As commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, South (MARFORSOUTH) since May 2017, Major General David G. Bellon has strengthened bonds of friendship with partner nation navies and naval infantries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Diálogo talked to the commander as he gets ready to oversee the deployment of the 2018 Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force to provide humanitarian assistance, disaster response, and engineering support to Central America, Colombia, and the Caribbean.
Diálogo: What is MARFORSOUTH’s main focus in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2018?
Major General David G. Bellon, commander of MARFORSOUTH: We have two priority focuses, I would say we have a day job and a crisis response responsibility. For the crisis response job, for half the year, we support a force at the request of the combatant commander [U.S. Navy Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, commander of U.S. Southern Command], called the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force (SPMAGTF). As marines, we task organize for every job, and our philosophy is to come self-deployable. We have everything we need to do the job we’ve been tasked to do. We’ve been organized into a Marine Air-Ground Task Force with a special purpose. In SOUTHCOM, we have a SPMAGTF that has been designed, trained, and equipped to do crisis response, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief. It’s for the people of the region, our partners and friends, we have a force that’s poised and ready to go to alleviate human suffering in the event of a natural disaster, human disaster, whether it’s a hurricane or earthquake, or something else. We’re poised and ready to go for six months of the year, primarily during hurricane season. That force is deployed into Soto Cano, Honduras, but they’re distributed all over Central America, Colombia, and the Caribbean. They also have a day job, so when they’re not pivoting to crisis response, they work with our partners and listen to their needs within their own forces to help build their capacities so that we can contribute to the conditions to establish rule of law.
Diálogo: Does the special purpose change or is it always focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts?
Maj. Gen. Bellon: For the crisis response element, primarily we’re organized to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster response. But there could be other missions that we could be given, you never know. They have a pretty wide skill set, but they’re really trained on humanitarian assistance.
Diálogo: What is your biggest concern in terms of regional security in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean?
Maj. Gen. Bellon: Regional security really comes down to rule of law. Not to focus too much on drugs, but using drugs as an example, most people in the United States perceive problems in a northward trajectory, meaning drugs, people, and bad stuff coming north into the United States. What they don’t understand is that the byproduct of that flow to the north is a lot of weapons and money going south. This is fomented by this transregional organized crime. That money flow and those organized criminal networks make it very difficult for our partners to establish rule of law, very difficult. That’s what prevents the hemisphere from moving forward, and that’s the primary threat to our friends and partners in the region.
Diálogo: What is the importance of joint, regional collaboration among partner nations to achieve security in the region? What joint, regional strategies are in place to achieve this?
Maj. Gen. Bellon: From a U.S. Marine Corps perspective, we have been invested for decades in Latin America and the Caribbean, and by that I mean we have been partnering very closely with the Colombian marines, with the Chilean marines, with the Brazilian marines, with the Peruvian marines, and they have all ascended to first-world, primary, very capable, very professional forces. At this time in history we’re seeing them assume significant regional leadership roles. Chile and Colombia both deploy training teams into Central America with us. Mexico is poised and ready to take a leadership role regionally to train and deploy forces. At this time in our history, it’s time to be collaborative, to share the responsibility, to share the leadership, for us to listen to one another and to provide the best conditions possible for our partners to be able to establish rule of law and have a way to move forward.
Diálogo: What joint regional strategies are in place to achieve this?
Maj. Gen. Bellon: In the same vein of acknowledging the obvious leadership positions of Chile, Colombia, and Mexico; this summer , for the first time, we have offered to share the command of the SPMAGTF with those countries. Colombia, the Colombian Marine Corps, will be the deputy commander of the SPMAGTF for the first time. Chile will have an officer, at least one, participating this summer with the MAGTF, and hopefully, so will Mexico. It’s a historic first step, and it’s an acknowledgement of the professionalism of their forces. We know we’re better working with them.
It’s also important to mention that the Brazilian Navy is taking a leadership role in observing how UNITAS--one of the U.S. Navy’s longest-running exercises--changes the paradigm. They are beyond the traditional training model of the past 60 years in which we get together every other year. These navies and marines have advanced to such a stage that they’re ready to be operational. We went down to Brazil to try to seize an opportunity and build a force capable of providing assistance to our friends in the region. Brazil is leading the initiative of a table-top exercise, in which there are no troops, but we work together on scenarios. They’re looking at potentially converting UNITAS Amphibious in 2019 from an exercise force to a force that is designed, ready, and prepared to provide assistance in the event of another hurricane strike in the Caribbean, for example. That is a major shift for which Brazil is taking a historic leadership role in our region, just like Chile, Colombia, and Mexico, and Peru are doing already.
Diálogo: How do events, such as the Marine Leaders of the Americas Conference 2018, help strengthen our bonds and benefit the collaboration between the U.S. Marine Corps and those of Mexico and our regional partner nations?
Maj. Gen. Bellon: The primary thing is that it gets the leaders together for more than a single meeting. By that I mean that leaders are together for days during trips, so the personal relationships really grow. Those personal relationships among leaders are critical because they foster an atmosphere of honesty. When you can speak honestly and express the equities of each country and its people, you can see where they overlap in order to work together. We fortunately overlap way more than we’re separated. When you can spend enough time together to establish personal relationships and acknowledge the trust and common interests of our people, then you can get to real solutions. It’s more difficult when you do one-day visits here and there because we’re not all there. This is an opportunity for the leaders to get together every other year and discuss, ‘This is how I see the region. These are the interests of my people. I’m listening to what the interests of your people are and how you see the region so we can get together to discuss what we can do together’. Brazil is stepping up and taking a leadership role with UNITAS. Colombia, Chile, and Mexico are stepping up and taking a leadership role in Central America. These are all byproducts of a little bit of trust flowing among those countries.
