“Transnational and Transregional Threat Networks are the Biggest Threat to the Western Hemisphere”
By Marcos Ommati/Diálogo April 19, 2017
U.S. Army South (ARSOUTH) is headquartered at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and is U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) Army service component. Its mission is to conduct and support multinational operations and provide security cooperation in 31 countries and 15 areas of special sovereignty in Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Major General Clarence K.K. Chinn assumed command of ARSOUTH on June 4, 2015. He is a 1981 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and received a Master’s degree in Strategic Studies from the Army War College. Diálogo visited Maj. Gen. Chinn to talk about the challenges he faces when countering transnational threats and strengthening regional security in defense of the homeland.
Diálogo: Having been in the position of commander of ARSOUTH for almost two years now (since 2015), how has your perspective of the AOR changed since you first assumed command?
Major General Clarence Chinn, U.S. Army South commander: I am really impressed with our partner nations, because we would not be where we are today without their great support. People don’t realize where we once were. I had lunch with a young officer (25 years old) the other day, and he said: ‘Sir, I don’t get it. I don’t see us making any progress. Don’t know if we’re having an effect.’ And one of the guys who had been in the military 40 years, said: ‘You don’t get it because you don’t know what it was like in the 80s, and the 90s. We had boots on the ground; we had soldiers in many countries. They were doing the fighting.’ We are not doing any of that today. Our partner nations are protecting their own sovereignty, and not only that, they have the vision. They are looking at transnational trends and transnational networks, and they are figuring out how they are going to disrupt them or defeat them. I think it is a very strong, stable region. The military leaders want the same thing we want: stability, security, and economic opportunity. They understand also that they cannot do it by themselves. They have to work with other nations, and they have to share information so that they can be fast and transparent to defeat the criminal networks that are operating in their countries.
Diálogo: Do you think the values of democracy are stronger in Central and South America now, in comparison to what we have seen in recent years?
Maj. Gen. Chinn: I do. I think, the military wants to have strong stability and security internal to their country, but that only happens because we have folks that went before us, and had the vision. In our country, this is what we want, and I think that is the key — that they value democratic institutions. So, take a look at what has happened there [in Central and South America] in a short period of time. A president was impeached [in Brazil]; another president resigned [in Guatemala]. In previous years, that would prompt a military coup. But, it didn’t happen after those two incidents, and it’s because they have strong institutions that have been built over time. Not only internal to the country, but also through the relationships, through the education, and through everyone’s understanding of what the democratic process should be. The role of the military is to provide security to let the democratic process continue.
Diálogo: What do you see as your biggest challenge as the commander of Army South?
Maj. Gen. Chinn: The big part for us is protecting our southern boundaries, as well as protecting the nation from transregional and transnational threats networks. Those networks are always going to be the challenge. We should always be focused on the different networks that are out there, because that is really the threat to the United States. And it’s fortunate that we have great partner nations that really believe in the same things we do, which is, they do not want these transregional, transnational threat networks operating in their countries either, because it affects their sovereignty and their security. If you cannot have security, then you are not going to get investment. Therefore, I think, across the board, what we are interested in is assisting our partners so they can continue to strengthen their ability to support their own sovereignty. Then, when necessary, they can disrupt or destroy networks that are operating within their countries.
Diálogo: What kind of networks are you referring to?
Maj. Gen. Chinn: We see networks that transit illicit goods, people, weapons, money, and drugs throughout the Western Hemisphere, for example, MS-13 [Mara Salvatrucha], which is a network that operates in El Salvador and other Central American countries. We have to understand the networks if we want to be successful, and it takes a strong network to defeat another network. So, with that understanding, and the support of our partner nations, we can create our own network in order to share information, and in turn, be more overt, more transparent, and faster. We can infiltrate the networks’ decision cycle, and individuals in charge – no matter who it is, or where the network is.
Diálogo: What role does the Conference of the American Armies play in the fight against these networks, and other security and defense issues in the region?
