Category Archives: Global Analysis

A Geographical Breakdown of What’s Going on in the World

The Ecuadorian Navy’s Constant Struggle Against IUU Fishing

The Southern Tide

Written by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“We focus on partnerships…Our partners want to work with us. They want the advantage of the United States education, training, exercises and military equipment. It’s the best in the world. And so it’s up to us to deliver that in a way that’s relevant and also provides a return on investment for American taxpayer. So that is our focus.” –Navy Adm. Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee July 9, 2019.

By Wilder Alejandro Sanchez

An international fishing fleet composed of some 340 vessels is currently sailing through international waters close to Ecuador’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a constant challenge for Latin American navies, but the recurring presence of large, predatory, extra-regional fishing fleets exacerbates an already problematic situation.

The Latest Extra-Regional Fleet

According to Ecuadorian authorities, a fleet of some 340 vessels is operating through a corridor of international waters between Ecuador’s EEZ and the Galapagos Islands. Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrin has stated that the Ecuadorian government has been aware of the fleet for over a month, as it traveled from south to north from Peru. As of 7 August, the Ecuadorian navy has deployed corvette Manabi (CM-12), with a helicopter aboard, and the coastal patrol boat San Cristobal (LG-30) to monitor the fleet. Additionally a CASA aircraft, assigned to the navy’s air wing, has carried out surveillance operations.

Several vessels have been identified as originating from China, which has prompted some media outlets to generalize it as a “Chinese fishing fleet.” Quito has stated vessels have come from other countries as well, but without specifying which ones. It is well-known that fishing fleets from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan also operate in the South Pacific, hence it is likely that some vessels come from these nations as well. Given that this is a fleet numbering in the hundreds of vessels, it is likely a mixed bag of nationalities.

How to Defeat IUU Fishing?

When it comes to IUU fishing, as this author has discussed in other commentaries for CIMSEC, (see “Latin American Navies Combat Illegal Fishing,” and “A Growing Concern: Chinese Illegal Fishing in Latin America”) this is a problem of “levels” for Latin America. What is meant by this is that the first level focuses on domestic IUU fishing (a vessel fishing within its country’s territorial waters), then at the regional level (ships registered in one country operating in the waters of another country), and finally at the extra-hemispheric level (the presence of extra-regional fishing fleets).

Thus, while the large international fleet close to Ecuador is making global headlines, this is not the sole incident currently taking place in the region. In fact, while eyes are focused on the South Pacific, the Uruguayan Ministry of Defense has reported that a fleet of approximately 19 Brazilian fishing vessels are operating without permission in its territorial waters as well. Uruguayan and Brazilian authorities are discussing this issue. While 19 ships will not be as destructive as 340, the problem is still significant.

A fishing boat of Brazilian origin photographed from a Uruguayan Navy aircraft (Uruguayan Ministry of Defense)

Regional governments, ministries of defense, and navies regularly explain their strategies to combat IUU fishing. Unsurprisingly, much attention is given to greater cooperation between defense ministries and armed services, and to a large extend, this is occurring. For example, the Permanent Commission for the South Pacific (Comisión Permanente del Pacifico Sur: CPPS), which has Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru as members, issued a declaration on August 5 calling for greater cooperation and exchange of information to address the presence of international fleets in the region and the dangers of overfishing. Moreover, the U.S. National Security Council  also tweeted its support for Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno, stating, “The United States stands with President @Lenin and our friends and partners in #Ecuador against any aggression directed toward their economic and environmental sovereignty.”

As for partnership between navies, this is also taking place. An interesting example occurred in 2018 in the Caribbean when the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF) chased three fishing vessels for illegally fishing in Bahamian territorial waters. The ships crossed into Cuban waters to escape their pursuers, but Cuban authorities located these ships, apprehended them, and turned them over to the RBDF. This is an important example of international cooperation to combat a crime that respects no borders.