Diálogo: Were any significant agreements made at MLAC 2018?
Maj. Gen. Bellon: Yes, typically we have the big meetings, where we’re all together, and then there are smaller side meetings, bilateral or trilateral meetings, where we talk specifics. During those, Mexico, for example, may come and say, ‘We want to be more of a regional trainer. We have very good schools, and we’d like you to come to our schools more’. Those types of conversations happen at these events. Colombia has phenomenal expertise in riverine operations, and they have a very good school in Turbo. They offered to have other countries come to their school, so those conversations took place. We also talked about sharing the leadership of the SPMAGTF and eventually moving it onboard ships, like what Brazil is about to do with UNITAS. Those are the types of agreements that are in early stages of development, mostly based on personal trust and relationships.
Diálogo: Having been in this role since May 2017, how has your perspective of the region changed since you assumed command?
Maj. Gen. Bellon: Generally speaking, it’s been my experience in other places where you’re at war, that the best you can expect to achieve in a combat environment is a temporary alignment based on immediate needs. Whereas, here we’re not at war and we’re able to talk generationally. What you have in our region is this values-based alignment that already exists based on our common history and heritage. Truly—between the values, orientation, and heritage of our people--we have way more in common than we have different. That’s true from Alaska all the way down to Punta Arenas, so when you start with that, it opens up potential. That’s culturally. Factually, what you have in this region are expanding economies, expanding populations, access to natural resources, and a cultural value of education. All of these countries, hopefully including the United States, are all advancing and they’re going to be a part of the future of this planet in a big way. What’s interesting is that now we talk about issues, such as how to stop illegal fishing. Illegal fishing is a global problem that’s going to affect our grandchildren. What role do we play in that? How about deforestation? How about illegal mining? How about the flow of drugs and guns going not only in both directions, but north, south, east, and west? When you have people that have a bright future they’re more invested in solving problems for the next generation.
Diálogo: How are the security concerns in Latin America and the Caribbean unique and different from those in your previous roles?
Maj. Gen. Bellon: In other places, in my personal history, like Iraq and Afghanistan, you have open warfare. In Latin America and the Caribbean, it’s more about trying to set the conditions for the rule of law. The people want to live freely and they want to have individual rights that are common with democracies. They want to have free open economies, they want to have trade. But what really jeopardizes that is the vast amount of criminal networks that span the entire region. With the amount of money that flows through those networks there’s a corresponding amount of violence. That money buys murders. The hard reality is that this region—our region—has the highest murder rate in the world by far. It’s really hard to raise your people up and to think generationally if all you’re trying to do is get your kids to survive to adulthood. That’s the problem set we have here as opposed to open warfare that you might have somewhere else.
Diálogo: What is the importance SPMAGTF’s long-term vision as you mentioned above?
Maj. Gen. Bellon: When I talk to our own navy, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Marine Corps, we are acknowledging that there are navies like Peru, Chile, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Honduras that are building and buying ships, and they have aspirations to be a very regional force, but navies are very expensive, and I might be able to buy and build one ship, so we should see that ship working in partnership with a ship from one of our partners and being able to work together. That’s easy to say, but hard to do. The only way you get to that is by having a common mission and sailing together to provide a common capability. That’s why Brazil stepping forward and offering to explore the possibility of [leading] UNITAS, not as a scripted exercise, but as a mission-capable force that potentially sails out as a task force, such as others that already exist in other places on the planet. That’s at a much higher level of sophistication, but if we can get to that within the region then we can work together to solve problems that individually we can’t. That’s the key to our future.
Diálogo: Is the idea to make this a humanitarian aid task force, like Continuing Promise?
Maj. Gen. Bellon: This is a developing concept and it takes a sophisticated navy to be a thought leader. Brazil is a very sophisticated navy. What they’re exploring is to exercise the concept so we can determine correctly what the potential is. The initial thought is this force would come together, particularly during a high-risk hurricane season, for example, and that these modern, first-world, very capable navies would embark humanitarian assistance capability on them to project that capability to alleviate human suffering in the region if a hurricane hit again, like we had last year , and the year before that. We know it’s going to happen. People are just assuming their rightful leadership roles in the region, and saying, ‘We have this capability. Let’s work together to make this a better place for all of our people.’
Diálogo: Anything you’d like to add for our regional readers?
Maj. Gen. Bellon: The biggest take away that I’ve taken from my time here is the potential the region has. When you start from a common place of values, where families from one country agree to basic values as families from another country and another country, there’s cultural alignment. There is a real appreciation of education, science, technology, and development. Just as critically, people feel a global responsibility in this region. This is manifested in their militaries, and [this is true] for me and for many of us in our navies and naval infantries. When you hear these exercises of concepts and people working together, it’s a direct reflection of the people of their country. I’m very encouraged. As I prepare to eventually go into another job, the message I will take is there is great potential of the people of this region.