The nations of Central America and the Caribbean must work together with friends and allies to confront the problems of the future, the commander of U.S. Southern Command told the Central American Security Conference in Belize, yesterday.
Army Gen. Laura J. Richardson noted that the countries share democratic values and ethos and that is a good basis upon which the militaries of the region can cooperate. The meeting brought together defense ministers, public security ministers and chiefs of defense from Belize, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama, as well as representatives from the United Kingdom, Canada, France, the Netherlands, Colombia and Mexico.
She did not make light of the problems confronting the region, and those threats require cooperation at all levels. "We are also connected by the cross-cutting threats we face, and the collective challenges they pose," she said. "We must work together to keep our region — our neighborhood — safe."
COVID-19, of course, complicates efforts still. The region faces transnational criminal organizations that traffic in arms, humans and drugs. "They are fueled by corruption, they drive irregular migration, and allow authoritarian regimes to undermine regional democracy and sovereignty," Richardson said.
Cybercrime is also being felt with hackers — often sponsored by foreign governments — compromising networks and stealing sensitive information about citizens across the region and spreading disinformation online, she said.
Natural disasters are a significant problem with climate change exacerbating the effects. She pointed to hurricanes Eta and Iota that struck the region two years ago. The storms "affected 7 million people in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, caused flooding in Panama and Belize, and displaced nearly a million people," she said. "Drought is destroying crops and evaporating much needed drinking water for our people. Deforestation is depriving us of the air we breathe, and rising seas are flooding our neighborhoods."
These threats require cooperation. The cross-cutting nature is simply "too overwhelming for one nation to handle on its own," she said. "We must work together, like a football and soccer team, all of us wearing the same jerseys as one team."
Richardson pointed to "integrated defense" — a term popularized by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III — as a strategy to face these myriad challenges. "[Integrated defense] means bringing all allies and partners together, and using all tools available to counter threats, including different and all government agencies, the private sector and industry and non-governmental organizations," the general said. "Integrated deterrence requires us all to work closely together — not only with our partner nations in the region, but also democratic allies and partners around the globe."
This type of cooperation requires the nations of the region and their allies to "re-commit and re-dedicate ourselves to our democratic values," she said. "We cannot let corruption and authoritarianism erode the democratic institutions that all of us in this room have fought for and sacrificed for."
Richardson detailed concrete steps to help the nations of the region cooperate. The Central American Security Conference is one area on its own. The conference, she said, allows partners to synch up with each other, to share best practices and to gain an understanding of shared threats. All this enhances interoperability. "We're getting to know each other, getting to speak the same language both literally and figuratively, so that we'll all work together seamlessly when we need to," she said.
Richardson would like to increase opportunities for regional allies to participate in the U.S. international military education and training program, and for U.S. personnel to work with their Central American counterparts. She pointed to the upcoming exercise in Honduras — Fuerzas Commando — as an opportunity.
Dealing with critical infrastructure is another area of cooperation. "The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has been working with Panama on a water supply system that will benefit more than half of Panama's population," she said. "What's more, this project is sustainable and will protect the environment." Another project is in the Dominican Republic port of Manzanillo.
Another exercise — sponsored by the Coordination Center for Disaster Prevention in Central America and the Dominican Republic — concentrates on regional disaster relief. "Southcom's Joint Task Force-Bravo in Soto Cano, Honduras, is participating, offering humanitarian assistance subject matter expert exchanges," she said. "Going forward, Sentinel Watch will be an annual exercise right before hurricane season, so that we're all ready when — not if — a natural disaster strikes. And every year Southcom conducts Resolute Sentinel, where civil engineers and medical professionals provide life-saving care throughout the region. These are all great ways for us to build our readiness to respond to the next big disaster."
Boosting maritime security is a concern throughout the region. "Our partners have already been putting the Southcom-donated near coastal patrol vessels to great use to save lives, combat maritime threats and conduct counternarcotics operations," Richardson said.
Finally, the general wants to deepen existing relationships through the U.S. National Guard's State Partnership Program. "This year, Guatemala and the Arkansas National Guard celebrate 20 years of partnership," she said. "Last year, Belize and the Louisiana National Guarded celebrated 25 years of partnership. National Guardsmen from Missouri, New Hampshire, and Puerto Rico will exchange best practices with their Central American colleagues on cybersecurity, civilian security, and disaster contingency planning."