Transnational criminal organizations pose a security threat, the National Security Council declared in 2011.
But the “area of operations” to combat these organizations is not just the southern border with Mexico, said Maj. Gen. Francis G. Mahon, director of Northern Command and NORAD. The “fronts” are constantly shifting, he said at the Association of the United States Army annual conference in Washington, D.C.
“They are a network,” he said of the criminals. “They are using technology and they are compartmentalized. And I think we need to take a network approach with a whole-of-government effort as we think about countering them.”
John Stanton, executive director of Customs and Border Protection’s joint operation division, said, “Transnational criminal organizations are always probing for a soft spot.” Currently, there is a “fairly impressive” increase of illegal activity in South Texas. There is a task force organizing around that particular threat, he said.
“We can’t do it alone,” Stanton said. “There is no silver bullet. In these financially austere times, we rely heavily on state National Guards, the reserve forces and active duty troops with the Department of Defense.”
Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin, adjutant general of California, said violent cartel members growing marijuana in secluded forests in the northern part of the state are a real danger.
“The threat there can be many times greater than what we see on the southern border,” he said.
The Border Patrol tightening its security on land smuggling routes has sent drug runners to sea routes, he added. They first tried to land in San Diego and Los Angeles. When those routes were shut down, they put extended range fuel tanks on their boats. They now go out farther to sea and hook towards land to the north.
“We have had to shift our efforts more into coast watching,” he said.
The Air Guard’s C-130J and MC-130 outfitted with forward looking infrared radars can spot them, but he hopes the day comes when the Federal Aviation Administration allows the Guard to fly unmanned aerial vehicles along the coast, which will give authorities an “unblinking eye” there.
The cartels have also changed their tactics in the air. Traditional fixed-wing aircraft have been scrapped for ultralight aircraft. The Guard’s Sentinel radars do a much better job of spotting them at night than FAA radars, he said.
Northern Command has been working in partnership with Mexico and the Bahamas to tackle the transnational criminal organization problem, said Mahon.
The Bahamas consists of more than 3,000 islands, including rocks and cays, spread out over an area the size of California. It has only 3,500 members in its defense force and 3,000 police.
“They have significant challenges with drug movement, human trafficking and illicit fishing,” Mahon said.
Meanwhile, Mahon is contending with a new front. The receding Arctic icecap and an increase in activity there is transforming Northcom’s area of operations, he said.
“The northern coast is about to become a real coast. Maybe not today. Maybe not this year, but in the short term. We need to start thinking about that,” he said.
Economic development is going to happen, which may include international tensions. There are eight nations on the Arctic Nation Council, but there are many others that have economic interests. More economic development means more people in a harsh, austere environment, and more probability for something to go wrong.
Imagine a ship striking an iceberg with 100 tourists aboard, Mahon said. “How do you get there and how do you get them out?” he asked. “Ultimately, we will be operating up there more.”
Illegally fishing or mining minerals are potential issues, Stanton said.
There are estimates that Chinese shippers can save up to 40 percent of the time it takes to transit goods from China to Europe by taking Arctic routes instead of the Panama Canal or going around the tip of South America, Stanton said.
Shipping lanes can become smuggling lanes.
At the same time, there is no way to track who is sailing to the Arctic via the Bering Sea and why.
“There is no requirement to call [the Coast Guard’s] District 17 and say, ‘I’m entering the Arctic. I’ll call you when I come out the other side in X number of days,’” he added.Photo Credit: iStockphoto