The U.S. military command responsible for operations in Latin America puts a lot of its effort into fighting the illegal drug trade and building the capabilities of local militaries in nearly all the region's countries. But the command's top priority is something different. VOA defense correspondent Al Pessin recently spoke to the deputy head of Southern Command, Major General Richard Mentemeyer.
"No matter what combatant command you went to, their number one priority is going to be G-WOT, the Global War on Terror," said General Mentemeyer.
The Global War on Terror is not the first thing that comes to mind in terms of security issues in Central and South America and the Caribbean. But General Mentemeyer says as U.S. and coalition forces put pressure on terrorist groups in the Middle East and South Asia, those groups seek other potentially safe havens.
"They are putting an awful lot of pressure on al-Qaida and all the other terrorist groups in the Middle East," he added. "And any time you put pressure on any kind of group, they tend to want to go where they can't be seen or can't be found. So they try to find ungoverned spaces. They're not limited. They have the resources to go globally."
That has resulted in U.S. forces around the world helping local militaries improve their capabilities, so they can keep terrorists out of their territory. And the general says South America is no exception.
"There are areas out there that nobody is governing, nobody is watching, even within those countries, and it provides a haven for them," he explained. "I'm not going to try to hype up a threat to say that they're building operations to attack the United States. But there certainly are aspects of terrorist groups within Latin America that are facilitating passports, facilitating money laundering. There's a lot of money in drugs. The terrorists have found that the drug world is a good source of income for them.
General Mentemeyer says that brings together Southern Command's counter-terrorism mission with its other two main missions, fighting the drug trade and building the capacity of local militaries in Latin America. Indeed, officials say those two missions occupy most of the command's resources, and those of other U.S. government agencies that operate in the region, and the same capabilities that help fight the drug trade help fight terrorists, too.
The general says terrorist groups, or groups that would gladly do business with terrorists, are also involved in trafficking weapons and people in Latin America. And he says the most attractive area of South America for such activities is what is called the Tri-Border Area, where the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay come together.
A U.S. Army website says the tri-border area has "an important place in the strategy for combating terrorism." The area is home to a large Arab and Muslim population. Community leaders say their people are moderate and do not support terrorism, but experts say some Muslims in the area do funnel money to terrorist groups.
General Mentemeyer says there are also potential terrorist havens in Uruguay, Guyana, Suriname and elsewhere on the continent.
"We are keeping as much of an eye on them as we can to make sure that they don't gain a capability behind our back, so to speak," he noted.
Southern Command also offers counter-terrorism training opportunities in the United States to key officers from Latin American militaries. But he says the United States is not the only major power that is working to build relations with Latin America.
"There's a lot of other powerful nations like China and Russia that are interested in the resources in Latin America," he explained. "Our preference is to be the partner of choice when it comes to security assistance."
General Mentemeyer says military and trade relationships should be solid and consistent, even if political relationships go through difficult periods. But he acknowledges that does not always happen. His current concern is the future of military relations with Bolivia, which recently elected a new president who has been critical of the United States, particularly its advocacy of coca eradication. But he says Bolivia is not the only country on his mind.
"There are several countries in Latin America that have elected liberal, leftist type governments that are typically not strongly in favor of military-to-military relationships, in a traditional sense," he said. "These governments don't want to be seen as puppets to the U.S., and so mil-to-mil relationships is a way they can use to say, 'Look, I'm not kow-towing to the U.S.' And that's our fear. And that's not just in any one country."
General Mentemeyer says the stronger the region's armies are, the better partners they can be in fighting illegal trafficking, and keeping terrorists and their supporters out of Latin America.