SPMAGTF-SC Ends Multinational Deployment on a High Note

The force consisting of U.S. marines and sailors included Latin American officers in its fourth annual deployment.
Kay Valle/Diálogo | 30 October 2018

International Relations

Colombian Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Erick Del Rio (foreground), deputy commander of SPMAGTF-SC, and U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Michael Oppenheim, commander of SPMAGTF-SC, inaugurate a health clinic refurbished during the special purpose mission in La Paz, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps Corporal Jona R. Meme)

For the first time since its inception, Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Southern Command (SPMAGTF-SC) conducted a multinational mission in Central America. The participation of partner nations, in the most recent deployment of SPMAGTF-SC, marked the first step in the creation of a multinational maritime task force to build capabilities and respond jointly to any crisis that demands humanitarian aid and disaster response.

A unit of SPMAGTF-SC works with a member of the Guatemalan Army Corps of Engineers in a construction site in Escuintla, Guatemala, where troops built housing for victims of the Fuego Volcano eruption. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Zachary Dyer)

Three Latin American officers joined SPMAGTF-SC’s six-month mission that ends November 2018. Colombian Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Erick Del Rio assumed the duty of deputy commander of SPMAGTF-SC, while Honduran Naval Force Lieutenant Milton Roldán Meza Sánchez serves as a liaison officer between SPMAGTF-SC and the Honduran Naval Force. Chilean Navy Captain Jorge Keitel also assisted as executive advisor to the initial task force.

“This is something we are very excited about,” U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Michael Oppenheim, commander of SPMAGTF-SC 2018, told Diálogo. “This year is our first time as a multinational special purpose force. Our partner nations join our formation as we are trying to build a multinational maritime task force together. We all recognize that we have problems and we know that we want to share our resources to address those challenges and get the benefits.”  

The participation of Latin American nations benefited the special purpose task force thanks to experience exchanges. United under the same structure and a common goal—to develop the capabilities of security forces in the region and respond to natural disasters and crisis situations—participants forged bonds of friendship and learned from one another.

“This opportunity I have is very important, because it’s a regional experience. I have the chance to interact and share with service members of Central America and other countries, and share my experiences and find similarities,” Lt. Col. Del Rio said. “They [SPMAGTF-SC units] are receiving orders from a foreign officer; I’m leading troops from a different nation, but the relationship has been very professional. […] This assignment also gives me the chance to have a better understanding of something as complex as the region, and it makes me think about ways to create a joint response to face the future.” 

Humanitarian mission and training

More than 300 marines and sailors from 43 units, mostly of the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Reserve, combined to form SPMAGTF-SC 2018. The troops deployed in early June to Soto Cano Air Base, headquarters of SOUTHCOM’s Joint Task Force-Bravo in Comayagua, Honduras. From their camp—recently renamed after U.S. Marine Corps hero First Lieutenant Travis Manion—the force’s command planned humanitarian aid projects, engineering works, and exercises in the region.

In early July, about 40 units of SPMAGTF-SC worked with the Guatemalan Army Corps of Engineers on a temporary housing construction project for victims of the Fuego Volcano eruption. Together, service members built more than 200 shelters to house hundreds of people from areas most affected by the volcano’s eruption.

“This is exactly the type of mission we’re designed to do,” said Col. Oppenheim. “In this case we helped the Guatemalan engineers build shelters, bathrooms, and other facilities for the victims. The lesson we learned in working with Guatemala is that we need to cooperate. Our trust has been developed and we are now very efficient together.” 

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales toured a shelter site in Escuintla, Guatemala, built by U.S. marines and members of the Guatemalan Army Corps of Engineers for families left without homes following the eruption of the Fuego Volcano, July 30, 2018. He shook the hand of every marine and sailor with Marine Detachment - Southern Partnership Station, attached to Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Southern Command, to thank them for their support and highlight that the marines worked side by side with the Guatemalans. (Photo: U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Frans Labranche)

Other engineering projects in Guatemala consisted of refurbishing and modernizing schools and medical clinics in Escuintla and Sacatepéquez departments, where service members installed doors, windows, roofs, floors, and electric wiring, while community members helped paint walls. In Honduras, U.S. marines carried out a water supply project in Puerto Castilla Naval Base, in the Caribbean coast of Honduras. They also repaired a faulty reservoir that affected the neighboring town. In Belize, marines worked on two schools and solved issues with the sewage systems.

In addition to humanitarian projects, SPMAGTF-SC conducted several exercises with partner nation forces, as well as subject matter expert exchanges, so as to reinforce the capabilities of Latin American institutions and guarantee regional security. Units of SPMAGTF-SC trained Guatemalan police forces, conducted mobile training with Honduran and Salvadoran marines, and carried out subject matter expert exchanges in Chile, Brazil, Panama, and the Dominican Republic. In Belize, SPMAGTF-SC also conducted an exercise simulating the landing of a hurricane, putting to the test response capabilities and evacuation procedures in case of a natural disaster.

Developing concept

With the addition of officers fromColombia, Chile, and Honduras, SPMAGTF-SC demonstrated that the concept of a multipurpose and multinational force can be a reality.

The developing concept of the U.S. Marine Corps Forces, South seeks to create a multinational maritime force to provide common capabilities—troops, ships, aircraft, and equipment—during the hurricane season, to provide humanitarian aid and respond to potential crises in the region.

According to Capt. Keitel, a force consisting of Latin American service members would facilitate operations in the region, as the countries share cultural and social aspects. Its multinational character, he added, would also help legitimize operations worldwide.

“None of us has unlimited military resources. A multinational force with the contribution of each partner nation enables us to confront problems together,” Capt. Keitel said. “When multiple nations work together and contribute their experience, knowledge, and capabilities, the force grows stronger and more effective.”

Col. Oppenheim hopes the 2019 deployment of SPMAGTF-SC will have more guest officers from partner nations. The goal: demonstrate that the concept is good and that it works.

“That is exactly our plan; of course arrangements and agreements have to be made at the government level,” said Col. Oppenheim. “We are trying really hard at the tactical level to demonstrate why it’s such a good idea and how it could benefit all the citizens of the Americas.”

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