Progress Made in Southcom Region, Challenges Remain, Admiral Says
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 17, 2009 The top U.S. military officer for Latin America and the Caribbean today reported positive developments in the region over the past year, from increased military-to-military cooperation to progress in confronting drug-related terrorism to a dramatic hostage rescue by the Colombian military.
Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis told the Senate Armed Services Committee he’s confident these trends will continue in 2009, with new milestones to be reached in strengthening security cooperation with partner nations.
Stavridis cited major accomplishments during 2008, including the safe return and repatriation of three U.S. defense contractors held hostage for five and a half years in Colombia by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The Colombian military executed a “very daring, audacious raid” that Stavridis called “a real example of the success in five and a half years of building partnership capacity.”
“So I think Colombia is on the right track,” he told the senators.
Meanwhile, Stavridis pointed to a “robust year” of military-to-military exercises that he said are building capacity within regional militaries and the cooperation needed to deal with cross-border threats. For example, this year’s Panamax exercise, with 22 countries involved, constituted the world’s largest military training exercise in terms of participation.
Other exercises that focus on everything from special operations to disaster relief are growing in scale, too, increasing capability in the region. Stavridis called this “very robust schedule of mil-to-mil contacts … a big part of what we need to do in this region to maintain this positive military-to-military connection wherever we can.”
One of Southcom’s most gratifying missions last year, Continuing Promise, dispatched the USS Kearsarge and USS Boxer to the region to provide medical assistance. As the teams conducted 200,000 patient treatments ashore, they demonstrated U.S. compassion and competence, Stavridis said.
The mission is “a way we can connect with this region” while at the same time providing “great training” to U.S. forces, he said.
While emphasizing strides made, Stavridis cited the problem of the narcotics flow through the region, and the increased use of semi-submersible watercraft to transport them.
“Last year we were able to stop 230 tons of cocaine,” he said, but he emphasized that the challenge is not just on the supply side, but also on the demand side in the United States. Working together with partners in Mexico and Central America, with the help of tracking and interception equipment and training provided through the U.S. Merida Initiative, is an important step in addressing this problem, he said.
Southcom is working to foil the proliferation of semi-submersibles -- submarine-like watercraft built in the Andean Ridge jungles that are difficult to track as they transport as much as 7 tons of cocaine -- the admiral told the committee. “We’re focusing a lot of resources on interdicting those, and working with our partners to do so,” he said.
Stavridis reminded the committee of the importance of Latin America and the Caribbean to U.S. security and U.S. interests.
“What happens south of us will influence what happens here in our own nation,” he said.