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Marines continue fight against drug cartels across Americas

Sep. 23, 2013 - 02:32PM   |  
Partnership of the America's/ Southern Exchange
Mexican marines are mentored by members of 3rd Assault Amphibian Battalion as they clear a mock building during urban training. The partnership will continue as U.S. Marines help train Mexican marines for their fight against drug cartels. (Cpl. Brian J. Slaght/Marine Corps)
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Marine Corps leaders remain committed to training militaries across the Western Hemisphere that are fighting on the front lines of the drug war and forging new partnerships to deal with humanitarian and disaster relief efforts and other types of crises in the region.

In missions to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia and other nations, Marines have deployed to help combat a violent drug trade that has devastating effects across the Americas. It’s a fight that requires coordination with countries across a vast geographic area.

But as the Pentagon considers ways to cut costs, there is talk of combining the two combatant commands that are leading the fight — U.S. Northern Command and U.S. Southern Command — into a single “Americas command.”

Although critics worry that the merger could signal to Latin American partners that they don’t matter, Marine officials insist that is not the case.

In fact, the Corps wants to engage more nations in Central and South America for the same reason it is expanding in the Pacific: to build familiarity with allies so that when crises emerge, there are existing relationships on which to build, said Maj. Gen. Frederick Padilla, director of operations at Marine Corps headquarters.

“We haven’t been able to do that to the extent we can because, frankly, we’ve been focused on Iraq and after that Afghanistan,” the general said. “We would certainly like to have a presence down there to conduct theater security cooperation, to build partnerships and build relationships.”

The Corps is preparing to add a crisis-response force for the U.S. Southern Command region that would train with other militaries and also be in place to respond to emergencies. Padilla cited the forthcoming World Cup soccer competition in Brazil in 2014 and the Summer Olympics there in 2016 as examples of events the U.S. military must be prepared for in case something goes wrong.

The commanders of Marine Corps Forces North and South, Lt. Gen. Richard Mills and Brig. Gen. David Coffman, respectively, believe U.S. partnerships with other countries in the Americas are vitally important to nations inundated with drug-related violence, and they’ll continue to be a priority, even as budget cuts sweep across the service.

Mills oversees Marines working with Mexican marines, and maintaining that partnership is one of his top priorities, he said. Mexican marines have been essential to the fight against drug cartels that have infiltrated the nation’s institutions and contributed to widespread corruption. The marines have taken down several high-ranking targets, including Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, leader of the violent Zetas cartel, who was arrested in July.

“We were very pleased to be able to complement [Vice Adm. Marco Antonio Ortega Sui, coordinator general of the Mexican marine corps] on the recent take downs of three or four very high-visibility targets,” Mills said. “[They were] very important criminals who were doing their best to destroy lives of young Mexicans and young Americans through this scourge of drugs.”

Marine Corps training teams go to Mexico regularly, Mills said. They work at their training sites to help the Mexican marines expand the capabilities and skills needed in the counter-drug fight.

“We work with them on close quarter combat,” he said. “All those sorts of skills you’d need to be in a fight against a pretty well-armed, criminal, rogue element within the country.”

They also work with Mexico’s noncommissioned officers to increase their small-unit leadership capabilities, Mills said. A number of junior and middle-ranking Mexican marine NCOs have attended Marine Corps schools in Quantico, Va., to better their skills, he added.

Mills, who also heads Marine Corps Forces Reserve, said his command works closely with MARFORSOUTH and the Reserve could take a growing role in missions there.

“The problems they’re having down there in Central America and parts of South America have a direct impact on our lives here in the United States,” Mills said. “So if we can get down to the source and solve the problems, we save everybody an awful lot of trouble later on.”

Coffman said partner nations across the Caribbean and Central and South America don’t want large-scale operations, so his command focuses on small, enduring engagements.

Four security cooperation teams just returned from Belize, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, where they worked with local militaries to counter illicit trafficking. Civil affairs teams continue their work in Belize and Honduras to help counter transnational crime and trafficking. Marines are also working with Brazilians to improve interoperability and will soon do the same in Chile.

Working across the hemisphere often means relying on joint operations, but with fewer ships sailing due to budget constraints, the command could face difficulty getting to all the places it wants to reach.

Marine officials have said previously they were considering the development of a jungle warfare training center in South America, supplementing a facility the service has in Okinawa, Japan. That’s still the case, but federal budget cuts and other operational commitments could make it difficult to do in the short-term, Padilla said.

“The idea was that we were looking for something in the Western Hemisphere, a different time and place, a different kind of jungle, frankly,” he said. “We’re looking for opportunities to do that, but with some of the responsibilities on our plate now and with the crisis-response MAGTFs, it’s a little bit problematic but not off our scope.”

The Corps hasn’t advanced planning on the project much, but Marines have conducted jungle training in South America in the past, including in Belize, Padilla said.

Staff writer Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.

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