Faced with shrinking budgets and evolving challenges in Latin America, the Pentagon is busy retooling — and in some cases rebuilding — its partnerships in the region.
Frank Mora, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs, discussed the latest developments in U.S.-Latin American military partnerships May 24 in a breakfast with Washington-based reporters and defense industry experts.
“Budgetary challenges have forced us to reprioritize the way we engage, and the things we’re doing in collaborating with our partners,” Mora said, noting that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s recent trip to Colombia, Brazil and Chile allowed his boss to assess the state of key U.S. military allies in the hemisphere.
“He sees a transformation here, not just in terms of the capability of our partners providing security within their region, but also their contribution to global security,” Mora said.
Upon his return Washington, Panetta penned an op-ed in the Miami Herald that outlined some of the Pentagon’s new initiatives. Colombia, he wrote, “has transformed from a nation under siege by guerillas and drug-trafficking mafias to a country that has dramatically improved its security and is helping Central American nations and others confront illicit drug trafficking.”
U.S.-Brazil Defense Cooperation Dialogue
In Brazil, Panetta and Brazilian defense leaders conducted the first-ever Defense Cooperation Dialogue between the two nations.
“This dialogue reflects Brazil’s emergence as a global power and important contributor to international security through, among other efforts, its leadership of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti and the UN Maritime Task Force in Lebanon,” Panetta wrote.
In Chile, Panetta highlighted that country’s early deployment of peacekeeping forces to Haiti and its efforts to build the capacity of security forces in the Caribbean Basin.
Mora said impressive contributions to regional and global security are coming from all corners of Latin America. He cited Argentina’s UN peacekeeping role, as well as efforts by Honduras to establish and institutionalize a curriculum for its police force and then share those best practices with El Salvador and Guatemala.
He also mentioned the U.S.-Colombia “action plan” signed by President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos that aims to coordinate the two nations’ security efforts.
“Colombians have much to offer from the own police and military experience,” Mora explained. “They have now become … significant exporters of security. We are looking for and have been working on this. It is consistent with the strategic approach of looking for effective new partnerships that have high impact, a low cost and a small footprint.”
U.S., Mexico, Canada to focus on disaster relief
Mora said officials of Mexico and Canada sat down with their U.S. counterparts one year ago for a trilateral defense ministerial in Ottawa. Spurred by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, they decided that disaster relief was an area in which the three nations could partner effectively.
“The fact that we had that ministerial with Mexico is historic,” Mora said. “And they [defense leaders from all three countries] didn’t just sit around the table and chat and have coffee, they actually sat down to do tangible work. We are developing a threat assessment so we can get a common understanding of the challenges and opportunities with respect to North America.”
He said that Mexico, in particular, wants to develop strategies to help countries recover from national disasters.
“They have the lead in the trilateral context in putting together a series of meetings that hopefully will result in a solid framework as to how we can collaborate, work together and share information in these areas,” Mora said. “It is not just about the U.S., Mexico and Canada. It’s really sort of the lessons learned from Haiti. It’s about saving lives.”
Strengthening regional defense institutions
Mora said also Panetta is committed to strengthening regional defense institutions such as the Inter-American Defense Board and the Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas.
“We want to make sure these institutions are now modernized and brought into the 21st century to deal with 21st-century challenges,” he said. “There are a number of sub-regional and bilateral agreements and institutions we are strengthening and expanding.
“We are establishing on a bilateral basis a defense cooperation agreement with Colombia and Brazil and negotiating two additional defense cooperation agreements,” Mora said, adding that the U.S. defense establishment appreciates the efforts of Latin American countries — especially El Salvador — that are helping in Afghanistan.
“El Salvador has had 11 rotations. Their advisers and trainers there are contributing to global security in Afghanistan, and they would like to do more but they just can’t do more,” he said.
“I’m not going to sit here and say everyone in the region has a shared sense of what the challenges are, but I will say there are more countries coming on board and understanding that no single country, including the United States, can address these issues of defense security alone,” said Mora — insisting that it all comes down to dollars and cents.
“If we don’t approach it from a multinational and interagency approach,” he said, “we will fail because of the fiscal environment we live in.”
No to militarization
Mora stressed emphatically that contrary to some reports, the U.S. government is not interested in militarizing Latin American civilian police operations — which he said has historically led to corruption, human rights and rule-of-law violations.
“I have said this before and I’ll say it again: We don’t think that having militaries participate in law enforcement activities is a good idea,” he told his audience. “We are not pushing militaries to do this. The president [of Colombia] has made a sovereign decision to have militaries in different degrees in different roles try to combat transnational crime.”
The U.S. military in recent years has deployed special forces to Colombia to help train police officers in ways to combat illegal armed groups of narcoterrorists, such as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC. Mora said Colombia’s progress in combating drugs and violence doesn’t mean the Pentagon will turn its attentions elsewhere. Not yet, at least.
“That is absolutely not the case,” he said, suggesting that not only can the United States train police forces to be more effective, but also to be more sensitive to issues like human rights violations and corruption.
“What can we do as the United States, and particularly the Department of Defense, to support them and to try to mitigate the risk associated with their participation in these activities?” he asked. “How do we maintain a high level of professionalism, so when civilian institutions of police are ready to confront [the problem], the military can go back to a classical traditional role. Mora insisted that, contrary to recent criticism, the United States is not neglecting Latin Americans, telling his audience: “We can’t turn our backs on them and we will not turn our backs on them.”