The U.S. Department of State has convened global judicial, law enforcement and security representatives to address the growing threat of transnational crime and synthetic drugs like fentanyl.
Tampa Bay was the first stop on a nationwide tour following an initial three-week program in Washington, D.C. The University of South Florida St. Petersburg hosted 70 international government visitors and 19 interpreters from 50 countries today as part of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP).
The extensive – and confidential – forum, facilitated by St. Pete-based World Partnerships, was titled “Towards a More Safe and Secure World Initiative.” It featured representatives from several area organizations, starting with the host agency – the St. Petersburg Police Department.
Officials from U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and USF’s Center for Cybersecurity will help provide a full day of programming.
“The focus of the International Visitor Leadership Program conference is building a more safe and secure world,” said Mayor Ken Welch to open the event. “Your presence here today and collaboration, and the information sharing and the honest dialogue that will follow, is a really important step towards that goal.”
Kate Manolakos, Chief of the Europe and Eurasia branch of the IVLP, thanked Welch for recognizing the value of international partnerships. She noted that “truly amazing things happen” through the local, state, national and global collaboration displayed in St. Petersburg.
She told the packed ballroom of officials that a network of community-based organizations would facilitate “tactical discussions” regarding best practices across their fields of expertise. While the State Department publicly withheld names, participants represented countries from Bolivia to Vietnam.
They included counterterrorism commanders, senior policy analysts, prosecutors, judges and a nation’s head of the International Police Organization, or INTERPOL. The group started their U.S. tour in Tampa last week before crossing the bay and will split into groups as they visit smaller cities in the coming weeks.
“It’s one thing to say we have this amazing network, and it’s another thing entirely to experience it,” Manolakos said.
Due to security implications, officials closed the forum to the public following the opening remarks. However, Manolakos provided some context outside of the ballroom.
The IVLP focuses on transnational threats to peace and well-being, including terrorism, human and narcotics trafficking, border security, corruption, cyber warfare and climate change impacts. She also noted that combatting the “extremely dire” fentanyl crisis is a federal priority.
Manolakos said mitigating increasing global threats requires international and local partnerships and that challenges are “morphing.”
“Borders are going away in a way that they did not – or could not – 50 years ago,” she added. “Thanks to the wonderful power of cyber, bad actors are in all places.”
The program allows international officials to explore local solutions and apply best practices. Manolakos said, “Even though we are all like literally worlds apart, we are dealing with many of the same issues on the ground.”
She added that the program provides a critical networking opportunity, and participants foster further collaborations. For example, Manolakos relayed that neighboring European countries Estonia and Latvia are now in the U.S. discussing common problems.
She noted that representatives from the local FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office are part of the contingent and that Tampa Bay is “particularly key for us because of CENTCOM and SOCOM’s presence here.”
“Tomorrow, our focus is going to be on the military aspect,” Manolakos said. “But today is on this St. Pete, kind of hyper-local level collaboration between all the different agencies and entities and task forces that are here.”
Today’s agenda includes discussions on state-level efforts to combat cybersecurity threats and those posed by artificial intelligence (AI). USF launched its Global and National Security Institute in June 2022 and tapped Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, a retired Marine Corps general and former CENTOM commander, as its first leader.
The institute works closely with USF’s Cyber Florida, established by the state in 2014, to lead national cybersecurity efforts. Representatives will discuss those initiatives with attendees, and Manolakos relayed the State Department’s focus on mitigating misinformation and disinformation regarding Russia and China.
“Because what happens in Russia and the invasion in Ukraine is going to be a mirror for what happens with China and Taiwan,” she added. “Those two parts of the world are occupying a lot of the space in the room for us.”
Some visitors will head to Phoenix next, which Manolakos said offers several similar facilities and task forces. However, the city does not provide Tampa Bay’s military aspects, making it “optimal” for what the State Department hopes to accomplish.
Manolakos also credited World Partnership’s “outstanding work” and relationships with USFSP, SPPD Police Chief Anthony Holloway, and other local officials.
“That is the reason why this particular Towards a More Safe and Secure World initiative has come here multiple years in a row,” Manolakos said. “It’s a key component to our programming.”