Three months into the job as the top U.S. military officer at U.S. Southern Command, Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly is reaching out to partners in the region and emphasizing the importance of cooperation among nations directly to America’s south.
Kelly, who assumed command Nov. 19, returned to his Miami headquarters this week after a two-day visit to Peru. There, he met with President Ollanta Humala, Vice Defense Minister Mario Sanchez, and Peruvian Chief of Defense Adm. Jose Cueto to explore ways to strengthen the two countries’ military partnership and enhance regional collaboration in support of shared security goals, Southcom officials reported.
The visit followed one earlier this month to Honduras and El Salvador, where the discussions centered on enhancing the already-robust military-to-military relationships with both countries.
In Honduras, Kelly and other Southcom leaders met with President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, Foreign Minister Arturo Corrales, Defense Minister Marlon Pascua, and the chief of joint staff, Gen. Rene Osorio, as well as U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske and the embassy staff, officials said. In El Salvador, they visited Defense Minister Jose Benitez, Defense Chief Maj. Gen. Cesar Acosta and U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Mari Carmen Aponte.
Central to the discussion was ways to cooperate closer to combat organized crime, drug trafficking and other transnational threats, and to improve natural disaster response and increase joint training opportunities, officials said.
Cooperation is vital in dealing with challenges throughout Southcom’s area of responsibility, which encompasses Central and South America and the Caribbean and covers about 15.6 million square miles, Kelly told members of U.S. Army South, Southcom’s Army component, while visiting its headquarters at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Jan. 15.
“What we do in this part of the world is very, very different than what some of the other folks are doing,” he said. “Clearly it’s different than what they’re doing in the Middle East, but it’s no less important. We have challenges in this part of the [world], and the nations down here want to partner with us.”
Kelly recognized the devastating toll of transnational threats, particularly narcotrafficking, and the need for regional nations to work together.
“[Nations within the region] have already been shouldering tremendous burdens in terms of drugs and narcoterrorism. Those are things that we want to help them get after,” he told the U.S. Army South staff. “The issue of drugs is an influence in our country that costs nearly 200 billion dollars and somewhere around 30,000 lives a year.”
Hosting defense and security leaders from 15 nations last month at the 2012 Caribbean Nations Security Conference, Kelly underscored the need to strengthen multinational security efforts to prevent traffickers from shifting their operations to the Caribbean.
“I’m very concerned about the Caribbean vulnerability,” he told the forum. “[In response] to shifts in any illicit trafficking that could be on the horizon, and likely is, I’m confident we can take steps now to ensure continued regional security. The U.S. will continue to be engaged in the Caribbean.”
While visiting U.S. Army South, Kelly recognized the key role members of Southcom play in helping stand up to these challenges.
“The first line of defense is here under Southcom,” he told the group. “I would say to all of the professionals, regardless of the uniform that you wear, what you do here is important and it has a direct effect on large cities and small towns in America.”