Latin America will test the next president’s security goals
October 16, 2016
There is a microcosm of the world’s security problems on the doorstep of the United States.
Islamic State fighters. Ramped-up aggression from China and Russia. Floods of migrants and refugees fleeing conflict. Sophisticated criminal networks undermining peace and stability.
These problems are typically spread across the planet. But they’re also exerting pressure on one region in particular: Latin America.
But for one-sixth of the Earth’s landmass, the area of operations for U.S. Southern Command can seem fairly quiet. There is no direct security threat, and the region tends to fall low on force priorities, Navy Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, the commander of Southern Command, said in a March statement to Congress.
While not as attention-grabbing as hot wars in the Middle East, Southern Command focuses on three objectives: disrupting transregional threats such as drug trafficking, responding to regional natural disasters and pushing out Russia and China to remain the partner of choice for the 31 Latin American nations.
The next president will inherit a host of global security problems, but few of them will come as close to home as ones in the Western Hemisphere.
Caribbean gains and concerns
President Barack Obama’s administration has presided over some success in Latin America. The State Department resumed diplomatic ties with Cuba following decades of Cold War posturing as other nations in the region have strengthened their economies and gravitate toward democracy.
The result of those talks has important military consequences in the region. Cuba has close ties with Bolivia, which in August announced a “school of anti-imperialism” to counteract U.S.-led efforts to train militaries in Latin America, the BBC reported.
Normalizing relations with the Communist nation could make a harder case for anti-U.S. sentiment in the region, where the long diplomatic deadlock with Cuba has been used as a reliable talking point for U.S. hostility to its neighbors.
The southern tip of the island is excluded from that progress, despite Obama’s campaign promises to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
The military transferred 15 detainees there — a fifth of the prison population — to the United Arab Emirates, lowering the remaining count to 61 detainees, the Pentagon said in May.
Obama took office in 2009 with 242 detainees there, according to The New York Times.
The next president will oversee operations there, and he or she will inherit the legal headaches of a prison rife with controversy of long jail sentences without trials and allegations of prisoner abuse since it became the main hub of alleged terrorists since Sept. 11, 2001.
But the message of terrorism is not isolated to the prison at Guantanamo. Tidd has also expressed concern about the Islamic State group’s ability to remotely radicalize people in the region.
“You want to spread an extremist message in the Caribbean and recruit fighters for [the Islamic State group]? We have a worrisome number of networks engaged in that,” Tidd said in July at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.
His predecessor, Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, said in January that about 150 people from the Caribbean joined the fight with the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Both leaders pointed to poor intelligence-gathering capacity in the region, along with built-in illicit networks funneling drugs and smugglers, as reasons the area could be an attractive place for radical messages to spread.
Global adversaries in the region
The next administration must contend with how to keep the United States and its military the go-to force in the Western Hemisphere.
Southern Command lists the objective of remaining the “partner of choice” in Latin America among its three primary missions. The objective is as much about strengthening relationships with neighbors as it is dissuading them from partnering with China and Russia, who seek to expand influence in the region.
Russia has deployed four Naval intelligence missions in the region since December 2014, Tidd said. An agreement for port access with Nicaragua would give Russian warships a reliable station in the region. Russian government-backed television and radio stations stream propaganda to listeners in Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina to spread doubt about U.S. interests, Tidd added.
China is deeply interested in economic growth in Latin America to expand its export base during an economic slump, Tidd said, but its military activity there will be closely watched by the next administration.
A Senate committee review of Chinese security published in 2015 detailed China’s interest in providing Argentina with fighter jets, patrol boats and amphibious troop carriers. The sales could heighten tensions with the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands ongoing territory dispute that led to a war in 1982, the review stated.
China will also fund two nuclear plants in Argentina and finish construction of a space imagery satellite in Patagonia next year. This will boost China’s ability to communicate with satellites and spacecraft, the review stated, though Chinese officials insist the facility will be staffed by civilian personnel.
Stalls in Colombia
In South America, a peace accord has recently unraveled, providing complications for peace that will test the new administration.
Colombia has “transformed from a near-failed state into a major regional player” with a premier security force, Tidd said, adding its outsized military competency allows the nation to assist neighbors in operations independent of the United States.
Southern Command spokesman Jose Ruiz said about 200 U.S. troops in Colombia are focused on providing assistance with missions such as humanitarian demining — remnants of the long jungle war there — as well as boosting logistical and communications gaps.
The close military relationship between the United States and Colombia was cemented in Plan Colombia, a multiyear aid initiative launched in 2000 that sent billions of dollars to the nation’s war chest to battle drug trafficking with the help of U.S. training and intelligence-gathering.
A major focus was the militant revolutionaries of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, whose forces were eroded by the government’s collaborative effort. The United States ramped up efforts since 9/11, when the group’s designation as a terrorist group boosted America intelligence resources in the country.
The resources and loosened restrictions on the use of intelligence helped Colombian troops target top commanders, said Arturo Munoz, a senior political scientist with the Rand Corp., a Washington think tank.
That was among several key factors that crippled FARC numbers in the following years, Munoz said. FARC came to the bargaining table to strike a peace accord and end the decades-long war with the government. But a stunning rejection of a peace referendum by the public this month has thrown the ceasefire and peace deal in doubt.
The peace rejection will likely frustrate the Colombian military and their U.S. partners. The deactivation of FARC would have allowed renewed focus on the National Liberation Army, another militant group, and other organizations that traffic homegrown cocaine to the United States, disrupting the entire region engulfed in the drug trade.
Destabilization in Central America
Central America, veined with drug-smuggling routes along Mexico’s southern border, remains a vital focus for Southern Command.
Operation Martillo, an anti-drug operation launched in 2012, has led to the seizure of 693 metric tons of cocaine, $25 million in cash and the apprehension of nearly 2,000 detainees and 581 ships and aircraft, according to a Southern Command data page. Navy and Coast Guard ships assist in detection and interdiction among 14 other nations in the region.
But the seized drugs and cash represent only a fraction of what moves through the region as trafficking organizations often overpower ineffective military and police there.
San Pedro Sula in Honduras and San Salvador in El Salvador rank second and third in global homicide rates, according to the Mexico Citizens Council for Public Safety. That instability drives an intense focus for Southern Command to build capacity for local police and military units struggling to combat sophisticated criminal networks.
A group of about 300 Reserve Marines are spread across Honduras and Guatemala to build military proficiency and assist local forces with logistical hurdles, such as ferrying supplies and personnel through unforgiving jungle terrain, as well as humanitarian missions such as school and hospital construction, Ruiz said.
Violence in the region directly affects the United States. In 2014, more than 60,000 unaccompanied children, mostly Central Americans fleeing crime and murder, were apprehended at the border, overwhelming resources and spurring Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio to take in hundreds of children awaiting refugee status or deportation.
While the explosion in unaccompanied child apprehensions has dipped 50 percent, the episode illustrated how quickly domestic military operations are impacted by regional insecurity — an important lesson for the next president to grapple with as he or she decides how activity in the Western Hemisphere should be managed.
horton.Alex@stripes.com Twitter: @AlexHortonTX