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Rumsfeld, Central American Ministers Discuss Regional Ops

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla., Oct. 13, 2005 – Central American defense and security ministers meeting here this week with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld are planning to take several agreed-upon recommendations back to their home countries for further discussion.

National representatives in small working groups discussed such issues as multinational operational exercises, challenges and opportunities in security cooperation, means to share and protect sensitive information, regional combined operations, and mechanisms to support peacekeeping, disaster-relief and rapid-response operations, a senior U.S. defense official explained.

"We concluded our conference this morning with recognition of the critical relationship between security and economic opportunity," Rumsfeld said today in a joint news conference with the seven Central American ministers. "We made progress toward increasing the cooperation of our armed forces in important areas, such as planning and training together to better prepare for natural disasters."

National disasters and combined regional operations were two main topics of discussion during the two-day conference. Hurricane Stan has caused widespread damage in southern Mexico and several Central American countries. Rumsfeld said Oct. 12 that heavy rains and flooding have "disadvantaged" 200,000 people and killed perhaps thousands more. Landslides in Guatemala caused the brunt of the damage, and heavy rains are continuing in the region.

Guatemalan Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Carlos Humberto Aldana Villanueva thanked the United States, and Rumsfeld in particular, for sending immediate aid in the form of several helicopters out of Joint Task Force Bravo, at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, and a top general to assess the situation and recommend further assistance.

Many discussions at the conference focused on combined regional operations. Four countries-- El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua -- have cooperated for the past three years on a battalion-sized combined peacekeeping and disaster-response force under the auspices of the Conference of Central American Armed Forces.

The Central American countries are now working to design a rapid-response force to deal with emerging security threats. Nicaraguan Defense Minister Avil Ramirez Valdivia today explained that several issues still need to be explored before this force can be formed.

"There are some legal impediments in some countries which prohibits use of armed forces in operations outside of our borders," Ramirez said, adding that officials in Central American countries are working to get around these limitations.

"The armed forces of our countries do not have the jurisdiction for interdiction of gangs," he said. "So we're trying to work the legal mechanisms to find a solution to find a formula that will respect the legislation obstacles."

Honduran Defense Minister Federico Breve Travieso explained the proposed rapid-response force would specifically confront "drug trafficking, terrorism, (and) illegal trafficking in arms and persons."

He said the ministers agreed on the need for such a unit and are "looking for the right judicial framework so that they can engage in specific operations related to these threats and operate from one country to another."

At the conference's conclusion, Colombia, which lies at the northern point of South America and borders Panama, offered to host a follow-on meeting of the same participants as early as December, a senior U.S. defense official said. Though Colombia is not part of Central America, it shares many of the same transnational security concerns with Central American nations.

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Donald H. Rumsfeld

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