There is also greater reliance on technology, such as satellites, to locate and monitor suspicious vessels, and to figure out their ports of origin, which is what the Ecuadorian government states it has done. In other words, regional navies and other agencies are making positive announcements, and there are sufficient examples of successful interdictions and international partnerships. But alas, the problem continues.

More Ships, Please

One obvious issue has to do with numbers, namely how many vessels and supporting aircraft can Latin American and Caribbean navies deploy to combat this crime. Regional vessels routinely carry out myriad tasks at sea, including combating IUU fishing, drug trafficking and smuggling, in addition to carrying out search and rescue operations, support operations to coastal communities, in addition to routine patrols and even unconventional missions. While the Ecuadorian navy is monitoring the international fishing fleet, the service reported on July 20 that naval personnel, along with fishermen and representatives from the Ministry of the Environment, freed a whale that got stuck in a fishing net in the Tonchigue area. Vessels also have to be docked to undergo maintenance or upgrades, which can put them out of commission for extended periods of time.

To be fair, Latin American navies are obtaining new equipment that can be utilized to combat IUU fishing. Case in point, Argentina’s newest Offshore Patrol Vessel Bouchard (P-51), acquired from France, has already successfully stopped a Chinese fishing vessel in its territorial waters this past May. Similarly, Peru recently launched two new domestically manufactured OPVs, Río Tumbes and Río Locumba, which will be very helpful for combating maritime crimes.

As for Ecuador, a very noteworthy development occurred recently, where in late July the Ecuadorian navy commissioned a new support vessel, BAE Hualcopo. What is remarkable about Hualcopo is its background: the vessel used to be known as Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999, and it was detained in 2017 by Ecuador for operating without authorization by the Galapagos Islands as part of a large Chinese fishing fleet. Upon inspection, authorities found aboard the vessel around 300 tons of fish, including endangered sharks. In 2019, as part of a lengthy legal process, Ecuador’s judicial system (Corte Nacional de Justicia – CNJ), ruled that the vessel was permanently forfeited, and it was eventually transferred to the navy. Now Hualcopo will carry out support operations for the Ecuadorian navy and may very well be involved in stopping the same IUU fishing activities that it carried out in its previous life.

Hualcopo raises an important issue, namely the fate of vessels that are seized as part of the war against IUU fishing. Personally, this author has not heard of other navies gaining control of vessels detained for IUU, hence Hualcopo may set an interesting precedent. Certainly some detained vessels may be too old or incompatible with a navy’s requirements and operations, but others could be given a second life, particularly large ships that can be utilized for transportation.

Final Thoughts 

Regional navies have enjoyed plenty of successes, and many are upgrading and expanding their fleets, even by re-purposing a one-time fishing vessel, namely Ecuador’s Hualcopo. However, the sheer size of some of these fleets engaging in IUU fishing dwarfs most regional and global navies. For example, while a fleet of 19 Brazilian vessels is not as large as a fleet of 340, it is sizeable enough to be a challenge for the Uruguayan navy, which is known for its aging fleet.

The international fishing fleet currently operating close to Ecuador’s territorial waters will certainly not be the last. Because of their maritime biodiversity and limited naval and aerial platforms, Latin American and Caribbean waters will remain viable arenas for IUU fishing.

Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is an analyst who focuses on international security and geopolitics. The views expressed in this article belong the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: A fishing boat seen from an Ecuadorian Navy aircraft, August 7, 2020. (Reuters/Santiago Arcos)

Regional Maritime Security Governance and the Challenges of State Cooperation on Piracy

Ocean Governance Topic Week

By Anja Menzel

On July 2, 2020 at around 4:20 a.m., three vessels attacked the Sendje Berge, a floating production support vessel off the coast of Nigeria. While there were no physical injuries, the perpetrators took nine personnel hostage. The kidnapping is the latest incident in a series of attacks in the Gulf of Guinea, which has become the most piracy-infested region in the world, closely followed by Southeast Asia. Worldwide, 162 actual and attempted piracy attacks were reported in 2019.1 As most incidents have taken place in territorial waters, the cross-border nature of maritime crimes matters for ocean governance. When operating, pirates are not restrained by national borders, and exploit states’ inconsistencies in maritime security capacities and capabilities. Therefore, the unabatedly high numbers of attacks underlines the need for littoral and user states to cooperate on counterpiracy.

