Joint Task Force Bravo Spearheads Central America Security Efforts
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
SOTO CANO AIR BASE,
Joint Task Force Bravo -- about 600 U.S. military members and roughly the same number of local-national employees here in a rural region in the middle of Central America -- spearheads such efforts.
The task force, based here since 1984, fills many roles for the U.S. military in Central America.
In mid-October, JTF Bravo personnel had 50 people and seven helicopters in Guatemala the day after Hurricane Stan's heavy rains devastated the country with landslides and flooding. "If that's not a case for a forward-deployed force, I don't know what is," Task Force Commander Army Col. Edmund W. Woolfolk Jr. said.
Deputy Commander Army Lt. Col. Howard L. Gray explained that forces were in the air for humanitarian missions within two hours of the call for help from the Guatemalan government, but had to turn back because of continuing dangerous weather in the region. He said relief operations in Guatemala required the efforts of 100 to 115 U.S. servicemembers from here for a few weeks. Humanitarian efforts operated primarily out of Guatemala City and a Guatemalan air base, he said.
Initial missions focused on search and rescue, but humanitarian relief quickly became the priority. JTF Bravo worked in closely with Guatemalan aid officials to move host-nation assets.
Aviation missions in Central America are inherently dangerous. "Rain, clouds and high mountains make a very dangerous combination," Gray said. Still, such efforts are in the United States' best interests in terms of the good will they build in this volatile region.
In a Nov. 22 letter, Guatemalan President Oscar Berger Perdomo thanked U.S. Southern Command chief Army Gen. Bantz Craddock for the U.S. military's assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Stan.
"In the name of the people of Guatemala and of the Government of the Republic, I deeply appreciate the show of solidarity that the Government of the United States of America has expressed to our country which was hit hard by Hurricane Stan," Berger wrote. "International cooperation in moments of crisis is a valiant mechanism that draws people together from the world and creates the conditions in order to construct harmony between nations."
During an October meeting of defense and security ministers from Central American countries in Florida, Guatemalan Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Carlos Humberto Aldana Villanueva thanked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for the U.S. support.
Forces out of Soto Cano also help with international and interagency counternarcotics efforts in the region. "These are some of the main routes for drugs to get into the United States," Woolfolk said of the areas his troops operate in.
Much of the support provided to the counterdrug campaign comes in the form of transporting local law enforcement assets on short notice to places where intelligence indicates criminal activity is in progress. Drug runners can crash a small plane into a remote area, unload the drugs onto a truck and be out of the area in four minutes, Woolfolk said. "They have it down to a battle drill," he said.
He said drug traffickers capitalize on rural areas, so it's vital to help maintain a friendly presence in, and get law-enforcement assets to, those areas.
JTF Bravo forces also routinely train with troops from Central American militaries, and U.S. military Reserve troops conduct several missions each year to provide medical, dental and veterinary treatment to local citizens.
"Anything to build collective security in the region and build relations with our neighbors," Woolfolk said.
Joint Task Force Bravo and Soto Cano Air Base also serve as an effective "tip of the spear" should more expansive military operations be called for in the region. The base has an airfield capable of accommodating the U.S. military's largest cargo-carrying aircraft and has a large surge capacity if that's needed. A contingency area can house a brigade of forces in tents, Woolfolk said. The base currently only uses only half of its electrical capacity and a third of its potable water capacity.
Forces here stand ready to react to any number of contingencies. Central America is full of threats from natural disasters. The region is hurricane prone, sits on major geologic fault lines and is full of countless live volcanoes. JTF Bravo maintains two Chinook helicopters on standby to evacuate American citizens from the region in the event of a natural disaster or civil unrest.
"We have a lot of ties here," Woolfolk said. "We can't ignore this region."
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