U.S. Army Gen. Laura J. Richardson, the commander of U.S. Southern Command, joined defense leaders from 10 nations to discuss security challenges and regional cooperation during the South American Defense Conference 2022 (SOUTHDEC 22) Sept. 14-15.
The two-day conference, co-hosted by Ecuador’s armed forces, was a chance for participating nations to strengthen ties, engage in candid dialogue on pertinent issues, evaluate challenges, share successes and lessons learned, and explore ways to enhance security cooperation and build on prior successes.
The central theme of SOUTHDEC was to defeat global and cross-border threats that undermine citizen security using regional collaboration as the main tool. The conference focused on conflicts in the gray zone (information and cyber domain), and safety and protection of the environment. The conference included briefings and bilateral and multilateral meetings.
In addition to the United States and Ecuador, defense leaders from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname and Uruguay took part in SOUTHDEC. Representatives from Canada, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom also took part as observers.
This year was the first time that Ecuador had served as the host country of SOUTHDEC.
“We gather here at a critical moment when our democracies face a host of cross-cutting challenges that threaten our way of life and could dim the flame of freedom that unites us. Our countries and everyday people across the region are bearing the economic and social burdens of these challenges. We have to show that democracy can deliver for our populations,” said Richardson during the conference’s opening remarks.
During his conference opening remarks, Ecuador’s Minister of Defense Gen. Luis Eduardo Lara Jaramillo stressed the importance of partnerships to counter rising threats and challenges.
“It’s getting ever more urgent to find effective cooperation mechanisms, not only in the face of external threats to this continent’s peace, but especially against the assault of narco-trafficking, transnational criminal organizations, and subversion that seriously threaten not only the peace and security of nations, but also the very existence of [nation] states.,” Lara said.
Regional Threats and Challenges
During her opening remarks, Richardson described the threats and challenges facing South America.
“Transnational Criminal Organizations are destabilizing our shared neighborhood. They are poisoning our people with drugs and stretching their tentacles of violence and corruption across the region,” Richardson said.
Richardson warned of environmental insecurity in South America and said the issue involves malign non-state actors, like transnational criminal organizations (TCO’s), and state actors.
“TCO’s are engaging in illegal mining, illegal logging, and deforestation. 75% of the wood sold in South America is likely acquired illegally through TCO-sponsored entities. The wide range of illicit TCO activities generate their $300 billion annual war chest at the expense of the environment, the health of our citizens, and the economic future of our hemisphere.”
Richardson noted that state-owned enterprises from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are also causing environmental damage in the region.
“Independent studies from regional Latin American organizations have concluded that many PRC-funded regional megaprojects are causing river erosion, polluting the water, destroying fertile land, and destabilizing the delicate ecosystems that Indigenous groups and local citizens cherish,” she said.
Richardson also said China is “the largest offender of illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing (IUUF) in this region and around the world” and that “government subsidized, PRC vessels severely deplete fish stocks, destabilize the economies of coastal states, dump plastic waste at sea, and prevent local fishermen from earning nearly $3 billion in annual revenue.”
Richardson also discussed challenges in “gray zone conflict” – what the general described as conflict in the Space, Cyber, and Information domains where “adversaries are infiltrating computer systems, stealing people’s sensitive data, and laundering money in cyberspace.”
She also noted that last year, Microsoft reported “that a PRC-based hacking group called NICKEL conducted cyberattacks against 29 countries, seven of them in South America.”
Richardson said that Russia is also trying to manipulate populations “through disinformation campaigns and malign cyber activity” and that the country continues to support “authoritarian regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua.”
“China is playing chess and Russia is playing checkers. Their combined multifaceted actions are destabilizing the region, empowering authoritarianism, and undercutting democratic principles,” the general said.
Working Together in South America
“All these cross-cutting security problems are too complex for one nation to handle on its own. We must work together—like a well-trained soccer team—actively communicating with each other and playing our respective positions in a harmonious, highly effective manner, Richardson said.
As SOUTHDEC was taking place in Ecuador, across the continent in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was hosting UNITAS LXIII, the world’s longest running maritime security exercise. U.S. forces, including two U.S. Navy ships and a submarine, are joining more than 20 ships and 5,500 personnel from 19 partner nations for training operations Sept. 8 – 22, 2022.
UNITAS is the latest example of the series of multinational training exercises and engagements U.S. and South American forces train together in year-round. South American partners take part in and routinely host regional exercises like PANAMAX, Tradewinds and Fuerzas Comando, among others.
SOUTHCOM and South American also partner in efforts to detect, disrupt, and dismantle transnational criminal organizations and traffickers.
SOUTHCOM also partners with regional forces and organizations to support humanitarian assistance efforts in the region.
In the fall, the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) will deploy to Central America and South America for a medical assistance mission. Military medical personnel embarked on the ship will work alongside regional partners to provide medical assistance based on needs identified by each host nation. Colombia is among the countries Comfort will visit.