Officials worry threats, opportunities in Southern Command obscured by wars
Editor's note: This is the first in a three-day series on the U.S. Southern Command. Click here to see video of American and Chilean pararescuemen jumping.
MIAMI — Three U.S. contractors have been held hostage in Colombia for more than five years. Even in the military, few people know much about their story.
“When [Air Force major] Jill Metzger went missing, it was the top news story throughout America for days,” said Col. Jim Russell, Air Forces Southern director of operations. “But there has been no attention whatsoever to these three.
“It’s a shame people don’t pay more attention to what’s going on in South America. It’s the Global War on Terror, not just Middle East. We’ve got problems on our doorstep that need to be addressed.”
Officials at U.S. Southern Command say they worry the relative anonymity of their mission — at least compared to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan — leaves most Americans uninformed about the U.S. mission and presence in their nearest neighboring continent.
The State Department’s international narcotics report released last month lists nearly every South and Central American country as a conduit for illegal drug trafficking.
In addition, Army Col. Jorge Matos, deputy director for the command’s strategy and security, said the United States and countries in the region face threats from terrorist groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, commonly known as FARC.
That group, which is holding the missing U.S. contractors, is the 40-year-old military wing of the Colombian Communist Party, and government officials there last month claimed they found evidence its members have been working to obtain radioactive material for a dirty bomb.
“Now more than ever, I think people need to be aware of what SOUTHCOM is doing,” Matos said.
“If you go back to the ’70s, the anti-American sentiment has been in waves. U.S. involvement in some of those countries has been questionable. But right now, I believe the opinion is more favorable, especially in countries like Chile and Brazil.”
Today the U.S. has more than 5,000 troops positioned throughout the continent, with nearly 1,300 U.S. based forces regularly rotating through those regions.
The biggest permanent presence is the 2,000-plus force at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, with its well-known military detention facility.
Another 500-man semi-permanent security and humanitarian response force sits at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras, and a slightly smaller force performs training and counternarcotics work in Colombia.
The command has positioned 200-person security and counternarcotics crews in Ecuador, El Salvador and Aruba.
Matos said SOUTHCOM officials also have 25 other security cooperation offices inside U.S. embassies throughout the continent, each with 10 to 20 troops.
Col. J.B. Smith, head of the U.S. cooperation office in Chile, said most of his work entails coordinating training, humanitarian and stability activities for those countries.
“More than 2,000 troops moved back and forth from the United States and Chile last year,” he said. “I think people would be surprised by the breadth and scope of our war college exchanges, technical training and other activities.”
In fact, officials say they’d like to see more interaction and more U.S. presence in the region.
“We’re always looking for opportunities for what I call lily pads — places we can go in for a week or two and then get out,” said Lt. Gen. Norman Seip, commander of U.S. Air Forces Southern. “It increases our presence, and makes us more unpredictable in [counternarcotic] operations.”
Russell said he’d like to see troops drawing down from Iraq reassigned to SOUTHCOM missions.
“And I think, as we move ahead, we will see more of a shift of attention towards the region,” he said. “We’re seeing problems right at the mouth of Central America. That’s the gateway to our southern border.”
Reporter Rick Vasquez contributed to this story.
The CSAR Demo presentation in this video took place at Quintero AFB, Chile, during the NEWEN training exercise earlier this month.