CENTSEC Belize Opening Remarks (as prepared) | Belize City, Belize | Delivered Feb. 1, 2022
Army Gen. Laura Richardson, Commander of U.S. Southern Command
Good morning, everyone! Muy buenos días a todos! I am so happy to be here today – and see so many of our important Partner Nation Friends!
I want to thank you Brigadier General Loria and the Government of Belize for hosting this year’s Central American Security Conference in your beautiful country -- which is called The Jewel. This is my first time in Belize, and I hope to be back soon to visit the Blue Hole and Mayan ruins.
I also want to thank all the Ministers of Defense, Ministers of Public Security, the Chiefs of Defense of Belize, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama. Important Allies and Partners like the United Kingdom, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and Colombia and Mexico. As well as the State Department and USAID, Regional Organizations, the SOUTHCOM Component Commands, the National Guard Adjutant Generals & the State Partnership Program, and the Perry Center -- who are joining us in person and virtually. I know the world is still dealing with COVID-19, but I’m glad that we’ve been able to gather in-person in a safe manner here in Belize City.
The Central American region is so important – and proximity matters for so many reasons when you think of our Family and Cultural ties, our Economy and Trade. And we are such close neighbors -- it took me less time to travel from Miami here to Belize than it takes to travel from Miami to New York. That’s how close we are!
For decades, our the United States has forged incredible, unshakeable bonds with our Central American partners in every aspect: historical, diplomatic, military, cultural, economic, and academic. The fact that several high-level U.S. Government officials—from Vice President Kamala Harris to Secretary of State Blinken to USAID Administrator Power—have already visited the Region, shows just how intertwined and important Central American Security is with United States National Security.
That’s why OUR Security Partnership is so robust. Our military traditions are founded on democratic values like the rule of law, the professional, apolitical nature of the military, commitment to free and fair elections, gender equality, and human rights.
We’re also committed to peace and security around the world. Several of us send our troops overseas to participate in global peacekeeping operations, like Salvadoran Troops in Mali, or the Guatemalan Kaibiles in the Congo.
But we are also connected by the cross-cutting threats we face, and the collective challenges they pose. We must work together to keep our Region—our Neighborhood—safe! COVID-19 is still causing chaotic health and economic impacts. Transnational Criminal Organizations traffic in arms, humans, and drugs, terrorizing tens of thousands of Central American and U.S. Citizens each year. They are fueled by corruption, they drive irregular migration, and allow authoritarian regimes to undermine regional democracy and sovereignty.
Computer Hackers sponsored by foreign governments are compromising our Cybersecurity, trying to steal sensitive information about citizens across the region, and spreading disinformation online.
Natural disasters brought on by climate change, like the two devastating hurricanes Eta and Iota that struck the Region two years ago, affected 7 million people in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, caused flooding in Panama and Belize, and displaced nearly a million people. 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 cross-cutting threats are too powerful and too overwhelming for one Nation to handle on its own. We must work together, like a Football and Soccer Team, all of us wearing the same jerseys as one team. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin uses the term “Integrated Deterrence”. It means bringing all Allies & 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.
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. Our Allied Partners like those represented here—the UK, Canada, France, Netherlands and our democratic partners such as Colombia and Mexico—have also proven themselves time and again to be absolute trustworthy partners in security, defense, and development.
Another strong Partner throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been Taiwan – who has provided thousands of masks, PPE, and rapid test kits to its diplomatic Allies throughout Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean. For decades Taiwan has been a stalwart partner for the Region, offering technical assistance in agriculture, technology, entrepreneurship, and language learning.
But to deal with these threats, we must also re-commit and re-dedicate ourselves to our democratic values. We cannot let corruption and authoritarianism erode the democratic institutions that all of us in this room have fought for and sacrificed for. I know many of you in this room had colleagues who’ve died for those values. It’s up to us to double down on our support for democracy.
Today, CENTSEC is a chance for us to put it all together. It’s an opportunity for all democratic partners both inside and outside the region to synch-up, share best practices and lessons learned, gain understanding of our shared threats, and enhance interoperability. By doing so, 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.
During CENTSEC I look forward to coming together to reviewing the progress we’ve made from last year’s CENTSEC, discuss disaster relief and regional security challenges, and strategize about how we can leverage annual exercises like Tradewinds and CENTAM Guardian to show just how Integrated and Intertwined we are. I also look forward to meeting with each one of you and exploring how we can deepen our partnerships.
One area is in professional military education and training. Just yesterday I met with members of the Belize Defense Force who have participated in our International Military Education Training, Non-Commissioned Officer development courses, and Women, Peace, and Security program. I was inspired by the stories they told about the training they received, the colleagues they met, and the experiences they will never forget.
I heard about how they brought that knowledge back to improve not only their unit, but the entire BDF. What can we do to increase the number of Central American partner military personnel participating in U.S. professional military education programs, and how can we get more U.S. military personnel to work and train in this region? The upcoming military exercise in Honduras, Fuerzas (Foo-ER-Saws) Commando, will be a great opportunity for all our forces to train together.
Another is in critical infrastructure and water management. 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. What’s more, this project is sustainable and will protect the environment. The Army Corps of Engineers is also working with the Dominican Republic on the rehabilitation and expansion of the port of Manzanillo, which is vital to its maritime commerce. How can we continue to identify critical projects like these and work together to ensure they are built in a transparent, sustainable, and environmentally healthy manner?
Third, how can we respond quickly and seamlessly to natural disasters? This week the Coordination Center for Disaster Prevention in Central America and the Dominican Republic is carrying out a regional disaster relief exercise. SOUTHCOM’s Joint Task Force-Bravo in Soto Cano, Honduras is participating, offering humanitarian assistance subject matter expert exchanges.
Last month, JTF-Bravo conducted a two-week humanitarian assistance exercise called Keel Billed Toucan right here in Belize. And last year, JTF-Bravo teamed up with Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Costa Rica, and El Salvador to conduct Sentinel Watch, a multi-day Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief tabletop exercise.
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.
Fourth, how can we continue to boost Interoperability, especially in maritime security? 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. For instance, shortly after receiving an NCPV in December, Panama used the vessel to conduct two successful search and rescue operations near the Gulf of Panama. How can we continue to provide and the vessels, vehicles, aircraft, and equipment our partners need to counter our common threats together, and how can we all do more to maintain those assets so that they last for years to come?
Finally, how can we deepen existing relationships through the State Partnership Program? This year, Guatemala and the Arkansas National Guard celebrate 20 years of partnership. 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.
How do we plan even more SPP exchanges and training? And how can we get more Central American partner military advisors to come work at SOUTHCOM headquarters to share their knowledge with us? These are just some of the many, many ways in which we can strengthen our partnerships for years and decades to come.
In closing, we must counter our mutual threats, many of which know no borders, as a team, as neighbors. And we must address these threats with a greater sense of urgency. We must deliver real results for our citizens, who are counting on all of us to get this right. We will always be stronger together.