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American Forces Press Service

Central American Countries, U.S. Need to Cooperate on Security Issues

By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla., Oct. 13, 2005 Challenges facing Central America and other Western Hemisphere countries "cannot be successfully dealt with by any one country alone," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a gathering of defense and security ministers here Oct. 12.

Speaking at the U.S.-Central American Conference of Ministers, Rumsfeld said he remembers when Central America was a much more dangerous place than it is today. He noted that many nations in the region were once dominated by dictatorships.

But today, "sweeping changes" are taking place across Central America, the secretary said.

"Today, the dictatorships of the previous decades have given away to democracy," he said. "The rivalries that once threatened stability are now past."

In today's Central America, transnational, nontraditional threats require broad cooperation from many nations to defeat.

"Drug traffickers, smugglers, hostage takers, terrorists, violent gangs: These are threats that are serious," Rumsfeld said. "But our countries are combating them. And together I believe we can defeat them over time."

Asymmetric threats are forcing the counties to develop new solutions. "Traditional roles of the military have become blurred," Belize's minister of defense, Ralph Fonseca, said. "Increased crime, including drug trafficking and terrorism, often require nontraditional law-enforcement and military responses."

Two countries in Central America, Costa Rica and Panama, are constitutionally forbidden from building militaries. These countries' governments deal with security issues using police forces. But these unique formats are also causing the Central American nations to develop new ways to cooperate to solve security challenges facing them all.

The ministers spoke of some of these issues in an open session Oct. 12.

Nicaraguan Minister of Defense Avil Ramirez Valdivia spoke of traffickers who move drugs, weapons and people north from South America, through Central America and Mexico, to the United States. He said drug gangs are an example of how a security threat can move from one country to another in the region.

"The influence of drug trafficking has been undermining the fruits of our structure and our society," he said.

Trafficking in undocumented immigrants and weapons can add to the terrorist threat in the United States. Between January and June 2004, Mexico deported about 130 Ethiopians transiting Mexico to get to the United States, Ramirez said. Roughly the same number of people from each Costa Rica and Belize were also deported from Mexico trying to reach the United States.

This is an example of how many undocumented people from other parts of the world work to enter the U.S. through Latin America. "This shows very clearly how these networks of gangs, drug traffickers, alien traffickers can lead to ... terrorism," Ramirez said.

International cooperation at all levels of government is the only thing that will allow countries in the region to deal with internal and external security threats from criminal organizations that recognize no borders. "Transnational criminal organizations exploit seams in coordination to carry out illegal activities," Belize's Fonseca said. "The only effective way to combat them is through regional efforts."

In remarks to the group, Rumsfeld agreed. "The specifics of the next great crisis are known to no one," he said. "But we do know that the effects will be felt by us all."

He stressed the issue again later in remarks to media members traveling with him from Washington. Nations must "recognize that no one country can deal with any of these transnational threats alone," he said. "It just can't be done.

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