TAMPA, FL – A number of US partners in Latin America who prosecute drug terrorists and criminal groups and oppose Russian and Chinese government influence share their sensitive data and communicate through the messaging app. WhatsApp.

The leading US special operations general wants to change that.

It has secure communications, data analysis, and software tools widely used in many parts of the globe to fight terrorism and track US adversaries with regional partners. But these expensive tools are not an option for countries with limited money Central and South Americasaid Rear Admiral Keith Davids, commander of special operations for US Southern Command.

Davids had a focused audience of several thousand suppliers of such instruments when he shared this information as he spoke here at a panel Wednesday at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference hosted by the National Defense Industry Association.

The two-star noted that 60% to 70% of drug bans in the region are carried out by partners. But they are able to do so through the exchange of intelligence that the United States can provide.

However, Davids said that how they transmit it creates vulnerabilities.

“A lot of information is shared between our partners and even law enforcement agencies on WhatsApp,” he said. “Probably not where we want to be in the 21st century.”

He is looking for the right tool in the industry.

“Anything that is accessible and secure enough that allows me to pick up the phone and call my teammates, my foreign partners and share our security concerns can do so,” he said.

The money problem has not improved. Davids said the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have hit many South American countries disproportionately and will take years to recover.

At the same time, agents of the People’s Republic of China in the region are mediating deals on access to shipping, access to fishing and oil and minerals.

And they offer technology at subsidized and big discounts, Davids said, adding that he or other officials need to tell South American states that they may not be able to share information so easily if they are online with the Chinese government.

“They immediately ask me, ‘What is your alternative?'” Davids said. This is because, as his partners tell him, “a drowning man will snatch a life jacket from everyone.”

The forces need tools for the overall operational picture, especially for unmanaged areas such as shores, rivers or borders.

Davids called special services and other US forces, especially those working on civil affairs and psychological operations in the region, “scouts” for other US agencies such as the US State Department, allowing them to better understand what is happening in the region.

The Army Times reports in detail on the work of brigades to support the army’s security forces in the region.

In early 2019, US Southern Command began resuming military exercises with Latin American partners.

In 2018, the then head of the Navy of SOUTHCOM Adm. Kurt W. Tid outlined five key challenges, including Iran’s efforts to infiltrate the region, the Military Times reported.

Hezbollah has been there for a long time, Tid said at the time. They have used “large-scale criminal activity to finance terrorism in other parts of the world.”

All of this comes amid concerns about potential vulnerabilities to weapons of mass destruction along the southern border of the United States, continuing drug trafficking in the United States and growing concerns about the security of mass migration. As well as the influence of the Chinese and Russian governments in this area.

“This is a global front – what China is doing,” Davids said. “They are trying to isolate Taiwan politically.”

The Chinese government is doing this in part by removing support for Taiwan in Latin America. Currently, eight of the 14 countries that recognize Taiwan as a country are in the region.

“What we are seeing is that the PRC is very aggressively trying to change that,” Davids said.

They do this by financing infrastructure, supply chain financing and engaging their interests on both sides of the Panama Canal. These moves help create a lever to vote against Taiwan’s UN policy.

The channel raises its own set of concerns outside of politics, Davids said. He called the space a “global suffocation point” for supply chains.

“For those of you who haven’t been there and seen the endless line of container ships waiting to pass, and you think, how on earth am I going to find a needle in a haystack?” Davids said. “It’s a really bad problem that requires technological solutions.”

Better data analysis tools could help with this, even with the decades-long drug trafficking problems facing the region.

The workforce is limited as the United States strengthens its presence in the Pacific, continues its counter-terrorism mission in the Middle East and supports Europe during the recent crisis in Ukraine. And much of what they need to know is located in unmanaged, unobserved areas, including border regions, dense jungles, rivers and shores.

By better structuring and sharing data, forces in the region can better know what is happening. It is currently on the shoulders of small teams of troops, such as the Green Berets, working in Colombia to counter rebel groups and drug traffickers.

But this goes beyond operators helping troops gather better information, and it has to do with how the United States communicates its intent and how it can help.

“The relationship is framed by history, so there are certainly some challenges you have to deal with,” Davids said.

But the Miami-born, Florida-born, noted the shared cultural ties to democratic governance, the rule of law, trade relations and economic remittances from the United States to the south, all connect the region in many ways.

As he tried to spread his message, Davids said it was more effective to work through trusted local allies.

“What I found at SOUTHCOM [area of responsibility] “Well, if it comes from the United States and looks like a counter-message from the PRC, sometimes it goes deaf,” he said. “So, what was really effective was working with our foreign partners to give them information and information and then they became the voice.

While China can grab the headlines, Russia has a deeper history in the region and continues to support it, he said. From its long ties to Cuba, dating back to the island nation’s communist government, to current support for the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Russia has been a massive foreign influencer in the region.

But Russia’s approval rating fell by 9% after its invasion of Ukraine. This gives the United States an opportunity to strengthen its ties and hopefully influence Latin American leaders who are prone to Russia.

Davids said he would like to show his partners videos of Russia’s actions and performance in Ukraine now and suggest a few questions.

“This is the chosen military partner?” How does this work? How does the equipment work? How are the tactics? “He said.” I would not like to partner with this organization.

Todd South has written about crime, the courts, the government and the military in numerous publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer Finalist for a joint witness intimidation project. Todd is a veteran of the Marines in the Iraq war.


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