Ecuador served as the host country for the South American Defense Conference (SOUTHDEC) for the first time. The event, September 13-16, brought together 11 chiefs of staff of South American military forces in Quito, Ecuador, under the theme, “Defeating Global and Cross-Border Threats through Regional Collaboration.”
SOUTHDEC is a U.S. Southern Command- (SOUTHCOM) hosted annual regional security forum aimed at fostering ties of cooperation, examining challenges, sharing lessons learned, and enhancing cooperation on security and defense issues.
“We have the firm conviction that this important meeting will enable a transcendental space for analysis and discussion not only to exchange experiences but also to enable mutual cooperation between the defense and strategic security agencies of the participating countries,”Army Major General Nelson Proaño, head of the Ecuadorian Armed Forces’ Joint Command, said in his welcome speech. “We foster the strengthening of relations of reciprocity and institutional friendship that have been consolidating in each of these gatherings, aims that are currently manifested in the understandings subscribed on cooperation in the areas of security and the fight against illicit activities and natural and anthropic threats that affect our region and the American continent.”
Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Peru, Paraguay, Suriname, Uruguay, and the United States participated in the conference. Canada, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and the Inter-American Defense Board attended as observers. Some U.S. agencies were present virtually.
U.S. Army General Laura J. Richardson, SOUTHCOM commander, said that SOUTHDEC is taking place at a critical time, as democracies in the region face a number of cross-cutting challenges that threaten the way of life and freedom of citizens.
“Transnational criminal organizations[TCOs] like the First Capital Command, or PCC, in Brazil, and [Mexican] cartels as far away as Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation are destabilizing our shared neighborhood. They are poisoning our people with drugs and stretching their tentacles of violence and corruption across the region. Two overarching security problems exacerbate all the others; these are the two problems we’ll focus on during this conference. The first problem is Environmental Insecurity […]. The second is gray zone conflict, especially in the space, cyber, and information domains,”Gen. Richardson said.
During her remarks, Gen. Richardson spoke about the influence of China and Russia in the Western Hemisphere. She pointed to China as an offender in illegal, unregulated,and unreported fishing, which along with Russia, through multifaceted actions, destabilize the region by empowering authoritarianism, undermining democratic principles, generating disinformation campaigns, and conducting malicious cyber activities.
“We must work together — like a well-trained soccer team — actively communicating with each other and playing our respective positions in a harmonious, highly effective manner. My boss, [U.S.] Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin uses the term ‘integrated deterrence.’ It means bringing partners together and using all available tools to collectively counter threats and systematically address difficult security problems […]. This is why SOUTHDEC is so important. In many regards, SOUTHDEC is the physical manifestation of integrated deterrence.”
For his part, Ecuadorian Minister of Defense Major General (ret) Luis Lara said that “the conference seeks to analyze and define mechanisms for regional cooperation in defense and security in the context of global threats to peace and the planet.” He added that the meeting has special relevance on security, peace, and defense “in complex times for a region whose political, economic, and social scenarios are constantly changing,” and called for finding effective cooperation mechanisms in the face of external threats to peace in the continent and the onslaught of narcotrafficking, TCOs, and subversion.
Ecuadorian Ambassador to the United States Ivonne Baki and U.S. Ambassador to Ecuador Michael Fitzpatrick were present at the inauguration.
Regional combat in the face of threats
The SOUTHDEC 2022 agenda focused on the gray zone conflict and environmental security. The topics were conducted in the form of briefings and moderated discussions.
On the gray zone conflict, participants highlighted the importance of protecting sovereignty and democratic values by identifying illegal activities early on and the need for a coordinated regional approach to deter malign actors operating in the gray zone.
Participants also stressed the importance of conducting trainings to develop a regional baseline for cyber defense, exploring greater bilateral engagements, and participating in regional exercises to help combat cyber threats.
They also emphasized the need to consolidate a viable strategy to counter TCOs and external state actors that are also linked to environmental threats. Colombia shared its experience on environmental protection with the Artemis military campaign.
Bilateral and regional meetings were also held on security and defense cooperation issues as part of the conference.
Regional leaders stressed the importance of collaboration and teamwork to support each other. Army General Manuel Jesús Martín Gómez de la Torre Araníbar, head of the Peruvian Armed Forces’ Joint Command, told his counterparts to keep in mind that “the security of the hemisphere requires the commitment of all.”