Three Regional Agreements to Govern Piracy

To govern maritime piracy through state cooperation, three agreements have been set up in different regions of the world. The members to these regional agreements agree to arrest, investigate, and prosecute pirates on the high seas, and to suppress armed robbery in their respective territorial waters. In Asia, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) was established in 2006. 14 regional states as well as six extra-regional states are currently contracting parties. In East Africa, the Djibouti Code of Conduct (DCoC) was agreed on in 2009. To date, 20 states from the Indian Ocean region have signed this agreement on the repression of piracy and armed robbery in the western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. In 2017, the DCoC’s piracy-only focus was expanded to include maritime crimes more generally when the so-called Jeddah Amendment was adopted by a subset of DCoC member states. Finally, the Yaoundé Code of Conduct (YCoC) to combat illicit maritime activities in West and Central Africa was signed in 2013 by 25 regional states.

Signatories to the regional agreements on countering maritime crimes (Author illustration, based on material from

As these agreements were successively established, policymakers were able to utilize insights from already developed setups elsewhere, a learning process that was actively sponsored by the International Maritime Organization. As a result, the agreements’ institutional structures are strikingly similar.2 This is most obvious in the agreements’ information-sharing structures. All agreements have Information Sharing Centers (ISCs) which collect data on maritime crimes and provide infrastructure for information exchange. The regional agreements also have a system of national focal points designated by each member state, which manage piracy and armed robbery incidents within the respective state’s territorial waters, report incidents to the ISCs, and coordinate surveillance activities with neighboring states.

Information Sharing and Capacity Building 

These regional agreements have been rightfully praised as a milestone in ocean governance, as they are a strong symbol of the commitment of member states to combat piracy and other maritime crimes. The collection and dissemination of data on maritime crimes is one of the most important practical tasks carried out by the regional agreements, because to efficiently coordinate cooperation between maritime security actors it is crucial to have available all relevant information on the threat at hand. Furthermore, by creating reliability, regular information sharing has the potential to strengthen trust and confidence among key actors.3

Capacity building carried out through the framework of the regional agreements is equally important. To varying degrees, the agreements’ frameworks offer exercises, workshops, and trainings to accumulate expertise on and foster cooperation between national agencies and the shipping industry, and also provide technical assistance to member states. In fact, the regions cooperate in their capacity building efforts on a regular basis. Due to their similar institutional structures, ReCAAP and DCoC members held several joint workshops where best practices were shared.

The Limits of Cooperation 

While the setup of the regional agreements is certainly a milestone in counterpiracy governance, the different regions are faced with a variety of challenges concerning cooperation in general and the implementation of the agreements’ provisions in particular.

Concerns over Territorial Sovereignty

Citing concerns over their territorial sovereignty, two of the states most affected by piracy in Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia, refuse to accede to ReCAAP. Although state cooperation in Asia is generally characterized by major sovereignty sensitivities, their reluctance is reinforced by ReCAAP’s open membership policy. While DCoC and YCoC have limited their membership to regional littorals, every interested state can join ReCAAP, which further fuels Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s concerns about foreign involvement in their territorial waters.4 However, the actual impact of the non-membership of key states in Asia remains unclear. Despite their official disapproval, both Indonesia and Malaysia cooperate with ReCAAP on a low-key level, participating in meetings and sharing select information. Nevertheless, an accession would certainly underline the two states’ willingness to commit to multilateral counter-piracy efforts given their strategic position in the Strait of Malacca and the Sulu and Celebes Seas.

