While Iran and its militant allies are working to set up shop in South America, U.S. military leaders struggle to keep pace with the continent's myriad of other problems, including narcotic trafficking, gun running and smuggling illegal immigrants.
Military officials with Southern Command and Capitol Hill lawmakers say 90 percent of the cocaine that reaches U.S. soil is moved through South or Central America.
Gen. Douglas Fraser, the Southern Command chief, acknowledges "transnational crime" is a major threat in South and Central America. Fraser spends about half his time "supporting" regional law enforcement officials in countering international criminal groups.
Sen. Carl Levin, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, said Tuesday there is "no traditional military threat" for the United States to the South. But international crime groups and their "illicit" efforts to move drugs, guns and people into the U.S. and around the globe "is a regional and international threat."
Fraser agrees with Levin that the trafficking of drugs, weapons and people is not a "military threat," telling reporters last week that he doesn't see one military threat in the region.
With the world focused on the U.S. military's efforts in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and even Yemen, drug cartels' activities in the Southern Hemisphere show "threats are not diminishing," says Sen. John McCain, adding that the threats to U.S. national security are "escalating."
Fraser's command is heavily involved in trying to locate and intercept ships loaded with drugs off the coasts of Honduras, Columbia and Panama. The illegal cargo is then moved by land into the United States.
U.S. military officials and their allies in the region all know that. Doing something about it, however, is an increasingly difficult task.
"We intercept about 33 percent of what we know is out there," Fraser told reporters last week. But the amount of illicit cargo his forces intercept is falling, even as it expands its work with allied law enforcement officials in the region.
"More is getting through," Fraser told reporters.
For the most part, this is due to "a limitation on the number of assets," Fraser told reporters last week.
The military has been preoccupied in Iraq and Afghanistan for a decade, while also maintaining a robust naval and air power presence in the vast Asia-Pacific region. And now, as annual Pentagon budgets are falling, both the Navy and Air Force are retiring many older ships and planes to shed maintenance costs.
That means there have simply been fewer ships and aircraft available to use in South and Central America, and the number will continue to shrink until new platforms, like the Navy's Littoral Combat Ship, enter the fleet.
Senior lawmakers have taken note.
"I feel that we're not giving the command the assets it needs to do the job," Sen. Joseph Lieberman said Tuesday.
But with the national defense budget capped through 2014 by law, and expected to remain relatively flat beyond that, it is unclear just what lawmakers can do about it. After all, even the smallest modern Navy ships cost tens of millions of dollars.
Fraser hopes to have more ships and aircraft assigned to his command in coming years, but the Obama administration's new national defense plan shifts focus from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific realm. Analysts and lawmakers say that change will require many more war vessels and planes be moved eastward, not to the Southern Hemisphere.
"It's a very expensive endeavor" to locate, track and intercept illicit shipments in rugged South and Central America, Fraser told the Senate panel.
Despite the lack of hardware to go after a greater number of illicit shipments, Southern Command officials have shifted their tactics, by putting less focus on gathering intelligence and opting to emphasize squeezing traffickers at point of port entries and departures.
More focus is also being placed on tactics intended to force criminal organizations' vessels into international waters. Oncethere, Fraser said it is easier to intercept, detain and prosecute the ships and their crew members.
While Southern Command struggles with those problems, which have long plagued South and Central America, it also is closely monitoring Iran's diplomatic efforts, along with the activities of Hamas and Hezbollah in the region.
Iran is allegedly building drones for the Venezuelan military while also trying to make new regional friends who might help block international sanctions aimed at Iran's nuclear arms programs.
But during a recent swing through South America, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "didn't get the reception he wanted," Fraser said bluntly.
"It almost feels like the Cold War, when the Soviets were going around the world looking for allies," noted Sen. Mark Udall..
Hamas and Hezbollah have not had substantial success in the region as of yet, Fraser told the senators. U.S. military and intelligence officials say the terrorist organizations have gotten involved in the illicit trafficking of weapons, drugs and people to create a new funding stream.