War on drugs draws Canadian military focus in Central America

The government's new focus on the Americas means a dramatic change of effort for the Canadian Forces and an overt participation in the U.S. war on drugs, says the commander of Canada's operational forces in an exclusive interview.
In an exclusive interview with CBC News, Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, commander of the Canadian Joint Operations Command, says Canada is becoming more active in the U.S. war on drugs in Central America. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Harper government's new focus on the Americas means a dramatic change of effort for the Canadian Forces and an overt participation in the U.S. war on drugs.

The commander of Canada's operational forces, Lt.-Gen. Stuart Beare, says Canada is now focusing new efforts on Central America and the Caribbean.

In an exclusive interview with CBC News, Beare said Canada was active in attempts to sever the Central American drug artery pumping narcotics northwards into the United States and Canada.

"We're partnered with our U.S. partners in the counter-narcotic effort on the southern flank, in Central and South America, as the flow goes north," Beare revealed.

For years, Canada has participated in naval operations in the Caribbean Sea designed to thwart narcotics-smuggling efforts. Canada has also provided specialized radar and reconnaissance patrol aircraft to that fight.

But Beare suggests much more is being done in the region now than ever before.

Canadian troops are working and training with troops from Chile, Brazil, even Colombia, Beare said. But the effort is sharpest in Central America.

"We're staying connected in the hemisphere, in particular, in capacity-building partners in the Caribbean Basin, sustaining a great effort with Jamaica, reaching into Belize and Guatemala, helping them to build their own capacity, to manage their own security forces and security conditions."

Troops from the Petawawa, Ont.,-based Canadian Special Operations Regiment assisted in the training of a special Jamaican force, called the Counter Terrorism Operations Group.

Those Jamaican troops put their Canadian-taught skills to use in 2009 to free six Canadian crew aboard a CanJet 737 hijacked at Montego Bay. (Negotiators had previously convinced the hijacker to release roughly 150 passengers.)

Jamaica in turn has allowed Canada to construct and staff a forward-deployed operational staging centre, to help Canadian troops leap more quickly into action in the event of natural disasters or security threats in the region.

Increasing military co-operation

In Belize, Canada has engaged for several years trying to build both police and military capability through the Anti-Crime Capacity Building Program, run by the Foreign Affairs department. So far, more than $2 million has been spent to help improve Belize's national forensic centre and its defence force.

Training provided to Jamaican security forces by Canadian special forces proved valuable in resolving the hijacking of a Canadian passenger jet in 2009. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

But the military aspect of Canada's engagement is increasing.

Last June, Canada donated 2,000 surplus military load-carrying vests to the Belize Defence Force. Belize is also a participant in the Canadian-run Military Training Co-operation Program — a program that provides military education and skills training to poor and developing countries.

More significantly, Canada has helped construct a modern military operations centre and lent support to a top-to-bottom Belizean strategic defence review.

And Belize has reciprocated, allowing Canadian soldiers to train in its dense jungles. Going back as far as 2008, teams of Canadian Civil Military Co-operation teams — essentially aid and engineering teams — headed to Belize for several weeks of hands-on assistance training in rural villages before deploying to Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Belize and Guatemala are strategic territory in the war on drugs. The two countries span the entire Central American isthmus, from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, bordering Mexico. They are literally pressed up against North America and are staging areas for drug runners looking to move their illicit product north.

It's estimated that about 80 per cent of South American cocaine headed into North America somehow transits Guatemalan territory.

Complicating any response to the instability posed by narco-traffickers in the region is the relatively small size of defence forces in both countries.

The Belize Defence Force, for example, has fewer than 1,500 troops, while the Guatemalan military has 15,000.

Canada has supported the training of Guatemalan troops in peace support operations, but it's not clear how else the military is involved there.

Despite Beare's mention of Guatemala as an area of military focus, the Defence Department has not provided any information in response to CBC News questions about Canadian efforts there.

But it's clear the area matters to the military. The former Chief of the Defence Staff, Walt Natynczyk, visited Guatemala City to meet senior defence officials there in 2011.

Beare says Canada's contributions to the region are significant, though still small.

"You're not seeing battalions and fleets and squadrons of aircraft," he said. "What we're doing there is persistent engagement, co-operation and collaboration with our partners in the hemisphere, to help raise their capacities, improve our network in the region, so we can respond to contingencies there."

In January, The Canadian Press reported government documents it obtained showed the situation in Belize was deteriorating because of drug violence.

It also reported Defence Minister Peter MacKay was briefed that Belize was of increasing importance to Canada, "due to the increasingly precarious security situation in Central America, particularly along the Belize-Mexico border."