Institutional Fragmentation

National sensitivities also led to a fragmented institutional landscape, both regionally as well as internationally. The DCoC operates three regional ISCs in Kenya, Tanzania, and Yemen. The YCoC architecture is even more fragmented, with regional maritime security centers for West as well as Central Africa in Congo and Ivory Coast, an interregional coordination center in Cameroon, and five coordination centers at the zonal level. Due to this fractional structure, information flows may be less efficient, and the ability to swiftly respond to undesirable events on the ocean could be hindered.5 While ReCAAP only operates one ISC, several other data-collecting bodies exist in Asia, such as the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center and the Information Fusion Centre hosted by the Singaporean Navy. To complicate matters further, not all ISCs, particularly those in Southeast Asia, report data in a consistent way.6 Overall, the institutional plethora of information-sharing mechanisms underlines the importance of coordination between the different agencies. To this end, the regions’ potential to learn from each other’s experiences is not being fully realized yet.

Lack of National Capacities

To implement the regional agreements’ provisions on site, the capacities of member states are essential. However, member states’ means to counter maritime crimes in their territorial waters differ significantly. Some states, particularly in Asia, have comparably well-equipped navies, coast guards, and law enforcement agencies. In contrast, other states often lack those capacities, which is particularly apparent in Somalia and Yemen, which are both stricken by the devastating consequences of ongoing civil wars. Although the agreements offer capacity building measures, the mechanisms do not directly account for the resources of member states or their lack thereof.

Gaps in Scope 

Although the regional agreements geographically cover the greater portion of world regions currently affected by piracy, there are still blind spots. Whole continents have not set up comparable cooperation mechanisms yet, such as Oceania and the Americas, where local piracy hotspots like the Caribbean and the Venezuelan coast would call for concerted governance efforts. This becomes more salient when not only piracy, but also maritime crimes more generally are in focus, since crimes such as illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing are pressing in every corner of the world

Additionally, the regional agreements are rather narrow in their operational scope. This is particularly obvious in Southeast Asia, where ReCAAP has thus far only institutionalized cooperation on piracy and armed robbery. As policymakers increasingly realize that these crimes are only one of many pressing issues in the maritime domain, the agreements may go one step further. Already in Africa, with YCoC as well as the DCoC’s Jeddah Amendment, the signatory states agreed to also cooperate on transnational organized crime in the maritime domain, maritime terrorism, IUU fishing, as well as other illegal activities at sea. By calling on its member states to develop national strategies for sustainable blue economic growth, the Jeddah Amendment, although very tentatively, even ties maritime security to the greater blue economy.

Looking Ahead 

Threats to maritime security cannot be understood in isolation, as they are deeply interrelated. Going forward, maritime security governance will therefore need a more integrated understanding of the hazards posed by maritime crimes as well as the potential of coordinated efforts to combat these crimes.7 Specifically, it is necessary to strengthen maritime domain awareness by emphasizing potential synergies between combatting maritime crimes with the blue economy and the safety of the marine environment. This integrative understanding of developments and threats at sea is a prerequisite for coordination and cooperation between the diverse maritime security agencies and actors in this field.8 In that sense, the establishment of these regional counter-piracy agreements, their process of learning from each other and the gradual broadening of their scope, marks an important first step into realizing the full potential of an integrated approach toward maritime security governance.

Anja Menzel is a postdoctoral researcher at the FernUniversität in Hagen, Germany. She received her PhD in International Relations from Greifswald University, where she studied state cooperation on counterpiracy. Her current research interests include ocean governance, the construction of maritime spaces, and the link between the blue economy and development funding.


1. ICC IMB 2019. Report. Piracy and armed robbery against ships [1 January-31 December 2019]. London.

2. Menzel A. 2018. Institutional adoption and maritime crime governance: the Djibouti Code of Conduct. Journal of the Indian Ocean Region 14(2), 152-169.

