Though Not Weapons-Heavy, Latin American Issues Not Benign Either
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 16, 2006 U.S. Southern Command's area of responsibility is one of the least armed areas of the world, but it can hardly be considered benign, the command's leader said today.
"The conditions of poverty, disease, corruption, social inequality, and widespread income disparity contribute to the growing dissatisfaction of a population that has been exposed to the political benefits of a democracy, but has not yet profited economically," Army Gen. Bantz J. Craddock told the House Armed Services Committee in a prepared statement.
The command's area of responsibility includes all of South America; the waters adjacent to Central and South America; the Caribbean Sea, its 12 island nations and European territories; the Gulf of Mexico; and a portion of the Atlantic Ocean.
Craddock said he is concerned about what appears to be growing instability in the region. It's degrading the ability of governments to sustain their democratic processes, he said. These conditions create an environment conducive to illicit drug trafficking, urban gangs, kidnapping, criminals, and narco-terrorists whose activities discourage lawful commerce and undercut economic development, Craddock said.
"This ... environment existing throughout the (area of responsibility) enables extremist groups to maintain a presence and operate with relative impunity," he said.
These groups primarily provide financial and logistical support to terrorist groups in the region, he said. However, officials are concerned that support "could move beyond logistical support and actually facilitate terrorist training camps or operations," Craddock said.
The command is broken into four sub-regions: the Andean Ridge, Central America, the Caribbean, and the Southern Cone.
The Andean Ridge is the linchpin to regional stability, Craddock said. Andean Ridge nations are economically challenged and politically fragile and, in some instances, lack sufficient security forces to control their sovereign territories, he said. "Despite their vulnerabilities, these nations are dedicated to combating myriad social, political and economic threats that transcend purely military issues," Craddock said.
Colombia, part of the Andean Region, continues to progress in restoring security and strengthening its democratic institutions, he said. In 2003, the country implemented a democratic security strategy intended to bring peace to the war-torn country, Craddock said. Since then, homicides have dropped to the lowest level in 18 years and violent crime is down 37 percent overall.
Colombia also is working to deal with militia groups in the country, he said. One of those militias, the Revolutionary Forces of Columbia, is holding three Americans it kidnapped more than three years ago. Craddock called this situation the command's top priority in the country.
"Colombia has also been successful in its efforts to increase drug eradication, seizures and air interdiction," Craddock said. "In 2005, 223 metric tons of drugs were seized as part of a cooperative effort between Colombia and the U.S."
Temporarily expanded authorities allow Southern Command to provide military assistance to and share information with the Colombian government in its efforts against organizations whose narcotics and terrorist activities are inextricably intertwined, he said. The continuation of this support is essential for regional and U.S. security, he added.
In 2005, Congress temporarily raised the cap on the number of U.S. troops in Colombia from 400 to 800. Craddock said the command is requesting the expanded authorities and increased troop cap be extended through fiscal 2008.
Within the same sub-region, Venezuela also is an area of concern, he said. "Although Southern Command continues to seek opportunities to work with the Venezuelan military, our efforts have been hindered by the government," Craddock said, adding that military-to-military relations have eroded in the last 12 to 18 months. "We will continue to invite the Venezuelan military to participate in exercises, conferences, and training events," he said.
Central American governments are increasingly working together across the spectrum of political, military, social, and economic activity, Craddock said. "The nations within this sub-region continue to dedicate military forces and other resources to the war on terrorism, peacekeeping operations, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief," Craddock said.
In a new phenomenon affecting both the Central American and the Caribbean sub-regions, drug traffickers are taking a cut of the drugs they help move instead of receiving payment in hard currency, he said. These drugs remaining in the country contribute to the increase of crime and violence in these areas.
Caribbean countries face some of the same challenges as other sub-regions, Craddock said. "As in other sub-regions, fragile democratic institutions, government corruption, gang activity, and unequal distribution of wealth are also prevalent here and pose challenges," he said. "Regional cooperation, therefore, is essential for effective governance in this immense maritime Caribbean Basin region."
Good relationships between the U.S. military and the militaries of the Southern Cone sub-region are the norm, Craddock said. "We commend the regional cooperation efforts of the countries within the Southern Cone, especially in peacekeeping operations," he said. "These countries have invested national capital over many years to create and improve their training capabilities as well as enhance the professionalism of their military forces."
Joint Task Force Bravo is part of U.S. Southern Command's mission of protecting the southern approaches of the United States with an active defense against all threats. Part of achieving that mission relies on establishing regional partnerships and developing a military capability that can support security, stability, a functional judicial system and an institutional respect for human rights within these partners, Craddock said.
JTF Bravo is housed on Soto-Cano Air Base, a forward operating base in Honduras that supports a variety of missions, including counterdrug, search and rescue, disaster relief, and humanitarian assistance, Craddock said. The unit demonstrated its usefulness in 2005 when Hurricane Stan hit Guatemala and again when Hurricane Beta hit in the Caribbean. The task force's familiarity with the areas was crucial to mission success, he said.
Southern Command also uses operational, foreign military interaction and humanitarian exercises to further its mission, Craddock said. "We at U.S Southern Command recognize that not all problems and solution are military in nature," he said. "The military can help to set the conditions to create a safe and secure environment."
The U.S. Southern Command area of operations needs political, economic, and social programs to improve quality of life for everyone living in the hemisphere, Craddock said. That, he added, will require an integrated, long-term effort.