STAFF: (In Spanish.)
COLOMBIAN DEFENSE MINISTER JUAN CAMILO PINZON: (In Spanish.)
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: Good afternoon. Buenos tardes. It’s pleasure to be here in Tolemaida for my first visit to Colombia as the United States secretary of defense.
I’ve had the opportunity, as the minister pointed out, to have visited this country in other capacities. And I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to meet with what I consider one of the strong partnerships in Latin America -- the partnership between the United States and Colombia.
I’d like to thank Minister Pinzon for hosting me here on this visit. We’ve had a chance to meet at the Pentagon. It was last year. And it is a great pleasure to be able to continue these discussions and work together to keep up the defense partnership between our two nations.
I’d especially like to thank the minister for giving me the opportunity to see some truly impressive demonstrations of the Colombia military’s capability. What we saw and what we witnessed here is truly a credit to Colombia for their capability, for their operational skill, and for what they bring to bear in going after drug traffickers in this part of the world.
This is -- right here at Tolemaida, this is a world-class military facility. And I’m very proud of the role played by the U.S. Army Rangers in helping to establish the Lancero School here in the 1950s. Colombian and U.S. forces had already fought together in Korea. And out of that experience our two militaries built a close relationship that lasts to this day.
From what I saw today and from my discussions with the minister, I can tell you that this defense partnership remains strong -- has been strong, remains strong and will continue to be strong in the future. Both of our nations are committed to deepening our cooperation even further.
Over these last decades of very close cooperation, Colombia has built -- as we just saw -- one of the world’s most advanced military and police forces and has accomplished an historic transition. In the last few years alone, Colombia has moved from a nation under siege from guerillas and drug-trafficking mafias and paramilitary groups to a country that is a force for security and prosperity in South America. That is a tribute -- a tribute to the strength, the fortitude and above all the sacrifice of the Colombian military and the Colombian people.
In particular, Colombia has made significant progress in their campaign against the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia]. I want to commend Minister Pinzon and the Colombian armed forces for their efforts against this terrorist group. The Colombian people have expended a great deal of precious blood and precious treasure in their campaign against the FARC, and as a result the FARC has been seriously weakened.
In our discussions today, I affirmed that the United States stands in solidarity with Colombia in its campaign against the FARC, and that we will continue to provide training, equipment and assistance that Colombia has requested in order to defeat this common enemy.
As one example, I told Minister Pinzon that the United States is prepared to facilitate the sale of 10 helicopters -- five U.S. Army Black Hawks and five commercial helicopters -- to help Colombia’s efforts against the FARC.
It’s a testament to me that the progress Colombia has made in resolving its internal security challenges has really helped bring together our relationship, our cooperation on regional security challenges, particularly those emanating from Central America. Our two nations both understand that our security depends on the stability beyond our borders -- not just within our borders but beyond our borders. And there is a great deal of potential for our two militaries to work closely to help build capacity of other nations in this region to address these security challenges.
To that end, earlier this month during President Obama’s visit to Colombia, he and President Santos signed a new Regional Security Assistance Cooperation Action Plan. Minister Pinzon and I had a very productive discussion today about the next steps that we can take within the framework of this plan to achieve our shared desire of a secure, stable and prosperous Western Hemisphere.
One of the specific steps that the minister and I talked about was the establishment of a state partnership program between Colombia and our own National Guard. This program has helped deepen our defense cooperation with other partners in the region, including Chile, Peru and Uruguay.
State Partnership Programs have helped us share lessons, lessons learned and expertise that has been shared for disaster response and other missions where the armed forces can provide critical support to our civil authorities.
The Colombian armed forces already have tremendous experience and expertise in disaster preparedness and extensive experience dealing with floods and other natural disasters. The establishment of a state partner program represents an opportunity to further enhance our capabilities in this area and represents an important new avenue for defense cooperation.
This is my first day of a weeklong visit to South America, and it’s appropriate that my first stop be in Colombia because this country is one of our closest partners in the hemisphere and an emerging regional and global leader. In the new defense strategy that we established in the United States, one of the key elements is to develop innovative security partnerships around the world. The kind of partnership that we have here in Colombia is an example of the kind of training, exercises, assistance that we hope to be able to develop elsewhere as well.
What Colombia has done is a tribute to the strong partnership we have built -- a defense partnership that has endured for more than 60 years and which has helped bring stability and prosperity to both of our great nations.
I want to thank the minister and thank the people of Colombia for hosting me in this great country. Thank you.
STAFF: (In Spanish.)
Q: A question for Mr. Pinzon. (Inaudible) -- this latest announcement of the -- (inaudible) -- of the sale of the 10 helicopters. Obviously, Minister Pinzon, this isn’t all that Colombia wants. What else would Colombia like from the United States? I’ve heard something about ISR equipment and other material.
And for Secretary Panetta. We are next door to Venezuela. There’s been some concern about the military buildup in Venezuela -- (inaudible). What are your thoughts about the Venezuelan military buildup? Thank you.
DEF. MIN. PINZON: (In Spanish.)
SEC. PANETTA: You know, in this part of the hemisphere, one of the things that we’ve seen is improving regional security by a number of nations. The United States certainly does not object to development of strong militaries that provide security and that help establish regional security. So what Venezuela is doing in strengthening their military, we don’t object to the fact that they’re strengthening their military. What we’d be concerned about is how they use that military in this part of the world. And there we are working with our partners, like Colombia and other countries, to ensure that we urge Venezuela to exercise responsible leadership in this hemisphere so that they can become a part of the family of nations that represents a true family in this hemisphere.
STAFF: (In Spanish.)
Q: This question goes to Secretary Panetta. What’s the position of your government about the 11 agents from the Secret Service that were involved in the prostitution scandal in Cartagena? We know that you made an important announcement -- (inaudible). What is your position -- (inaudible)? What do you say to the Colombian people about all this?
SEC. PANETTA: With regards to the investigation in Cartagena, we have redeployed officers to Cartagena to fully investigate the matter and they are still there and they are still in the process of their investigation.
We expect our people, wherever they are, whether they’re in Colombia or any other country or in the United States, to behave at the highest standards of conduct. That’s what we expect. And so we will wait for the investigation that is currently taking place. And if these investigators find that there have been violations of the code of military justice, violation of the standards I just talked about, those individuals will be held accountable.
DEF. MIN. PINZON: (In Spanish.) (Applause.)
STAFF: (In Spanish.)