3. Bueger C. 2015. From dusk to dawn? Maritime domain awareness in Southeast Asia. Contemporary Southeast Asia 37(2), 157–182.

4. Lee T. and McGahan K. 2015. Norm subsidiarity and institutional cooperation: Explaining the Straits of Malacca anti-piracy regime. The Pacific Review 28(4), 529-552.

5. Ralby I. 2019. Learning from success: Advancing maritime security cooperation in Atlantic Africa. Center for International Maritime Security, [].

6. Joubert, L. 2020. What we know about piracy. One Earth Future Foundation, [].

7. Menzel A. and Otto L. 2020. Connecting the dots: Implications of the intertwined global challenges to maritime security. In: Otto, Lisa (ed): Global challenges in maritime security. An Introduction. Springer.

8. Bueger C. 2015. From dusk to dawn? Maritime domain awareness in Southeast Asia. Contemporary Southeast Asia 37(2), 157–182.

Featured Image: ReCAAP ISC Signs MOU with World Maritime University (February 7, 2018)

Why Yemen Matters

By Jimmy Drennan


On Sunday, Yemeni separatists known as the Southern Transitional Council (STC) seized 64 billion riyals ($260M USD) from a convoy belonging to the Central Bank of Yemen. This follows their withdrawal in April from a fragile treaty and declaration of autonomy in the southern port city of Aden. The STC’s proclamation threatens to throw Yemen into a fresh phase of bloody turmoil, even as the unmitigated spread of COVID-19 could devolve the world’s worst humanitarian crisis into catastrophe. Meanwhile, talks to end the war between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels of northwestern Yemen drag on, with the Houthis indicating they may attempt to take pivotal territory in the oil-rich city of Marib. Why does any of this matter?

The stability of Yemen is not, in and of itself, one of our core national interests. Yet we continue to aid the Saudis in their war against the Houthis. Supported by international navies, we continue to patrol international waters in the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. We are still pursuing Al Qaeda and ISIS throughout poorly governed regions in Yemen. Why? The answer is pragmatism.

While it is not practical, nor advisable, for the United States to commit blood and treasure to unilaterally resolve Yemen’s civil war, the instability that spills over Yemen’s borders threatens American interests. Now, with the STC potentially pitting its Emirati backers against the Saudis, who recognize the Republic of Yemen Government led by exiled President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, the risk of Yemen’s festering instability igniting a larger regional conflict is greater than ever.

A Proxy Conflict Turns Central

Although a proxy war between Arab states, both of whom the United States relies on for critical military and economic access, would implicitly run counter to American interests, a hypothetical regional conflict still doesn’t explain why Yemen matters today. Even now, instability overflows from Yemen in the form of ballistic missiles, suicide drones, unmanned explosive speedboats, anti-ship cruise missiles, and sea mines. These attacks by the Houthis are generally aimed at the Saudi-led coalition (which does not include the United States), but the use of these weapons near international shipping lanes in the southern Red Sea threaten core national interests in maintaining the free flow of global commerce. The Houthis have credibly threatened to contest the Strait of Bab al Mandeb by attacking international shipping in recent years, including American warships in 2016 – which prompted swift retaliatory action against the launch sites. The strait is the sole southern gateway to the Suez Canal and therefore a strategic chokepoint for maritime trade between Europe and Asia, obviating the need to make the costly and time-consuming trip around the Cape of Good Hope.

Houthi ballistic missile and drone attacks in Saudi Arabia and the UAE threaten critical energy infrastructure, not to mention American citizens and military forces throughout the region. When considering the risk of regional Arab-on-Arab conflict, threats to freedom of navigation, and attacks on Arab energy infrastructure, another question harkens back to Ancient Rome with the Latin “cui bono?” Who benefits? In every case, the answer is Iran.

