"Together we can do much more for the security of our nations," said U.S. Navy Admiral Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), in his opening remarks at the Central American Security Conference (CENTSEC) 2019, held in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on May 7-8. Officers from Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama took part in the regional conference. Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico attended as observers.
"I feel hopeful, but at the same time I have the satisfaction that we are on the right path, because we all have to be together," said Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, as he welcomed regional defense ministers and military leaders. Under the theme "Exploring the role of military and security forces in in support of civilian authorities countering transnational organized crime and gangs ," participants discussed how to improve the decision-making processes in the military-strategic field, as well as cooperation between partner nations.
“Maras, gangs, and other criminal groups pose a real and serious threat to every nation in our neighborhood, to every nation in this hemisphere," said Adm. Faller. "They assault the rule of law and human rights with their brutal tactics and brazen disregard for human life […]. These organizations play by a different set of rules. They don’t respect our laws, our people, or our constitution, but we do. Our legitimacy is our strongest advantage."
SOUTHCOM sponsors the annual Central American security forum and seeks to foster dialogue among defense leaders in the region to exchange experiences and find solutions to common challenges. The conference, in its14th edition, hosted the Senior Enlisted Leaders Seminar for the second time.
Optimization of defense institutions
"Gangs are a very complex issue that has severely affected many countries, especially those in the Northern Triangle in terms of violence, as well as us, although our problems are far from those of the Northern Triangle," Michael Soto Rojas, Costa Rican minister of Public Security, told Diálogo. "On that basis, the problem should be addressed jointly to conduct prospective intelligence, as these structures might become a problem in the future."
The general conference was divided into two sessions that addressed the systems that support gangs and transnational organized crime, their effects on security, and the optimization of defense and security institutions to counter threats in support of civilian authorities. CENTSEC echoed the willingness of regional countries to join efforts, exchange intelligence, and foster bonds of friendship.
"We have to understand that these structures operate in a transnational way, especially in the countries of the Northern Triangle, with the influence of members in these structures from the United States," Honduran Army Colonel Amílcar Hernández, director of the National Anti-Maras and Gangs Force, told Diálogo. "This conference improves bonds, operational coordination, and information exchange. It’s important to weaken these structures […] to prevent them from continuing to grow in their illicit operational capacity."
The role of noncommissioned officers
Sergeant majors of the region were able to take part in joint events during CENTSEC, and also shared experiences with their counterparts at the Senior Enlisted Leaders Seminar. Together, noncommissioned officers (NCOs) addressed the creation of maras, analyzed the Honduran program Guardians of the Homeland (which seeks to save minors from drugs, gangs, and organized crime, since its 2010 inception), and highlighted the role of NCOs.
"Our role doesn’t change from one conflict to the other; our role always stays the same. It doesn’t matter if its combat, training in the field; our leadership is leadership, and discipline is discipline," U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant Major Brian Zickefoose, command senior enlisted leader, SOUTHCOM, told Diálogo. "Senior NCOs’ responsibilities include advising and assisting our commanders in all matters, [from the] tactical all the way through the strategic level. Understanding our commander’s intent is one of the most important things, and being able to communicate it all the way to the lowest level, even to our junior officers."
The role of the NCO, said Sgt. Maj. Zickefoose, also consists of establishing a model to follow in the community, which "helps fight transnational crime, because it allows our countrymen to see who we are and to become something different than a gang member," said the senior NCO.
CENTSEC concluded with the understanding that threats are numerous and harsh, and that close cooperation in the region is crucial to disrupt and dismantle the activities of transnational criminal groups. "The adversary is tough, the adversary adapts, the adversary has no rules, follows no laws," said Adm. Faller in his closing remarks. "Our legitimacy demands hard work, teamwork, and commitment and the integrity that comes along with that […]. Thank you for this opportunity to build trust and to build our team."