The U.S. Inter-American Air Forces Academy (IAAFA) hosted an event for military officers and delegates from Belize, Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uruguay. The nations took part in the IV Western Hemisphere Exchange Symposium (WHES IV) in San Antonio, Texas, on May 20-24, 2019. The yearly symposium gathers nations of the hemisphere to exchange information and experiences on disaster relief and humanitarian assistance operations, counternarcotics operations, and air and maritime strategies.
“We are here fundamentally about education and training, on IAAFA’s mission. We work to solve our challenges, our problems, to share perspectives, knowledge, ideas, and to make a difference for our people across this hemisphere,” said U.S. Air Force Major General Mark E. Weatherington, Deputy Commander, Air Education and Training Command, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas.
The symposium is an open forum for regional high commanders to present their progress and challenges, with organized crime as a common issue. “The U.S. initiative enables us to [figure out] what is happening to us, our problems, and also to meet in person, so that we can work in a combined way,” Brigadier General Javier Rene Barrientos Alvarado, commander of the Honduran Air Force, told Diálogo. “It's a great opportunity for all countries to cooperate and operate with better outcomes.”
In the case of El Salvador, narcotrafficking and gangs cause unrest among the population. “That gang-narcotrafficking combination causes grief and death to families and countries threatened by these scourges,” said Army Colonel Carlos Alberto Tejada Murcia, head of the Salvadoran Armed Forces’ Engineering Command. “One of the Salvadoran gangs, the so-called MS-13 [Mara Salvatrucha], has the scope of a transnational criminal organization.”
For four days, the officers presented the most efficient ways to confront common threats. Experiences and information shared helped attendees to find specific solutions to local problems.
“Honduras was one of the most violent countries in the world,” Gen. Barrientos told Diálogo. “We did a deep restructuring and purge of the National Police and Armed Forces to strengthen both institutions.”
“The changes implemented in our country in the last six years have worked,” Army Colonel Hugo Lorenzo Coca Cantarero, Operations deputy director of the Honduran Armed Forces, told Diálogo. “In 2012 we had 86 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, and we have now reduced it by 50 percent.”
In 2018, the average murder rate went down to 40 per 100,000 inhabitants, after authorities fired 4,000 corrupt police agents, increased education, training, and wages, and hired new personnel in security institutions, the Inter-American Development Bank indicated in its report How Did Honduras Cut its Homicide Rate by Half The goal now is to train and certify 23,000 new agents by 2023, the report said.
Guatemala’s initial solution was a considerable investment to improve the Armed Forces' capabilities. “We bought planes, recovered helicopters, optimized 3D radar systems for airspace surveillance, and conducted a combined, comprehensive effort to counter transnational crime,” Brigadier General Timo Hernández Duarte, commander of the Guatemalan Air Force, told Diálogo.
The rule of law is under constant attack from traffickers and other criminals. “They control sections of towns and cities, bribing government officials, murdering judges and police officers, as well as friends and partners of ours, and common citizens,” U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Michael T. Plehn, U.S. Southern Command deputy commanding general, said at the meeting. “[For] the U.S. Southern Command, the competition is deadly; many of you take part in it on everyday, and it destroys tens of thousands of lives in our neighborhood every year. It's a competition [where] we all participate actively,” said Gen. Barrientos. “We have to work together; we must trust each other so that we can conduct better operations,” he concluded.