October 12, 2005

US, Central America discuss security cooperation

By Charles Aldinger

KEY BISCAYNE, Florida (Reuters) - U.S. and Central American
security leaders on Wednesday discussed closer ties in battling
drug trafficking, terrorism and other crime, including the
touchy issue of whether military troops in Central America
might assume police duties.

"The military is not the answer" alone to regional
stability and prosperity, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld told defense and security ministers from seven Central
American nations on the first day of a two-day conference.

It is against the law for U.S. active duty troops to handle
police work at home, but a senior American general said it was
up to countries in Central America -- a region with a dismal
record on human rights -- to decide what to do with their
troops against terrorism and other threats.

Rumsfeld and other ministers, who pressed for closer
cooperation in law enforcement, intelligence, border protection
and responding to natural disasters, announced no decision on
whether militaries should take up the baton against criminals.

"Each country will have to decide if and how they will have
their armed forces support law enforcement. And, if so, to what
degree," U.S. Army Gen. Bance Craddock, head of the Pentagon's
Miami-based Southern Command, told the ministers.


The Washington Office on Latin America, a rights watchdog
group, quickly attacked that attitude as "old school -
defaulting to the region's militaries to solve problems."

"Why are we talking with the militaries about combating
crime? Shouldn't a different set of actors be in the room?,"
Joy Olson, executive of the group, asked in a statement.

Central America, especially hard-hit Guatemala, is
recovering after 1,000 deaths this month from the heavy rains
and catastrophic mudslides brought by Hurricane Stan.

Belize Home Affairs Minister Ralph Fonseca warned that
crime could become a threat to tourism in his small country,
but cautioned that if troops were used to battle crime it must
be with "stringent rules of engagement..."

Guatemalan Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Carlos Villanueva
said that nation planned a joint peacekeeping battalion with El
Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, but made no mention of any
potential use beyond regional and international peacekeeping.

"We are going to try to have a (joint) unit at a battalion
level," he said. "We need political support for this."

Some Latin American experts say Washington is trying to
encourage more military involvement in fighting criminals -- a
touchy issue in a region that suffered brutal dictatorships in
the 1970s and 1980s.

But Rumsfeld said that era would not return.

"Today, the dictatorships of previous decades have given
way to democracies, and rivalries that once threatened
stability are now past," he said.

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

"However, it is clear that they can be effectively fought
only if countries work together even more closely than we are

Security concerns over the past year have included U.S.
worries that anti-aircraft missiles in Nicaragua could fall
into "terrorists"' hands and a dispute over navigation rights
in a river separating Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Costa Rican Police and Public Security Minister Rogelio
Ramos also said his and other mountainous countries in Central
America were very vulnerable to natural disasters ranging from
hurricanes to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Costa Rica and Panama have no militaries, but want to
cooperate loosely with neighbors on common security issues.