U.S. Army Colonel Kevin Russell, commander of Joint Task Force-Bravo (JTF-Bravo), has a goal to build stronger relationships with Central American partner nations to promote regional security. To achieve this, he leads a variety of efforts to counter transnational organized crime, respond to natural disasters, and help build regional partners’ capacities.
Diálogo spoke with Col. Russell in Honduras about his engagements with Central American nations and their combined efforts to counter criminal organizations.
Diálogo: As commander of JTF-Bravo, what are your main priorities?
U.S. Army Colonel Kevin Russell, commander of Joint Task Force-Bravo: Our main priority is our partnerships with our Central and South American partners. We focus greatly on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR). When we are not doing HA/DR as our primary mission, we are building partners’ capacities. We have a variety of capabilities at Soto Cano Air Base, in particular, with our aviation units and Medical Element (MEDEL), which help us respond to HA/DR events. We can offer our capabilities to all our partners in Honduras, Central America, and even further into South America. We also work with our U.S. personnel in their personal and professional development to make sure that when they go back to their units or are redeployed to other parts of the world, they are better trained service members.
Diálogo: JTF-Bravo was established in 1984, in Soto Cano Air Base, in Honduras. How has this benefitted JTF-Bravo’s and more broadly, SOUTHCOM’s relationship with the Honduran government?
Col. Russell: The relationship that we’ve established over 36 years is very strong. We are almost 600 U.S. military members in Soto Cano. On top of that, we have 700 U.S. government employees, contractors, and Honduran civilians. There are more than 1,200 people in and out of Soto Cano on a daily basis. With this base in Honduras, our relationship is stronger because we’re capable of partnering day-in and day-out. As we continue to build the Soto Cano Air Base and strengthen our relationships, we’re going to be here for years to come. My boss, U.S. Navy Admiral Craig S. Faller, commander of SOUTHCOM, believes in strong partnerships. There isn’t a day that JTF-Bravo doesn’t interact in some way or another with our Honduran partners.
Diálogo: How do joint efforts like Medical Readiness Training Exercise (MEDRETEs) and medical outreach programs help strengthen bonds and benefit the cooperative U.S.-Honduran relations?
Col. Russell: The immediate and direct impact of medical assistance is a unique capability. We do MEDRETEs principally in Honduras, as we want to be good neighbors. We have a fine and warm relationship with all our local partners, be it in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, or other areas in the country. At least every quarter, we reach outside Honduras into other countries of Central America. We have done MEDRETEs in some capacity in South America, when we went to Peru and Colombia as part of the USNS Comfort mission. When we’re not doing MEDRETEs, we have all the capabilities and capacity with our MEDEL to support our local partners on a weekly basis. There is nothing like being able to provide medical assistance as we give the level of care to people who need it. Then, locals can inform others about all the care they received, furthering our message, “U.S. is here and willing to help.”
Diálogo: What joint initiatives does JTF-Bravo pursue with Central American partner nations to counter transnational crime organizations?
Col. Russell: We always look for opportunities to perform with our partners. We work with all our U.S. Embassy partners in the region and we propose certain missions because we have specific capabilities. For example, we are performing Darien Lift operations, where we are providing air transportation assistance to the Panamanian government and their National Border Service to help establish outposts in the Darien jungle. We have the helicopters to move equipment needed to set up these outposts. These projects help to strengthen our partners, so they can fight against and counter transnational criminal organizations. We do Subject Matter Expert Exchanges (SMEE) as well, where we exchange information in different areas.
Diálogo: How does JTF-Bravo cooperate with the Northern Triangle [Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras] in the fight against transnational criminal organizations?
Col. Russell: We have the northern tier working group, where we bring all partners in to share information about security issues affecting the region. We talk to them about events, activities, and operations they are doing with their partners, and how JTF-Bravo can support them on those operations. We do the exchange twice a year to make sure we understand their needs and how we can best support them.
Diálogo: JTF-Bravo sponsors the Central American firefighters training program known as Central America Sharing Mutual Operational Knowledge and Experiences exercise (CENTAM SMOKE). How does this exercise contribute to develop regional capacities of firefighter brigades?
Col. Russell: CENTAM SMOKE is one of the exercises we are most proud of. The exercise is executed here in Soto Cano twice a year with partners from all Central American countries to develop the capacities of firefighter brigades, improve their firefighting skills, and standardize techniques to promote combined efforts against natural disasters. This is also an opportunity for Belize to work face to face with Panama, or for Honduras to train with El Salvador in a different capacity. As we work together, we share tactics, techniques, and procedures. We form tighter, stronger bonds across the region, and not only with U.S. partners, but also across the Central American region.
Diálogo: How do MEDRETEs improve interoperability and readiness during emergencies?
Col. Russell: MEDRETEs are a great resource that allows us to cooperate and integrate our activities and operations with our partners. When we can do MEDRETEs on a multilateral level, it’s even better. For example, the USNS Comfort mission was an excellent opportunity to meet our partners face to face and work with them on different levels, providing medical capabilities.
Diálogo: Would you like to add anything for Diálogo’s readers?
Col. Russell: JTF-Bravo has been in Honduras for 36 years in an amazing capacity. We partner with local, regional, and international organizations and we do many missions to help the people and to foster regional security. I’ve been here since July 2018, and I’ve seen great things and met wonderful people. We are here for HA/DR, to coordinate efforts to counter transnational organized crime, and to build partners’ capacities. Our message says, ‘U.S. is here’ and people do not have to look any further than JTF-Bravo in Soto Cano Air Base to understand that the U.S. cares about the region, our neighborhood, and our partners.