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U.S. Southern Command Forges Multinational Bonds

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

BARILOCHE, Argentina, Oct. 11, 1996 – While defense chiefs from 34 nations held highlevel talks here to strengthen security ties, U.S. Southern Command troops were making multinational contacts in the field daily, doing handson training and performing missions.

U.S. service members work with troops and law enforcement agencies from around the region in peacekeeping and counternarcotics operations and exercises, according to command officials. In Panama, for example, about 700 service members from the United States, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay recently took part in a peacekeeping exercise.

Exercise Cabanas 1997, focused on setting up coalition headquarters and becoming familiar with national agencies and nongovernmental organizations. Participants learned to deal with situations ranging from vehicle inspections to disease outbreaks and refugees, a command spokesman said.

"Just a few years ago, such an exercise would have been unimaginable," said U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry. "This exercise and others like it that have taken place over the last year, are dramatic symbols of the change that has swept our hemisphere."

Perry and defense leaders from North, Central South America and the Caribbean met in this resort town near the Chilean border Oct. 6 to 9 for the second Defense Ministerial of the Americas. Ministers and highranking officerss renewed bonds forged a year ago at the first ministerial, hosted by the United States in Williamsburg, Va. Throughout the conference, U.S. officials noted the militarytomilitary cooperation under way in the region.

Along with multinational training exercises, nations in the region are also using their militaries to combat narcotics in the region. Perry called narcotics a plague that threatens the sovereignty of some Latin American states.

The United States recently contributed $112 million in equipment to help combat drug trafficking in the region. U.S. Southern Command forces are currently participating in Operation Laser Strike. Laser Strike brings law enforcement officials from several countries together to make land, air and river interdictions based on U.S.provided radar tracking information.

Panama has proposed setting up a multinational counterdrug facility, and the United States supports the idea, according to Perry. "What we have at this time is a concept, not a plan," he said. "We think it's a very good concept, and we are willing to work with them to convert that concept into a plan, and if the plan seems reasonable, eventually to implementation."

The center would focus on a problem that may be the most important security problem for some nations in the region, Perry said. "Panama is located right on the edge of some of the most substantial narcotrafficking problems that exist anywhere in the hemisphere," he said.

The center would help nations coordinate their counterdrug efforts. Each nation deals with narcotics trafficking as a national problem, Perry said, but narcotic trafficking is international in nature.

"It does not respect borders; it flows freely across borders," he said. "That puts the national authorities at a tremendous disadvantage in dealing with it. Cooperation from nation to nation is very important to offset that advantage," he said.

In an ongoing mission, about 100 U.S. service members are helping keep peace between Ecuador and Peru. When a border dispute between the two nations flared into armed conflict in January 1995, U.S. officials helped broker a ceasefire.

In March, 10 U.S. service members became part of a 40man observer force that also includes troops from Argentina, Brazil and Chile. These nations are guarantors to an agreement to resolve the border dispute. Another 82 U.S. Army and Air Force troops joined the mission to oversee the ceasefire.

For the past year, the observer force has overseen the separation of about 5,000 combatants in the border area and the demobilization of another 140,000 troops. The U.S. contribution to the mission has dropped to five observers, about 61 support troops and four helicopters.

The mission has created the military conditions to support ongoing efforts for a diplomatic settlement of the dispute, command officials said. While the operation has stopped the fighting, a DoD spokesman said, a peace settlement has not been reached.

Peacekeeping and counternarcotics efforts are only part of U.S. Southern Command's involvement in the region. Command units, along with reserve and active component units from the United States, also conduct engineering exercises in Panama and other nations in the region, command officials said. They build and repair roads, schools, medical clinics and other community facilities and drill water wells.

All Southern Command militarytomilitary contacts and multinational exercises now include human rights training, command officials said. The command sponsored a human rights conference in February in Miami for senior military and civilian leaders of Latin America and the Caribbean. A human rights steering group ensures the command has a credible, visible and executable human rights training program, command officials said.

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