Maj. Gen. Chinn: A very important role, I would say. There are 20 partner army commanders that are part of it. They meet every two years, and as of right now, the United States Army is the host of that conference. The last time we hosted was 1991. That tells you a little bit about how we operate, as far as armies, about everyone having an opportunity to lead and host. So, we are hosting it this year, in addition to one of the conferences where we discuss the emerging threats of the 21st Century. There will be dialogue between the army commanders over what we believe the threats are, and then, each one of us goes back to our respective countries offering help, for example, to the police, because in some countries the police, as you know, are part of the military. In other countries they are not part of the military, they are separate. What happens when they have to work together and create that synergy, so they can share that information, while also being transparent and understanding? It is not a competition. It is about protecting our countries.
Diálogo: But it’s key for people to understand that the army, in these instances, is not doing police work, correct?
Maj. Gen. Chinn: Exactly. Many folks think the army is out there with the police, therefore, they are policing. No, they are not policing. They are not trained to conduct policing, but in contingency situations, they can support the police. They are not arresting people; they do not have that authority. Nor does their Constitution allow it. So, the real key is that there is no partner nation or country I have seen, or that I have worked with, who, first, doesn’t comply with their Constitution when it says that the army can support the police; and, second, their Constitution says if the president directs the army to support the police, they will support the police. That is subservient to civilian authority. If it is not illegal, immoral or unethical, if the president says to do it, then you have to do it. But, there is not a single commander I’ve spoken with that hasn’t turned around and said – when I asked them where they would like to be in two or three years – that they don’t want to be supporting the police.
Diálogo: It’s not their mission…
Maj. Gen. Chinn: Right, and they are worried about it, too. As a good army commander, they should be worried about it, because they know they aren’t necessarily trained to do it – supporting the police. But, that is what they tell me. That is their challenge.
Diálogo: And they are probably concerned about human rights violations as well, right?
Maj. Gen. Chinn: Right. They do not want to get caught up in any type of potential human rights violations, because they don’t want to lose the trust and confidence of the people. In every country, just like here in the United States, you see that the most trusted and respected institution is the military. In some countries, the police are right up there on the same level, while in others, the police are not as highly regarded as the military. But it doesn’t really matter either way. What is important to understand is that the military is one of the most trusted and respected. That’s because of the leadership, right? You don’t become the most trusted and respected in a society unless you are doing the right things. Meaning, you are not facilitating human rights violations. It is very impressive that they are so well respected. But part of that also goes back to why they are so well respected. When the president asks them to do something, they are usually very successful.
Diálogo: Members of the military participating in disaster relief activities also give them a lot of respect and credibility with different populations, right?
Maj. Gen. Chinn: Yes, because that is where they have the most interaction with the people. When there is a disaster, or something happens, and the civilian government does not have the capacity or capability to confront those sometimes overwhelming challenges alone, they need military assistance. Different from the United States, where we have a National Guard, they [most countries in Central and South America, and the Caribbean] don’t have a National Guard, and no reserves. So, the president doesn’t have the options that we have here. They have to call on the military. So again, you run into this problem of the military not being trained to do humanitarian assistance or disaster relief, but they end up doing it, and they do it pretty well. These are very tough missions that we ask of our military leaders in the partner nations, and they do it. I am really impressed with their capabilities.
Diálogo: Lastly, what do you have to say about the history of the military in this region taking part in peacekeeping missions all around the world?
Maj. Gen. Chinn: That is another interesting piece. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there are 14 different peacekeeping missions that our partner nations are involved in right now. That is a lot. I was surprised, but in many cases, they have been doing it for a long time. Colombia has been doing the Sinai mission since its inception. A lot of folks don’t realize that Colombia has been involved in that, because they are quiet professionals. They just go there and do it without a lot of fanfare. The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti [MINUSTAH] is led by Brazil, and has Chile as the deputy. The United Nations’ peacekeeping missions are important because they put the partner nations on a global stage. They are not just regional, but global, and they are getting recognition for being a professional force. Additionally, folks don’t realize that El Salvador provides helicopters in Mali, Africa. Or that Peru is in the Central African Republic right now, on their second rotation, with an engineer company. But there are a lot of those types of things going on where folks just don’t really realize that we’ve got great partner nations down there, doing great things. El Salvador fought with us both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua all had forces in Iraq. Colombia has been with us in Korea, where they have suffered casualties, and once a year they perform a remembrance ceremony. Then, you look at the Brazilians who fought with us in WWII. In sum, we have a very strong relationship with a lot of our partner nations.