Partnership Continues With New SOUTHCOM Commander

Partnership Continues With New SOUTHCOM Commander

By Dialogo
April 01, 2013

Sandra Marina/DIÁLOGO staff

The afternoon General John F. Kelly took charge of U.S. Southern Command
(SOUTHCOM), the red U.S. Marine Corps flag flew over the command headquarters
alongside those of partner nations in the Caribbean, Central and South America.

It was a visual image that would foretell the four-star Marine general’s
extensive travels during his first months in command.

Since that day in November 2012, Gen. Kelly, who in previous assignments
commanded troops in Iraq and worked shoulder to shoulder with former U.S. Secretary
of Defense Leon Panetta, has traveled throughout the hemisphere, getting to know the
region’s senior military and defense leaders and their perspectives. Hours before
heading south again – to the Central American isthmus this time – Gen. Kelly shared
with Diálogo some of his thoughts on the region and the importance of strengthening
partnerships against what he calls “the common poison of drugs.”

U.S. Marine Corps General John F. Kelly, SOUTHCOM Commander: Since I
have been here at SOUTHCOM, I have visited Colombia, Peru, Chile, Brazil, Honduras,
El Salvador, Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago, Panama and Guatemala. I have hit a
lot of places, I guess. Before that, when I worked with former U.S. Secretary of
Defense Panetta, I made trips to Latin America. I have been to Peru now a couple of
times, Chile a couple of times, Colombia a couple of times, Brazil a couple of
times, Uruguay, once. My impressions of the countries I have visited are that they
want to have a relationship with the United States, and the United States wants to
have a partnership with virtually everybody in the Caribbean, and Central and South
America. When I say partnership, I don’t mean a dominant partnership, I mean a
partnership. Years ago we had a different relationship with this part of the world,
but now it has matured. Take Brazil that is now a world power, economic as well as
military, in the right way military. You have Colombia that is a tremendous success
story. Twenty years ago, 15 years ago, most people in the United States, certainly
in Washington, would not have given much hope at all to Colombia.

People say, “You can’t win the drug war,” and I would say, “Look at
Colombia!” People say, “You can’t win the war against drugs,” and I say, “Look at
Peru and what they are trying to do!” A lot of people would say, “You can’t win the
drug war,” but look at what our friends the Guatemalans, the Hondurans, the
Salvadorans, the Belizeans are trying to do in the Northern Tier. They want a
partnership with the United States on their terms, and the United States wants to
partnership with them on their terms. Obviously, we have a tremendous trading
relationship with this part of the world, and we have attained a relationship of
quality that has already emerged.

Gen. Kelly: The United States is much closer in terms of culture to
this part of the world. Whether you speak Spanish or Portuguese or not, in the
United States we have millions and millions of people who have arrived from
countries in the Caribbean, Central and South America. In comparison to the Middle
East, this is easy, and frankly, refreshing. For the last 10 years of my life, like
most people in the United States Military but particularly Marines and U.S. Army
Soldiers, our lives have been dominated by the war. I had three tours in Iraq, just
about a year each and, in one case, longer than a year. The good news about this
area of the world is that, for the most part, people are not throwing rocks at each
other; they are talking to each other. For the most part, people are getting along;
they are trading with each other. This part of the world is not as dangerous. Yes,
Colombia is still dealing with a tough fight; the Peruvians have a fight on their
hands with Sendero Luminoso [Shining Path], but for the most part, people here are
getting along with each other, and the United States just wants to be part of that.

Gen. Kelly: They are absolutely invaluable to us. We have several
partner nation liaison officers here. In fact, we just said goodbye to Brazilian
Marine [Commander Alexandre Silva] who is going back to his country to take command
of a battalion. His replacement is already here [Commander Max Silva]. They are
invaluable individuals for us to understand each other and get along. And in our
organization in Key West, Joint Interagency Task Force–South, we also have a very
large number of liaison officers from various countries. Unfortunately, there are
some countries in this part of the world that we are not on the best terms with at
the moment. We all hope that will change. My greatest hope is that those countries
will someday, during my tour here, be more accepting so we can develop a better and
friendlier partnership with them. If that happens … [it would be] good. And I hope
it happens before I leave, because there are some common challenges regardless of
what country you are in the world. The obvious one is drugs and the illegal money
from profits generated by drugs. It doesn’t matter if you are a Central American
country desperately trying to fight this fight or if you are Colombia that is
emerging from a tough time and doing so well. It doesn’t matter if you are
Venezuela; it doesn’t matter if you are Bolivia, Ecuador or Chile. The poison that
is drugs and the money it generates is everybody’s concern, and it is in everyone’s
interest to try to stem the tide of this cancer. You would be surprised at the great
work countries are doing shoulder to shoulder with us down in Key West, trying to
deal with this terrible problem of drugs.