Iran publicly supports the Houthi effort to overthrow Yemen’s Hadi-led government. Having a proxy on Saudi Arabia’s southern border, or at least a like-minded partner with whom it can supply advanced conventional weapons, is of obvious benefit to Tehran. Arming the Houthis with anti-shipping weaponry allows Iran to threaten a second global maritime chokepoint, a crucial economic “ace in the hole” in its existential fight against the administration’s maximum pressure campaign. The United States, its international partners, and the United Nations have repeatedly exposed Iran’s illicit arms shipments to the Houthis; however, international sentiment is so heavily slanted against the Saudis (due largely to the early conduct of their air campaign) that Iran can quietly refute the allegations while the anti-Saudi narrative continues to resonate on Capitol Hill and social media. Meanwhile, the Houthis block humanitarian aid shipments and hold them for ransom as millions of Yemenis starve, and the world barely notices.

Iran has also learned valuable lessons on how to employ its growing arsenal in the event of a direct conflict with Saudi Arabia or the United States. In 2019, the British Government warned that Iran was using Yemen as a missile testing ground. “We’ve seen the UN panel of experts talk about the new Kamikaze drones that are coming out of Iran, we’ve had the Badr-1, which is the missile system that looks like a V2, being launched into Saudi Arabia and we have seen from technical reports that the enhancements that are being applied to that war by Iran are considerable,” Labour MP Graham Jones said.

In Yemen, Iran has deftly exerted influence below the threshold that would trigger direct U.S. retaliation, just as it has done in the Arabian Gulf over the last three decades since the Tanker War. The United States may lack the incentive to retaliate or intervene in Yemen, but ignores the failed state at its own peril. The most pragmatic approach is to help the Saudis focus on the primary source of instability in Yemen. Iran threatens Saudi Arabia from the east, north, and south, and now, with the STC’s declaration of autonomy, Tehran has the opportunity to further spread instability and division throughout the Gulf Cooperation Council states, which will only be exacerbated by global economic strain. Iran employed a similar tactic with Qatar in 2017, and now Turkey (whose relationship with Iran is ambiguous at best) appears to be joining with Qatar to finance the Muslim Brotherhood in southen Yemen.

A strategy explicitly focused on isolating the Houthis from Iranian support – militarily, diplomatically, and economically – would dramatically alter the Houthi and Iranian strategic calculus. The U.S. could organize an international effort to interdict illicit arms shipments through the Gulf of Aden (irrespective of origin). It must continue to expose Iranian malign influence in western Yemen, and work to disrupt and eventually quell Houthi revenue streams coming from Iran. Even with these efforts stability may still not “break out” in Yemen, and the Houthis are not likely to surrender the political and territorial gains they’ve earned over the last five years.  

However, as Saudi efforts shift upstream to stem the flow of Iranian aid at its source, the Houthis’ ability, and intent, to threaten American interests in partner nations and the international commons would significantly diminish. Supporting the Saudis in isolating the Houthis from Iran is pragmatic because it balances necessity with available resources and political will. Political support from Congress will be more forthcoming by shifting the focus away from western Yemen itself toward stabilizing the international commons, and broadening the scope to an international effort to eliminate illicit arms shipments and destabilizing influence.


Yemen and Saudi Arabia may be toxic topics in Washington, but ignoring them could be disastrous. If COVID-19 is the domino that turns a humanitarian crisis into widespread fatalities, the United States may be compelled to intervene at great cost and risk. In the event of armed conflict with Iran, western Yemen would be a second front and a second contested maritime chokepoint. Not only would ignoring Yemen allow threats to American interests to grow, it would jeopardize U.S. influence over a key partner in the global energy market. The Saudis demonstrated their clout in April by flooding the market with oil to punish Russia for refusing earlier cuts, with analysts predicting they will win the price war. On Easter, President Trump negotiated a deal for the Saudis to cut production, and while COVID-19 impacts continue to dominate the market, American influence on Saudi Arabia proved critical in softening the blow. Despite our progress toward energy independence, our relationship with the Saudis is still a major factor in our economic health.

