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Marine reservists take over crisis response mission in Central America

June 11, 2016 (Photo Credit: Cpl. Shakeasha Payton/Marine Corps)

About 300 Marine reservists are headed for Central America this week where they’ll train local troops struggling against gang violence and drug cartels and stand ready to help in the event of a natural disaster.

Members of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force—Southern Command will set up headquarters for the six-month deployment at the Soto Cano air base in Honduras. From there, they’ll dispatch small advisory teams of grunts and engineers throughout the region.

The Marines come from 42 units across 20 states, marking the first time Marine Corps Forces Reserve will take the lead of the annual rotation.

The Marine Corps kicked off its first rotation of this size in Central America last year, and it included almost all active-duty personnel. But reservists bring a host of civilian skills in addition to their military occupational specialties, said Col. Thomas Prentice, the task force's commanding officer.

“We have Marines that are software engineers, law enforcement officers and we even have a fashion designer,” he said. “The reservists ... bring an additional capability towards being able to accomplish any assigned mission.”

They’ll be backed up by four CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 772, which will give them serious lifting power. Since the region can be pummeled during hurricane season, the deployment is timed so the Marines are at the ready in the event of a humanitarian crisis. 

The Marines will also mentor and train local troops in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Belize, and complete infrastructure development projects, Prentice said.

“This isn’t the standard ‘deploy to the other side of the world’ mission,” he said. “This is really a unique opportunity to enhance our relationship with partner nations that truly are our neighbors.”

Building capabilities 

Central America has been plagued by poverty, gang violence and ongoing struggles with drug cartels. Tens of thousands of women and children have fled for the U.S. border in recent years in order to escape the violence in the countries where the Marines will be operating. 

“You want to have a job to provide for your family, you want security that enables you to walk in the street without fear, children need access to safe schools,” said Victoria Rietig, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “What you basically need is better development, and that has been the problem of the region for a long time.”

The Marines will work alongside local troops to take on some of those issues. Marine combat engineers will train local forces on heavy machinery as they work on roads, schools and hospitals in Honduras, Prentice said.

“We’re basically on call to the Honduran government,” he said. “... We’ll engage in whatever projects we can to enhance our partnership.”

U.S. Marines build Jardin de Niños: El Porvenir in Honduras
Lance Cpl. Ethan Shireman, a heavy equipment operator with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Southern Command, digs a trench in Puerto Lempira, Honduras.
Photo Credit: Cpl. Katelyn Hunter/Marine Corps

Developing local infrastructure will also lay the groundwork for Alliance for Prosperity, the first joint multi-million dollar project between the U.S., Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The program will help fund schools and government institutions in order to stimulate economic growth in Central America. 

Infantry teams from the ground element will also fan out across the region to advise security forces on the front lines of the drug war. The Marines will train troops on small unit leadership, marksmanship, swimming, land navigation and physical fitness, Prentice said.

“They’ll serve as subject matter experts.” he said. “They’ll advise, mentor and train partner nation counterparts to improve interoperability and build their capacity to plan for and conduct missions.”

The ultimate goal of these interactions, Prentice added, is to enable them to provide security and prosperity to their citizens. The Marines have been dispatching security cooperation teams to the region for years in order to help partner militaries train for the challenges ahead. 

The U.S. has invested heavily in the militaries of these countries for a long time without any decrease in violence though, Rietig noted, adding that the local security forces themselves can sometimes create problems. Lack of oversight and transparency, corruption and a record of human rights abuses have not necessarily endeared citizens to their governments.

“[Marines] may encounter hesitation of the population towards them because historically people have very little trust in authorities and also very little trust in the military and police forces,” Rietig said.

Marines Attend Opening Ceremony
Cpl. Cesar Santiago, an electrician with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Southern Command, receives a gift during an opening ceremony for a new classroom in Puerto Lempira, Honduras.
Photo Credit: Cpl. Katelyn Hunter/Marine Corps

Overcoming this is something the Marines trained for during their three-month work up for the deployment, which included extensive cultural awareness training and a specialized advisers' course at the Marine Corps Security Cooperation Group schoolhouse in Virginia.

Additionally, leaders will emphasize the need for positive engagement with Central Americans during liberty safety briefs, said Sgt. Maj. Wesley Schaffer, the unit's senior enlisted leader.

“[We'll] make sure they understand what type of environment they’re going into,” he said. “One of the things we’re pushing and we want Marines to understand is that this is a great opportunity to go into another culture and learn.”

Rietig said having Marines interacting with community members there presents an opportunity to make a long-term difference. It can help them understand the Marines are trustworthy, and helps the Marines understand the regional challenges. 

“When you hear the problems that they are encountering, it makes it so much more understandable,” she said. “It puts a face on these nameless statistics and problems.”

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