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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven Global Security

US Defense Secretary James Mattis is calling for massively stepped up military-to-military and security operations with Argentina as part of a broader US government effort to better combat illicit drug trafficking, cybercrime, money laundering and terrorist activity.

Making the first trip by a US Defense Secretary to Argentina since Sec. Donald Rumsfeld in 2005, Mattis asked the Argentinian Defense Minister for more “teamwork between soldiers, sailors and airmen of our two democracies.”

“I look forward to finding new ways to deepen our mutually beneficial defense relationship…. When trouble looms, whether a natural disaster or naval vessel in distress, you will find us stranding beside you,” Mattis said in a public appearance in Buenos Aires with Argentine Minister of Defense Oscar Aquad, according to a DoD transcript.

Mattis here appeared to be referring to an incident last November when an Argentine submarine went missing with 44 sailors aboard. The US military provided help with the search and recovery efforts.

While there has been longstanding US-Argentine cooperation, close coordination has lagged in recent years – something Mattis seeks to change as part of a long-term military alliance and counterterrorism strategy.

“The US is thinking long-term in Latin America,” Mattis said in Brazil when speaking at the countries’ premier university, Escola Superior de Guerra.

U.S. Embassy photo. Mattis meets with Argentinian Defense Minister Oscar Aguad

When it comes to security and counterterrorism, much of the US military and State Dept. focus centers on the fluid and more loosely-governed border area separating Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. This area continues to generate substantial concern about international criminal activity and its relationship to terrorist financing – prompting ongoing local and multi-national responses.

Referred to as the Tri-border area, the region has been an attractive draw for Iranian-backed terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and criminal organizations interested in moving illegal money, staging operations and helping to fund international terrorist activity.

Torres Advanced Enterprise Solutions, a private security and training firm supporting the US and a range of friendly foreign governments, has been expanding training courses for a handful of South American and international entities interested in cracking down on these activities.

The training focus in Argentina and the tri-border area is focused on improving US and host country counterterrorism and law enforcement officials to “track the money sources” and better identify the flow of questionable transactions.

Torres CEO Jerry Torres, a retired US Special Forces soldier who trained militaries and law enforcement officials in the tri-border area, says there is more work to be done in the high-threat region.

“The tri border area funds terrorist groups and organized crime on a global scale from South America to the Middle East and Asia. The US State Department’ and DoD’s efforts to educate the armed forces and law enforcement organizations of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil has generated the international cooperation necessary to get a small foothold into beginning to deter the flow of illicit funds to these criminal enterprises,” Torres said.

In Argentina and Paraguay, Torres has trained Federal Police, judges and prosecutors in key areas such as cyber forensics, clandestine drug labs and terrorist investigations.

“There is much more work to be done and our state department and military leadership and mentorship are essential to achieving success. Right now, we are taking baby steps with our very fine Argentine, Paraguayan and Brazilian partners,” Torres added.

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US State Dept. statements echo this sentiment, writing that the "International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau provides funds to the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to train and mentor Argentine law enforcement and justice officials."

The Torres-taught training course, called “Anti-Money Laundering and Asset Forfeiture Course for Prosecutors,” zeroes in on the troubling, yet well-documented connection between terrorist funding and transnational criminal organizations.

“We trained in cyber forensics which got immediate investigative results in Paraguay and Argentina -- and we helped develop cyber forensics centers and operations in both countries,” Torres said.

These kinds of activities, along with military-to-military exercises and training, are among the initiatives likely to be fortified by the stepped-up US-Argentine collaboration.

DoD and US State Dept. officials are acutely aware that there are specific and emerging threats to US National Security generated in the tri-border area.

Recently submitted expert testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee, Subcommittee on counterterrorism and intelligence, specifically cites the dangerous overlap between transnational crime and terrorism in this area of South America.

“This toxic crime-terror nexus is fueling both the rising threat of global jihadism and the collapse of law and order across Latin America that is helping drive drugs and people northward into the United States,” states the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance, in a report to Congress titled “State Sponsors of Terrorism, an Examination of Iran’s Global Terrorism Network."

The report further specifies Hezbollah as a terrorist entity known to rely upon “criminal activities to generate revenue,” something which forms a “substantial part of its operating budget.”

Often-used illegal terrorist techniques include trade-based money laundering techniques such as under-invoicing and mistating ítems of merchandise to move money across continents, the testimony explains.

This increasing US focus is closely aligned with Argentina’s stated national priorities which, among other things, specifically call for more armed forces involvement in countering drug trafficking.

In January 2016, then Argentinian President Macri issued a decree declaring a one-year national security emergency to combat drug trafficking.

The decree called for additional federal security at Argentina’s borders and created a new radar tracking system. The decree also provided authority to the armed forces to “shoot down aircraft suspected of drug trafficking.”

In February 2016, President Macri decreed the establishment of a new drug agency to prevent illicit trafficking, provide technical assistance in related court cases, and oversee the use and control of chemical ingredients and substances that could be used to make drugs.

The Torres course emphasizes collaboration between various entities regarding financial intelligence, linking organizations such as the National Police in Argentina and Paraguay and allied government entities – such as the Governments of Argentina and Paraguay, the U.S. Department of State and other US Federal organizations.

Using instructors with both law enforcement and government backgrounds, the Torres course instructs future officials about how political and military leaders pursuing effective crackdowns can integrate financial intelligence information.

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