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Last Updated:3/14/03
Remarks by James Hill, Commander of the U.S. Southern Command, North-South Center, March 3, 2003
Remarks by James Hill, Commander of the U.S. Southern Command
North-South Center
March 3, 2003

"Building Regional Security Cooperation in the Western Hemisphere"

Today's Western Hemisphere strategic environment is unique. In stark contrast to many other parts of the world, countries in the Western Hemisphere are not threatened militarily by their neighbors. Twenty-five years ago, the vast majority of the governments in Latin America and the Caribbean were under either communist or autocratic rule. Today, every country in the hemisphere except one is a democracy.

Democracy is the goal and the accepted model for government in the Western Hemisphere. This is significant because democracies tend to look out for the welfare of their people, seek positive relations with their neighbors, and most importantly, don't make war against each other.

When flare-ups have occurred in the Americas in the past decade, they've been resolved by diplomacy and regional cooperation, rather than by force of arms. Contrary to popular myth, Latin America is the least militarized region of the world, accounting for only 4 percent of the world's defense spending.

The peace between our nations should have translated into greater prosperity and more security for the people of the Americas, but for some it has not. We know that our hemisphere, like the entire world, has become a more volatile and unpredictable place, and we've got a long way to go to make it safe.

Today, the threat to the countries of the region is not the military force of the adjacent neighbor or some invading foreign power. Today's foe is the terrorist, the narco-trafficker, the arms trafficker, the document forger, the international crime boss, and the money launderer.

This threat is a weed that is planted, grown and nurtured in the fertile ground of ungoverned spaces such as coastlines, rivers and unpopulated border areas. This threat is watered and fertilized with money from drugs, illegal arms sales, and human trafficking. This threat respects neither geographical nor moral boundaries.

Nowhere is the threat more graphically and brutally active than Colombia. Last month in Bogotá, a 200-kilogram car bomb planted by the FARC exploded in a parking garage under the 11-story El Nogal social club, killing 35 people, including six children at a piñata party, and injuring 173 more. I never refer to these terrorists as guerillas, insurgents, or rebels. Neither does the secretary of state - because, in his words, those labels romanticize them. There is nothing romantic about these narco-terrorists who wreak havoc on Colombia and its people.

These are the same narco-terrorists who employ home-made propane tank mortars -- with a range of 400 yards and notorious inaccuracy. They do what they are meant to do -- kill indiscriminately. These narco-terrorists conduct violent, incessant attacks to undermine the security and stability of Colombia. They are incredibly well-financed by their involvement in every aspect of drug cultivation and production, kidnapping and extortion. They have long since lost any ideological motivation they once may have had. Today, they are motivated by money and power, protecting and sustaining themselves through drug trafficking and terror. They offer nothing of value to the state or people, no better form of government, no liberation from an oppressive dictatorship. They offer death and lawlessness.

Last year, over 28,000 Colombians were murdered -- 13 times the rate of the U.S. More than 2,900 were kidnapped -- including many children. More than 450 Colombians lost their lives last year to landmines -- the very vast majority due to the narco-terrorists, not the military. One and a half million Colombians have been driven from their homes, displaced by the war. There were more terrorist attacks in Colombia alone last year than in all other nations of the world combined.

Colombia's narco-terrorists supply almost all of the cocaine and heroin consumed in the United States. Drugs killed more than 19,000 Americans in 2001 and were indirectly responsible for another 55,000 deaths, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy. By statistical definition, this makes these drugs weapons of mass destruction.

The facts: narco-terrorists and other armed illicit groups operate in and out of southern Panama, northern Ecuador, northern Peru, Bolivia, portions of Venezuela and the tri-border area; they are involved in kidnappings in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Paraguay; they smuggle weapons and drugs in Brazil, Suriname, Guyana, Mexico, and Peru. They use the same routes and infrastructure for drugs, arms, illegal aliens, and other illicit activities. There is a huge and growing market for forged and illegal immigration documents; narco-terrorists and radical Islamic groups are feeding this market.