Gen. Kelly: Hopefully, we are going to save most of them. We are doing
a lot of searching right now for internal efficiencies. If what we do here is
engagement, partnerships and counterdrug activities, everything else has to be
looked at as a potential cut. Many of our exercises are not real big — we are not
sending brigades, we are sending four or five guys, sometimes 12 for a month or two
to work with the partner nation military. It is not a huge investment. A lot of
times, conferences are looked at as things you can do without, but conferences are
hugely important to SOUTHCOM because they bring the partners together even if it is
for a couple of days to talk about countering drugs, humanitarian and disaster
relief, which is huge down here. Unfortunately, that’s one of the things that will
suffer. This is not to say that we are not going to walk away from disaster relief.
If, God forbid, a volcano or a terrible hurricane happens, the United States will be
there, but for sure not as quickly. It will take a longer period of time to help the
recovery, but we are still there for all our partners and friends, not just the ones
that we are most friendly with. We are all human beings, we are all in this
together, and helping each other out is the best form of partnership. I don’t care
what country it is. If there is a humanitarian disaster, regardless of what country
it is, SOUTHCOM will be there to help relieve that problem for those people.

Gen. Kelly: That’s our bread and butter: bringing people together in
conferences, in tabletop exercises or exercises. The relationships you develop are
at least as important or probably more important than the actual thing that you are
doing. I operated around the world in my time as a Marine, and the one truism I
found is that personal relations count probably more than anything. People tell me
that in Latin America personal relationships are important, but it is no different
in the Middle East. As different as they are, to know the sheik, to know the clan
leader, to look in his eyes and work through a problem with him and develop a
personal relationship, so when there is a problem you pick up the phone and there is
trust there. I have been in Asia, South America now and certainly the Middle East
and Europe in my almost 40 years as a Marine, and the one constant is that personal
relations count. That means getting out to see people. If they come here, the door
is always open, whether it is a general, an admiral or an ambassador. And when I go
there, the doors have always been open, with the exception of a couple of countries,
but I hope someday to visit those countries and to develop a relationship with those
leaders and their countries. In the meantime, I am happy to just make a commitment
that if anything happens in those countries and they want us to help, we will be
there to help.

Gen. Kelly: We are with you. We are shoulder to shoulder with you. We
are friends. Yes, we have budget issues, but the good news is that all the countries
we deal with today in this part of the world – this isn’t the case in a lot of the
world – want to do it themselves. They want a partnership of equals, and I think
that is hugely important. Although the United States is dealing with pretty
significant budget problems, we will get beyond this. In the meantime, my commitment
is to work as close as I can, as often as I can, with as many countries in our
region for all the things of mutual importance: counterdrug, humanitarian, medical.
… Some countries are facing tough challenges, Central American countries in
particular, but my advice is look at Colombia, look at what Peru is doing, and know
that we are with you. That’s my message.

I liked the work, but more needs to be done. I know they work at a more serious level which is the drug trafficking, but I don’t see, at least in my country, the politicians work with prevention in smaller towns, nothing is done there. Drugs are easily spread. Almost everyone use them…… I know it isn’t easy, but the people’s social and economical situation and the absence of political and humanitarian commitment are making more and more of our children use drugs. The USA are, with no doubt, a great ally capable of helping many countries; I don’t mean to win, but to conquer, or at least reducing drastically the parallel world of drugs. In order to do it, it’s needed the countries of the Americas governments’ acceptance to share the information they have, especially regarding the involvements and the networks, and monitoring the money generated by the drugs and weapons trade in the world, the main reasons responsible for financing the deaths of thousands of people. The only way to stop this is this: in every country, when the leaders of these gangs are captured. They and their closest collaborators should be sent to the U.S. and they should serve their sentence there. This will ensure that they stop operating from the prisons of their respective countries, the way they are doing now. Drug traffickers hate this, and they know it would be a real punishment for them, their associates and their families, who become rich at the expense of destruction and deaths.