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Mexico Takes New and Important Leadership Roles in Central America

The North American country co-hosted the 2017 Central American Security Conference for the first time.
Marcos Ommati/Diálogo | 12 June 2017

Dr. Richard Downie moderated a roundtable on regional cooperation to combat transnational threats in Central America during CENTSEC 2017. (Photo: Marcos Ommati/Diálogo)

Dr. Richard Downie was director of the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, from March 2004-March 2013. As such, he was a fixed presence at the security conferences co-sponsored by U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) every year. The Perry Center is located at the National Defense University, in Washington, D.C., and provides security and defense education to personnel from U.S. Northern Command, SOUTHCOM, and partner nations in the Americas.

Now a senior partner at Deplhi Strategic Consulting, which specializes in security and defense issues in North America, Latin America, and the Caribbean, Dr. Downie attended the 2017 Central American Security Conference, in Cozumel, Mexico, to moderate a roundtable on regional cooperation to combat transnational threats in Central America. Diálogo spoke with Dr. Downie during the conference, in April, to discuss security and defense issues affecting the region, among other topics.

Diálogo: How important is the fact that Mexico co-hosted CENTSEC for the first time?

Dr. Richard Downie: Mexico being a co-host with SOUTHCOM and NORTHCOM is really important, not only because they are present, but the country is showing a leadership role. And they are taking it on. What I saw this morning during my session, which was about building a network of regional cooperation to address transnational threats, was that you need a strong network of good actors to work against the networks of bad actors, and what you saw here today was an agreement, in principle, on all those issues. Where it breaks down is what you need to get that cooperation to happen, and what type of cooperation you actually need. In my opinion, the most important issue discussed today was information sharing. Also, I saw that rather than just being a conference where people get to know one another, the senior military and other leaders present really want to take the next step towards building that network and taking the steps that are needed to build the cooperation that they will have, or need to have to address these transnational threats in the region.

Diálogo: What do you think is the next step in order to accomplish something concrete?

Dr. Richard Downie: I think the real value of having Mexico here is that they can take the leadership role. United States has done plenty in the region, and Mexico now willing to take a leadership role is extremely important. We saw them step up today, because they are leaders in the region, and they are taking other leadership roles in the region, such as with the Inter-American Defense Board, and the meeting of ministers of defense [Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas]. I think their ability and willingness to take on some of the leadership roles with Central America will make a huge difference.

Diálogo: That lines up exactly with what Admiral Kurt Tidd, SOUTHCOM commander, wants for the region, correct?

Dr. Richard Downie: Correct. Admiral Tidd puts great emphasis on trying to build these relationships [with partner nations], but he understands the limitations. What are those limitations? We need to delve into those a bit more. That is what I was trying to do today in my session, to really get to the heart of what are the issues that are keeping us from taking the next step, and that is what he wants to achieve. At this level they can decide anything they want. But you have to have the political coverage. There has to be some sort of framework, agreement, or some sort of a legislative agreement, international legislative agreement, to do something, to move this level of cooperation ahead. Otherwise, it just ends up being another conference, another discussion, and “hopefully we’ll do something next year.” I hope that we’ve gotten to the point where we really need to move this along.

Diálogo: Do you think the reason for inviting ministers of defense to this conference was to actually achieve something? Because the generals and admirals can meet and decide things but there is a political side of it, right?

Dr. Richard Downie: That is exactly right. The problem is something is missing. Because you have all these high-level conferences, such as CENTSEC, but what is needed to actually make a difference against these transnational threats is not happening. Therefore, what we were trying to find out, at least that is what I was trying to do in my session, was the step we need to take to get us there. And that is a very hard thing. I mean, it’s not easy to get that kind of information sharing. We raised the issue [during the roundtable] about the fact that last week there was a Russian plane that was approaching the U.S. airspace near Alaska, and jets went up to intercept those aircraft, and the jets were American and Canadian planes. That is an amazing feat, that you had U.S. and Canadian planes working together to intercept Russian planes. That is the level of confidence that is truly an example for the world. But they didn’t get there overnight; that was [the result of] decades of effort, to make that level of cooperation, and trust work. That was Admiral Tidd’s point this morning, we’ve got to build that trust, and you’ve got to start somewhere. It’s that first step. We’ve been talking about this, but it’s not there yet.

Diálogo: More and more we see some countries’ armed forces participating in supporting their police. Do you see this as a trend or do you think that somehow the armed forces will go back to their original role, which is protecting their countries’ sovereignty?

Dr. Richard Downie: I think what you saw, particularly in the comments from El Salvador and Honduras, is that they do not want their military to take on the policing role. El Salvador, Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala all talked about the requirement for the military to be involved in supporting the police, not to do the police’s job for them, because the police just don’t have the capability. It takes time to build up not only the size of the police, the capability of the police, to be able to function as they are doing. But the Minister of Defense of El Salvador, General Munguía Payés said, “you’ve got to walk in one of our neighborhoods, to understand.” This is not a public security problem. It’s much bigger than that. So what they are seeing is not what we view as a typical police problem. You’ve got military focused on what is essentially a big police problem. What he is saying, and what you are seeing in other countries as well –I am sure in the Northern Triangle they are all facing this– is that this is a lot more than a policing problem. You need to come down here to see it. But this is a huge effort that the police alone just can’t handle.

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