“We want to be an equal partner.” That was Lieutenant General Mark D. Kelly’s welcome to the 50 participants at the Central American Air Chiefs Conference. Lt. Gen. Kelly, commander of the 12th U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command/Air Forces Southern (AFSOUTH), and host of the event, greeted the air chiefs and air force representatives from Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama stating, “We learn as much from our partners as they learn from us.”
Representatives from the U.S. Air National Guard’s State Partnership Program and U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), among others, were also present at the event, which took place at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, in Tucson, Arizona, from December 12th-13th, to ensure the exchange of lessons, objectives, and common challenges among partner nations from the air force perspective.
“The best thing about us hosting it here is that it provides them [air chiefs] a forum that is away from all their home nations, and where they are all on equal footing, equal status,” said Lt. Gen. Kelly. “It provides the air chiefs a venue and some dedicated time to get together and realize that they have very common challenges in the region.” Precisely, the Air Chiefs Conference is an annual event that focuses on the common security challenges from the air force perspective that the United States shares with its Latin American and Caribbean partner nations. On this occasion, the event focused specifically on Central America.
“The importance of being here with all the other Central American air chiefs is for us to share information on how we can develop new tactics to combat transnational organized crime from an aviation perspective,” said Major Jermaine Nolan Burns, the commanding officer of the Belize Defense Force Air Wing. Sharing information and collaborating among nations is the way to fight criminal networks. “Being with the other Central American air chiefs helps us to look at where the voids are and decide how we can go about to fill them, discussing where the problem is and how each is combating them in their individual country. We try to model our tactics from what each other does essentially through evaluating our successes,” Maj. Burns added.
The conference agenda
The air chiefs’ agenda during the two-day event was packed with information briefings provided by AFSOUTH, Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF-S), Joint Task Force Bravo (JTF-Bravo), and the U.S.-Colombia Action Plan (USCAP) regional security cooperation program. They also held bilateral meetings with Lt. Gen. Kelly. In addition, they received a guided tour of the Base Operations for A-10 and C-130 Aircraft Static Displays, the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group, and visited the 612th Air Operations Center. Finally, they met with representatives of the System of Cooperation among the American Air Forces (SICOFAA per its Spanish acronym).
“The event allows us to share experiences to addressing the risks and the fight against the common threats that affect our nations,” said Brigadier General Pilot Richard Vázquez Jimenez, the deputy commanding general of the Dominican Air Force. “It allows us to coordinate efforts to confront these [common threats].”
During the briefings, participants discussed transregional, transnational threat networks (T3N) operating in the region, specifically, the gangs and the violence they generate throughout Central America. The air chiefs expressed concern for the maras’ (gangs) expansion into other countries with their bloody criminal activities.
“The maras not only depend on drug trafficking, they also work independently of it [to commit other crimes]. They are already in my country and have begun to commit acts of terrorism,” said Brigadier General Jorge Ruíz Serovic, commander of the Guatemalan Air Force.
His counterpart from El Salvador agreed with him. “We have a high rate of daily deaths as a result of gang activity, followed by drug trafficking. Our main problem are gangs, which also affect our country’s economy, stability, and security,” said Colonel Salvador Ernesto Hernández Vega, commander of the Salvadoran Air Force.
The air chiefs observed that a single country cannot defeat transnational organized crime alone. “Nowadays, a single country cannot combat transnational organized crime on its own. You need a very large intelligence unit in addition to –in the specific case of the air forces– having aircraft and mechanics for their maintenance to be able to confront them,” added Gen. Ruíz.
Combating organized crime
“The goal of the conference is to provide a forum for our partners –both international and other U.S. organizations– to discuss our ability to combat transnational organized crime,” said U.S. Air Force Major Arthur “Chip” Barton, a Latin American Political Affairs Strategist at AFSOUTH and conference organizer. “This forum allows for cooperation and an open discussion of the issues that are affecting our partner nations individually and then working together to come up with solutions and ways forward to combat those issues.”
Each Central American country has a unique perspective when it comes to the themes of the conference, according to Maj. Barton. This was clear when the partner nation air chiefs analyzed the security threats each of their countries face as a result of T3N. “The relationships with the countries are strong… The air chiefs’ exclusive views are fundamental for the regional discussion on how countries can participate in common solutions.” In his opinion, the conference has an important role for all participants, and “their investment will have a big payoff in the long run.”
Building relationships among countries is a main step for further cooperation, and the Central American Air Chiefs Conference is a great scenario for the exchange of ideas and information. “This event is important because it helps to build relations. We would like to have even more partnerships with more countries in Latin America. I feel that in Puerto Rico we have a lot to offer,” said Brigadier General Wayne Zimmet, Assistant Adjutant General, Puerto Rico Air National Guard Commander. “It is more important to be face-to-face, because when things happen or when you want to get something done, it’s that recognition, it’s that face-to-face contact that makes a big difference, particularly in the Latin culture.”
Tyrone Barbery, Deputy Chief of the Theater Security Cooperation division at AFSOUTH, agreed. “It allows us to get closer with the commanders to be able to see how we help each other and find solutions to common problems... If we can collectively do something with this synergy as a team, we can achieve a lot more than what could be achieved by each country alone.”
Participants at the event concluded that only by working together, the region as a whole will be able to counter T3N. “Costa Rica’s number one priority is to be a regional strategic ally in the fight against organized crime,” stated Captain Juan Luis Vargas Castillo, director of the Ministry of Public Security’s Air Vigilance Service.
One of the main strategic partnerships among Western Hemisphere air forces is SICOFAA, a volunteer and apolitical organization dedicated to the promotion of cooperation, unity, and interoperability among the air forces. “SICOFAA is a vital organization to properly employ our air power capabilities around the continent,” said General Carlos Eduardo Bueno Vargas, commander of the Colombian Air Force.
“We want to work together to prevent transnational crimes, such as smuggling and drug trafficking networks, from using the Central American region, so stop them from using our maritime, land, or air space for their illegal acts,” concluded Col. Hernandez.