Ultimately, the Holy Grail for securing American interests in the Middle East is for partner nations to provide for their own defense. Saudi Arabia is already a cultural and economic heavyweight, and its Vision 2030 has the potential to gradually bring it more in line with western Democratic ideals, and to improve its security and defense institutions. A functional Arab regional security architecture is among the greatest of Iranian fears. In Yemen, the United States can send a strong message to Iran and invest in Saudi Arabia’s future as a regional security leader and sustainably secure American interests more broadly. By doing more now the U.S. can do less in the Middle East in the future.

Iran certainly sees opportunity to sow further instability in the wake of the STC’s separatist declaration in Aden. Tehran will gauge Washington’s reaction closely, and the penalty for inaction on our part could be severe. It is time to decide whether Yemen matters more to us, or more to Tehran.

Jimmy Drennan is the President of CIMSEC. Contact him at These views are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of any government agency.

Featured Image: South-southwest-looking, high-oblique photograph taken during the Hubble Space telescope’s STS-61 servicing mission shows the southwestern Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea. (NASA photo)

How the U.S. Can Better Suppress Illegal Drug Trafficking in the Caribbean

By Laura Burroughs


On April 1, President Trump announced that the United States is doubling its counternarcotics operations in the Western Hemisphere. The administration is concerned that illicit actors in Venezuela will exploit the focus on the COVID-19 pandemic to smuggle narcotics undetected. It deployed Navy destroyers, combat ships, aircraft and helicopters, Coast Guard cutters, and air force surveillance aircraft to suppress drug trafficking coming toward the U.S. The move includes forces in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific, but the Trump administration appears particularly concerned with Venezuela.

The country lacks maritime intelligence and enforcement capacity. Corruption, poverty, and food insecurity are leading to increased crime on land and at sea. Drug trafficking in Venezuela does appear to have increased and the U.S. has the tools to fill this gap, with the strongest and largest navy in the region.

However, while this increased presence is likely to result in more seizures over the short-term, it cannot change the root drivers of illicit maritime activity. A more sustainable solution requires more than increased assets on the water for search and seizure. Furthermore, without supporting local organizations and addressing the conditions driving so many Venezuelans to illicit activities, the impacts of the effort will not be sustainable. The following enhancements could improve the U.S. effort to reduce drug trafficking and help ensure a lasting solution.

Measures For Enhancing Effectiveness

Illicit actors can conceal drug trafficking. A robust maritime security approach requires a holistic perspective on maritime crime. Illicit actors around the world display a great deal of agility and ability to conceal their activities. In 2019, the U.S. Coast Guard confiscated $466 million worth of cocaine concealed on fishing vessels along the Pacific Coast of Central America and Mexico. Because illegal fishing often goes unnoticed and generates lower penalties, it is a convenient cover for more high-penalty crimes like drug trafficking. Drugs are even smuggled inside fish.

The U.S. must be sensitive to shifts toward other illicit crimes. In the Caribbean, maritime enforcement has largely focused on drug trafficking. However, illicit actors have diversified their activities. Gold and fuel smuggling have also become common. While these goods appear more innocuous than drugs, they provide an important funding source for illicit actors. Venezuelan criminal groups own mining towns and manage trafficking routes into bordering Colombia and Brazil, generating violence, conflict, and instability. Gold mining in Venezuela has even been compared to West and Central African blood diamonds. And those hardest hit are indigenous local groups that are being immersed in violence and pollution from mining operations. Many Venezuelans are also forced into illicit gold mining because of low wages and are subsequently required to pay criminal gangs large portions of their earnings.

Venezuelan criminals have also turned to the maritime space, stealing boat engines, conducting robberies, and even conducting kidnap-for-ransom operations. Low-priced fuel is being smuggled through Venezuela and traded to neighboring countries. This displays the array of options from which illicit actors in Venezuela can generate funds. Funds from these activities will help illicit actors sustain their funding and networks, and ease their return to narco-trafficking once the U.S. redeploys its assets.

