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Even With War, U.S. Focuses on Central, South America

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 10, 2003 – The war on Iraq hasn't caused the United States to lose its focus on Central and South America, said a DoD official.

"On the whole, the news from the region is very good," said Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for western hemisphere affairs.

Pardo-Maurer, who is an Army National Guard Special Forces soldier and served in Afghanistan, gave a verbal tour of the Western Hemisphere during a recent interview.

While there are problems in the region, none is insoluble, he said.

The major problem in the region is in Colombia. The United States lists the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - or FARC from its Spanish acronym as a terrorist group. The group has between 9,000 and 12,000 fighters, mostly in the rural regions of the country. FARC members have engaged in bombings, murder, kidnapping, extortion and hijacking, as well as guerrilla and conventional military action against Colombian political, military and economic targets.

The FARC isn't alone. Other dangerous groups in the country include the National Liberation Army and the United Self-defense Force of Colombia.

In the most FARC incident, guerillas took three Americans hostage working as contractors for the U.S. government. Their single- engine Cessna crashed in a FARCcontrolled area in March. One Colombian and an American died in the crash. Colombian law enforcement and military officials have been working to free the men.

FARC is a terrorist organization, which Pardo-Maurer describes as "the single largest exporter of instability and problems in the region." Targeted U.S. aid to the Colombian government is paying off, he said. "I think the fact that the FARC has felt compelled to change its tactics shows the pressure the Colombian government is putting on them is working," he said.

The United States has been working with Colombian authorities to train Colombian personnel in more than just counter-drug activities. Drugs and the FARC profits from the trade - remain a problem in the country. At its core is a problem of terrorism, Pardo-Mauer said. New U.S. equipment and training have been provided to the Columbian army and to police units. U.S. officials are working to improve Colombian communication capabilities, intelligence capabilities and investigative techniques, State Department officials said.

Measuring the decrease in drug production, though, is one way to measure progress. "In the last few weeks, we've had the reports from the United Nations saying the coca production is down 30 percent in Colombia," Pardo-Maurer said. "That may be over optimistic. A CIA report says it's down 15 percent. It's probably somewhere in between."

This reduction is certainly having an effect on terrorist finances, relationships and recruitment, he said.

One encouraging development in the region is the growth of regional initiatives, Pardo-Maurer said. Countries in the region realize that problems in one country don't magically stop at borders. Colombia's neighbors Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Panama and Venezuela have agreed to work more closely to support Colombia in its war on terrorism, he said. .

Other regional efforts involve peacekeeping. "There's a worldwide shortage of peacekeepers," Pardo-Maurer said. "Now Chile wants to participate in global peacekeeping, possibly with Argentina." The Chilean military has the capability to perform this mission, he said, and it is possible that a regional force may participate in peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan.

Other countries have stepped up to help the coalition against global terrorism: Notably El Salvador and Nicaragua, Pardo-Maurer said. "They want to send peacekeepers to Iraq," he said. The two countries have not always had the best relations, and El Salvador suffered a prolonged and deadly civil war. Yet now these two democracies can work together, Pardo-Maurer said.

Nicaragua has excellent mine-detection and clearing units. El Salvador has engineers and civil affairs teams. "This is incredibly good news, because it shows these two countries working together in taking on a global role," he said. "It shows how far Central America has come."

The region is also working to ensure it does not become a haven for terrorism. "There is an old Spanish saying, 'The dog that is forewarned is worth two dogs,'" Pardo-Maurer said. "In the southern part of the hemisphere intensified efforts to track down and identify possible Islamic extremists and terrorists" is an example of that. Governments in the area are forwarned.

News reports indicate that some terror cells may be looking to certain areas of Central and South America where government control is not strong as a haven. Pardo-Maurer said the countries of the region are working closely with the United States to ensure Islamic terrorists do not become problems.

There are problems. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez is deliberately trying to subvert the country's military. He is bribing selected officers to support his administration. "This is one of the most disturbing developments we've seen," Pardo-Maurer said. "On the whole the Venezuelan military is able to resist this, but he is picking at individuals. The institution as a whole has a professional ethos, but he is making it increasingly difficult. They have a lot of tough choices ahead."

The establishment of U.S. Northern Command and the inclusion of Mexico as a geographic area of responsibility for it have also meant opportunities for the region. "It makes things more complicated," Pardo-Maurer said, "but it also means we have more vehicles to engage the Mexicans."

This gives the United States a more nuanced and responsive set of institutions. "Our whole program towards Mexico and theirs' towards us can be described in one sentence: 'We have been moving very steadily from building personal trust to building institutional trust,'" he said. "From that point of view I think we're seeing unprecedented levels of cooperation with Mexico and at a pace they are comfortable with."

Pardo-Maurer stressed that U.S.-Mexican relations are complicated and that DoD will move very carefully in building the ties between the militaries.

The Argentine financial meltdown concerned officials around the world, he said. But the country is recovering from the crisis and Pardo-Maurer praised the "amazing discipline of the Argentine military in this financial crisis." He said there was never any question of them stepping beyond the bounds of constitution. "It's yet another sign that we're living under a new order," he said.

He said the largest country in South America Brazil is turned inward and dealing with a rampant crime wave in its cities.

Pardo-Maurer says there ought to be a lot more clarity on Western Hemisphere affairs over the next year. "Iraq has passed a cloud over the global security environment, which I believe will be much dispelled this time next year," he said. "The countries of the region will realize that all the positive things that are happening (in the region) are the result of cooperation among them. So our strategy, which is to encourage multilateral and regional efforts, will be seen as paying off and worth investing in.

"Central and South America is the least militarized region of the world in terms of per capita expenditures and number of soldiers," he continued. "A year from now, all the hard work the countries put in will pay off and the difference between the Western Hemisphere and the rest of the world will show what a good place this is for investment. People will be more optimistic that the region is headed the right way."

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