Central American Leaders Analyze Regional Security amid COVID-19 Crisis

Central American Leaders Analyze Regional Security amid COVID-19 Crisis

By Geraldine Cook/Diálogo
July 16, 2020

Under the theme “Strengthening Partnerships to Confront Regional Challenges in a COVID-19 Environment,” the Central American Security Conference (CENTSEC) 2020 was held virtually for the first time on July 14.

“The threats to our neighborhood are becoming more complicated than ever and ever evolving; those threats include the COVID-19 as well as transnational criminal organizations, narcoterrorism, and the upcoming hurricane season,” U.S. Navy Admiral Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), said to ministers of defense, chiefs of staff, and other CENTSEC participants at the event’s opening. “We all agree that the impacts of COVID-19 in our lives, and societies, and on our families, and in our personnel has been extreme, and it has caused us all to commit time, people and resources, as we focus on the continued health of our force, as well as the readiness of our forces.”

Michael Soto Rojas, Costa Rican minister of the Interior, presents his country’s response to the pandemic at the Central American Security Conference on July 14. (Photo: Geraldine Cook, Diálogo)

Military leaders from Belize, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, and the United States shared leadership and communication strategies, as well as lessons learned during the pandemic, and analyzed threats to Central American security and advances in the fight against transnational criminal organizations. Colombia participated as an observer nation.

Experts from the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. National Guard’s State Partnership Program also attended the event.

Challenges amid the pandemic

“We have worked hard in this pandemic; we’ve had to improvise and look for good practices from other countries to move forward,” Michael Soto Rojas, Costa Rican minister of the Interior, said when discussing his country’s response to the pandemic. “The police is involved in everything, in citizen security, in the fight against narcotrafficking and common crime, the transfer of infected patients, border protection. It’s been very complicated, but we got through it.”

“Since the pandemic began, the Military Medical Center and Military Health Service were instructed to prepare the necessary protocols and update plans,” said Army Major General Juan Carlos Alemán Soto, Guatemalan minister of Defense. “We’ve assisted in the construction of four temporary hospitals through the Army Corps of Engineers, distributed food kits for personnel, strengthened borders at informal crossing points, and used protocols to protect our forces.”

Narcotrafficking during the pandemic

Participants also addressed how narcotraffickers continue their illicit operations despite the pandemic, by diversifying their illegal operations through concealed smuggling.

“We have seen changes with the pandemic. Initially it was a decrease in the number of trafficking aircraft that were landing in Belize. But it didn’t last for too long, and then certainly we saw gradually an increase,” said Belize Rear Admiral John Borland, chief of Defense Staff.

“Despite the pandemic, Honduras, especially the Armed Forces, have not ceased the fight against narcotrafficking and all related crimes. We have carried out joint combined operations with U.S. Southern Command and other partner nations to confront this scourge, which has reduced drug transit in our country,” said Major General Tito Livio Moreno Coello, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Honduran Armed Forces.

Juan Pinto, Panamanian minister of the Interior, said that during the pandemic, “transnational criminal organizations haven’t stopped committing crimes and operating.” He added that his country has not stopped fighting, especially through permanent operations with Colombia, Costa Rica, and the United States. “Panama is a strategic place for drugs coming from the south,” he said. “We cannot lower our guard.”