GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala -- Operation Martillo, the internationally-supported mission targeting illicit trafficking along Central America’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts, was the focus of discussion for military and civilian leaders from 14 nations who met in Guatemala City April 1-3 to review the operation and the threat it’s directed at.
This year’s Central American Regional Security Conference (CENTSEC 2014) marks the first time the annual meeting of regional defense and public-security leaders focuses on a specific multinational operation.
Participants and observers from Belize, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, the United Kingdom and the United States reviewed the operation’s results thus far and revised the strategy that will guide future cooperation to support the international effort.
Operation Martillo began Jan. 15, 2012, to help Central American nations address growing security challenges associated with a marked increase in illicit trafficking by transnational criminal organizations operating along the region’s northern and southern coasts. More than a dozen countries from Central America, South America, North America and Europe have contributed to the operation.
Speaking to attendees April 1, Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM), commended the countries present for their support to the operation.
“Martillo has been a success … because of your participation, your leadership, and because of your partnership,” he told them. “We couldn’t do this without you; and looking ahead, we’ll be relying on each other more and more to capitalize on our strengths in this fight.”
Guatemalan Chief of National Defense, Maj. Gen. Rudy Ortiz described international narcotics trafficking as a “generator of other ills” that has “planted itself at the core of our societies,” and he encouraged countries to continue working together to counter the threat.
“We should support every initiative and operation aimed at dismantling criminal organizations (and) improving control along our borders, territorial waters and airspace to prevent these delinquents from using our national territories for their illicit activities,” he said.
The first day’s agenda for CENTSEC 2014 included a State Department update on the progress of the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), a broader security assistance effort underway with support from various U.S. government agencies, international partners, the private sector, and civil society. One of the CARSI goals supported by Operation Martillo is disrupting the movement of criminals and contraband in Central America. Since 2008, the U.S. has contributed $642 million to support the priorities outlined under the initiative, which includes assisting the region’s law enforcement and security forces with confronting criminal threats.
U.S. Air Force Col. Willie Berges, Chief of USSOUTHCOM’s Political Military Affairs Division, briefed attendees on the Cooperative Sensor and Information Integration (CSII) system, a new information-sharing mechanism that allows countries to selectively share radar and sensor data on suspected air, sea and land traffic while collaborating during counter illicit trafficking operations. CSII was developed with input from USSOUTHCOM’s regional partners and is scheduled for implementation in the summer to support regional detection and monitoring operations led for the U.S. by an interagency staff at Joint Interagency Task Force-South (JIATF-South), based in Key West, Fla., with the support of liaison officers from more than a dozen nations.
Berges stressed the importance of partner-nation liaison officers in supporting not only security cooperation during operations like Martillo, but also bilateral and regional engagement in other areas of mutual interest.
Mindful that transnational criminal organizations often operate amid rural and urban populations with no regard for human life, CENTSEC 2014 participants also discussed the importance of integrating human rights when planning and conducting operations like Martillo.
“People like us that wear the uniform of our country are in the business of protecting human rights,” Kelly said. “Conceptually, I don’t think any rational and decent man or woman on the planet can disagree with human rights as being fundamental to the way we treat each other and our citizens.”
Kelly and Ortiz met later in the day with representatives of Grupo Apoyo Mutuo (Mutual Support Group), a Guatemalan human rights nongovernmental organization, and Guatemala’s Ombudsman for Human Rights to expand the dialogue with civil sector groups interested in advancing human rights.
Day two of CENTSEC 2014 began with an update on Operation Martillo by U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Stephen Mehling, commander of JIATF-South.
“Before Operation Martillo, we were conducting several iterations of bi- and multi-lateral operations around the (region),” he said, adding they were of short duration and didn’t foster the levels of cross-border collaboration he described as key.
Mehling called Martillo “a great neighborhood watch for the western hemisphere.”
Describing lessons learned during the operation he said “To me, it’s trust, interoperability, innovation, communication and that individual actions just displace the problem, so we need to make sure that we do this collectively.”
After the operational update, participants took part in a moderated discussion about Martillo’s lessons learned, as well as the way ahead for the operation and communication efforts to support public interest in the mission.
The event’s final day included an executive discussion among senior leaders and bilateral meetings between participating delegations.