The U.S. must balance its efforts with a geographic focus on the Pacific. The United States may not effectively combat drug trafficking with its focus on the Atlantic. Illicit actors are also geographically flexible. Due to a strong focus on anti-narcotics enforcement in the Caribbean, much of the cocaine traffic has shifted to the Pacific coast. 84 percent of confiscated South American cocaine is routed through the Pacific. In fact, more cocaine appears to be traveling through the Galapagos than the Caribbean, where illicit actors can travel undetected or disguise themselves as fishers.

Some of the U.S. naval forces are being directed at the eastern Pacific, with a recent seizure of 1,700 pounds of cocaine off the Pacific coast of Central America, but this illustrates the geographic agility of narco-traffickers and the need for maintaining sufficient resources so that investment in one domain does not come at the expense of the other.

The U.S. must empower regional organizations. While the U.S. has engaged 22 partner nations on this effort, it is still dominating the Venezuelan counter-narcotics operation. In order to improve maritime security long-term, it is important to support and empower regional organizations. This increases the operation’s legitimacy as well as regional capacity.

The Caribbean includes several international organizations. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM), composed of 15 Caribbean countries, aims to improve regional cooperation on economic issues and foreign policy. CARICOM includes a branch called the Caribbean Community Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (CARICOM IMPACS). CARICOM IMPACS promotes information exchange, regional capacity building, and collaboration to improve regional security. The Regional Security System (RSS), a separate sub-regional body focused on collective security among seven of the CARICOM member states, analyzes criminal activity in the region and conducts air, land, and sea patrols. However, it has had to reduce its maritime patrols in recent years, despite maintaining two regularly operating maritime patrol aircraft.

In order for the U.S. operation to be perceived as legitimate as possible and be able to counter illicit maritime operations in the long-term, the U.S. should support capacity building for regional organizations like CARICOM-IMPACS and RSS to more effectively fulfill their mandates. This will also enable the U.S. to ultimately spend fewer resources in the region.

The U.S. must be mindful of threats to conflict and coastal welfare. One of the most important root causes of illicit trafficking is poverty and insecurity on land. In Venezuela, food insecurity and a lack of viable livelihood opportunities are turning citizens to illicit crime. In 2017, the average Venezuelan lost 24 pounds, and 90 percent of the country is now living in poverty. Food and economic insecurity and violence in Venezuela has catalyzed four million migrants and refugees to leave the country. These conditions are causing many Venezuelans to turn to illicit crime for survival. With more pressure against Venezuela, the United States may only push more Venezuelans into desperation. If it wants to develop a long-term solution to illicit trafficking in the region, it is vital for the United States to consider the impacts of its decisions on coastal welfare. 


The United States has the largest and most advanced navy in the world, and is an important actor in the Caribbean region and the Western Hemisphere as a whole. Increased maritime enforcement is vital, especially to combat drug trafficking in the region. However, aiming to control drug trafficking will not make these criminal groups disappear. They will take alternate routes and capitalize on trading other illicit goods. In order to establish a sustainable and peaceful approach to the region’s maritime security challenges, the U.S. must take a holistic approach to maritime security threats and empower local organizations to solve regional security challenges at their source. The U.S. will be spending a great deal of time and resources in this effort. It is important to generate a long-term solution to the problem, lest the U.S. find itself in an expensive, endless battle against drug trafficking.

Laura Burroughs has served for five years at the NGO One Earth Future (OEF) that works closely with the UN, navies, and the private sector. She has experience in maritime security, facilitating sessions, and developing reports for the Caught Red-Handed project a series of workshops hosted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) to promote interagency coordination to improve maritime security.

Featured Image: U.S. Coast Guard members sit atop a seized semi-submersible suspected smuggling vessel in international waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean as the cutter Harriet Lane maneuvers nearby Oct. 24, 2019. (U.S. Coast Guard photo/Patrick Kelley)