As traffickers exchange drugs for arms and services in the transit countries, transit nations become drug consumers as well. Narco-terrorism fuels radical Islamic groups associated with Hamas, Hizballah, al Gamaat, and others. These groups, operating out of the tri-border area, and other locales, like Margarita Island off Venezuela, generate hundreds of millions of dollars through drug and arms trafficking with narco-terrorists. Simply put, direct drug sales and money laundering fund worldwide terrorist operations. That is fact, not speculation.

I say this not to point fingers at any one country; I don't have enough fingers. The reality is that narco-terrorism is a pervasive force of destruction that not only affects our region, but each and every one of our countries -- big and small, rich or poor, weak or powerful. This is a battle that must be fought together. If we don't, I fear we risk winning the battle in Colombia, but losing the war in the rest of the region.

Narco-terrorists and drug trafficking organizations have shown considerable flexibility in adjusting their operations, tactics, and locations in reaction to our combined efforts.

If we are not as flexible, if we are not as agile, or as quick to anticipate and counter these adjustments, we'll find ourselves always one step behind, with old or inaccurate intelligence, lunging at shadows, and we'll come away with incomplete results. That's why I believe we need to re-evaluate our armed forces and security forces and collective agreements in order to bring about increased coordination and cooperation.

I would never say that the day of traditional military capability has passed, but it surely must evolve to remain relevant and defeat the threats of the 21st century. We must have the courage and confidence to honestly evaluate how our armed forces are configured, trained, and equipped, and more importantly, how well they communicate with and mutually support their sister services, other security forces, and neighboring countries.

Working together in multilateral exercises and forming trust through transparency are just some of the confidence- and security-building measures that have formed a structure for multilateral security cooperation in the Americas. We must continue to build upon this edifice with even more synchronization of effort.

The U.S. government and U.S. Southern Command are currently working on initiatives to do just that -- not only to exercise together, but also to operate together in order to shut down transnational threats.

The 5th Defense Ministerial Conference of the Americas held in Santiago in November emphasized the "desire to strengthen the inter-institutional and inter-governmental coordination ... which permits the ... preservation and stability of peace." Cooperation and coordination are much more complex than just communicating with each other. They must be built on a foundation of mutual respect and trust, and they must be mutually beneficial. Without these precepts, there is no cooperation. The most basic level of cooperation and coordination must be between the branches of the armed services themselves. This entails information-sharing, planning, and training. When we train, plan and operate together, we learn each other's terminology, doctrine, limitations and capabilities, and we forge a strong, seamless, combined arms force. I believe we're slowly getting better in this area.

The next level must be between the military and the other security forces such as the police and customs, and in this area we've got a long way to go.

Armed forces must -- operating within their constitutional and legal constraints -- support and cooperate with law enforcement agencies in combating drugs and other transnational threats. And where the legal boundaries don't make sense anymore given the current threat, they should engage in an honest dialogue with their democratically elected leaders to determine if laws and restrictions need revision. That is an essential discussion that takes place in a democracy, a proper role for a military in support of a democracy.

I routinely visit military and civilian leaders throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. I talk with them about re-addressing the roles and missions of their armed forces to ensure they focus on relevant 21st-century threats, not those of the past. Our ideas must look ahead in anticipation of what can be -- and [we must] transform ourselves to meet these new threats -- new ideas that will ensure multi-national cooperation and coordination to fight common enemies.

We must act together to prevent the continuing and increasingly corrosive spread of narco-terrorism and its connections to international and transnational terrorists, arms, drugs, and other insidious threats throughout the hemisphere. It is no mean or simple task.

But let me tell you what is at stake if we do not succeed -- our children and their children. Our goal needs to be an Americas where children do not have to live in fear of being orphaned by terrorists. Children should not live in fear of being kidnapped. Children should not live in fear of being pressed into service by gangs, drug traffickers and narco-terrorists, and they should not have their lives cut short being forced to work in a coca lab, breathing and ingesting poisons.

A child, whether he or she is growing up in Bogota, Rio, Pucallpa, Guatemala City, Port-au-Prince, Paramaraibo or New York, deserves to grow up, be loved, cared for, and have at least basic needs like nutrition, education and the one thing that many of today's children are missing -- the feeling that they are safe. Our children deserve to be safe. And if we act together, we can give them safety and security.

Thank you for the opportunity to be with you tonight, God bless you and God bless each of your countries.

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