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SOUTHCOM Commander Calls His Area "Theater of the Future"

By Michael Norris
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 4, 1996 – The commander in chief of U.S. Southern Command predicted recently that drug interdiction will make Latin America the "theater of the future."

Speaking at the Association of the U.S. Army conference Oct. 15, Gen. Wesley K. Clark presented a survey of Army involvement in the region, from determining a future military presence in Panama at the turn of the century to humanitarian concerns and efforts to stop the flow of drugs.

Clark said before he took the assignment, he was East-West oriented. His assessment of developments in the region was positive. "Democracy is in every country but one in Latin America," he said, an obvious reference to Cuba. Describing improvements in stanching the flow of drugs from the region and resolving border disputes, Clark said Latin America was in the "best overall situation in 40 years."

Showing a map of Latin America with the United States superimposed over it, Clark noted "this is a huge region" approximately 2 1/2 times the size of the United States.

Clark talked about regional instabilities and highlighted a border dispute between Peru and Ecuador that the United States has tried to help resolve. U.S. forces have conducted flyovers to monitor the disputed territory and provided observers to assist in dialogue between the two countries in reconciling competing claims.

"It's an operation that has stabilized an open diplomatic wound between these two countries," Clark said. "There are internal dynamics [in the region] we don't fully understand," Clark said. Throughout most of Latin America, ideology is dead, he added, explaining how guerrilla movements had merged and sometimes formed a marriage of convenience with "narco- terrorists."

"We're strengthening cooperative relationships in the region," Clark said. "We're developing relationships with other militaries and strengthening the potential for democracy. "There are some in academia who wish that [indigenous] military institutions would disappear entirely." He said this is unlikely because of the area's history.

"Virtually every country in Latin America was born from a general on horseback," Clark related. "These institutions are going to stay."

Clark said advancement of human rights is essential to the region. He noted how these human rights concerns were taken into account in training exercises in which the United States has participated with host governments and how such concerns had become incorporated into the School of the Americas, whose former curriculum has been the subject of recent adverse publicity.

He said the U.S. military had lessened the flow of drugs from the region through a variety of means, including surveillance, confiscation, crop destruction and efforts at eliminating government corruption.

"There are no silver-bullet solutions," he said, indicating how the problem varied from country to country. In Bolivia, for instance, he said, the government was paying families who historically had grown coca not to grow the crop. On the other hand, he said, in Colombia drug seizures started an open war between drug dealers and the government.

(Norris writes for the U.S. Army Military District of Washington.)

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