking. And that’s why, again, I say it’s so imperative that we really do a great job in building this partnership capacity, and that comes, as the Ambassador said, in a range of assistance – through the humanitarian assistance program, through security assistance programs that we have, through a whole-of-government type of assistance to partner nations. And that’s how I’ll answer that question. So thank you again for that question. Over.
Moderator: We have time for one last question, and that goes to Alejandra Arredondo of Voice of America.
Question: Hello, good morning, and thank you for doing this. So just following up on my colleague’s question about Venezuela, so I want to follow up on that question and say again if you can give us sort of a list or something of achievements or intercessions that the counternarcotics program has done in the region in relation to Venezuela. That would be great. Thank you very much.
Ambassador Manes: Great. On the specificity of a list, we’ll have to get back to you on that. I know the most recent ones that we have publicly commented on, which have been flights going through Venezuela and leaving from Venezuela that have gone to Guatemala and a couple of other places, and so I believe it was Costa Rica. And so we can look at giving you that list. But there has been a significant increase in those air flights going over, through, and departing from Venezuelan territory. And again, as drug traffickers are changing their routes, they go to the place that’s the easiest to operate, and clearly that’s an impact from the Maduro regime in terms of the lawlessness that exists and the ability to have free movement, the ability to have even complicit arrangements with the regime on drug trafficking as whether – as well as other illegal activity that’s coming back. Admiral, did you want to comment on more specific recent interdictions related to Venezuela?
Rear Adm. Tiongson: Thank you, Ambassador. And I don’t want to comment on specific interdictions and where they are tied to and how they go back to either a transnational criminal organization or illegitimate regimes. I think those are in the investigatory part of this effort that’s happening, so I don’t want to specifically talk to those.
What I will do, and I’ll say this again, that under the – under Maduro, Venezuela has become a criminal paradise of impunity for narcoterrorists and drug traffickers, and again, where the people of Venezuela are forced to endure this nightmare of insecurity. We see that. We see that tied to the drug – the illicit drug trade and one way of getting at these larger organizations, which is our goal. So, of course, we’re interested in drug smugglers, but really, as I stated previously, our goal is to get to the transnational criminal organizations, those enterprises. And that starts, again, with each one of these interdictions that we see at sea or in airfields throughout the region, and we certainly saw that with the successful homecoming of the Coast Guard Cutter Hamilton just yesterday, again, with 28,500 pounds of illicit narcotics seized and onboard being turned over.
So I appreciate that question. I don’t want to specifically get into those particular transnational criminal organizations that may be tied to these drug seizures that we’re having, as well as an illegitimate government that may be involved, or is involved, I should say, in this drug trade. So thank you for that question.
Moderator: I would like to invite Ambassador Manes to give a few remarks in closing.
Ambassador Manes: Great, thank you, Namita, and thanks, everybody, for dialing in.
Appreciate everybody’s focus on this. And again, our partnerships in this hemisphere are robust and strong, and the U.S. commitment to this hemisphere remains at a heightened level, and that includes our enhanced counternarcotics operations, but it also includes our focus on humanitarian assistance. The fact that we have given over $200 million from the United States to this hemisphere over the last five months is simply remarkable, and that spans everything from USAID focusing on more mid- to long-term resiliency of health systems, to the role of SOUTHCOM and immediate assistance, whether that’s medical supplies or cleaning supplies or now, as we move into the delivery of medical field hospitals that started in Costa Rica this week and will expand out to 11 countries.
And so our commitment is strong. We’ll continue to work with our partners to build their own capacity and we’ll continue to work on making this hemisphere more secure, more prosperous, and more free, and that’s in the interest of all of us. And we have great partners in the hemisphere and couldn’t be more proud to work at U.S. Southern Command and be a part of this team that focuses on this hemisphere each and every day.
Moderator: And now over to Rear Adm. Tiongson for his closing comments.
Rear Adm. Tiongson: Thank you, and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. I feel honored to have that opportunity. We talked a lot here about the enhanced counternarcotics effort, but I would say again that all of this is really underscored or built upon our partners, our partnership capacities within the region. We are not as successful in this endeavor for counternarcotics without those key partnerships. And as I mentioned previously, nearly 60 percent of our – of all of our illicit drug disruptions our partner nations participated in, and it’s a lot. It’s about 140 – 150-plus metric tons of cocaine that have been disrupted in the region. That happens that partnerships are solidified through all different types of assistance that we provide.
Certainly, enhanced counternarcotics is just one piece; the humanitarian assistance program is another piece; security building is another piece. All of these pieces come together to make that puzzle whole in terms of what the Ambassador said, and I’ll repeat it: a secure, a prosperous, and free Western Hemisphere, which I believe – I truly believe – is a goal of all of us within this region. So thank you for this opportunity to discuss this with you, and really appreciated your questions, and look forward to continue to work together with the great partners in our shared neighborhood. Thank you very much.
Moderator: That concludes today’s call. I want to thank Ambassador Manes and Rear Adm. Tiongson for joining us, and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Miami Media Hub at MiamiHub@state.gov. Thank you and have a good day.
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