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Defense Analysts Urge Senate to Enhance Latin American Security

March 23, 2022 by Tom Ramstack
Defense Analysts Urge Senate to Enhance Latin American Security
Melissa Dalton

WASHINGTON — As the United States turns its attention to bombs falling on Ukraine, defense analysts warned the Senate Wednesday not to overlook emerging security risks in Latin America.

Transnational crime, drug gangs as well as growing Russian and Chinese influence in Latin America will only get worse if the U.S. ignores them, they said.

“We cannot take security in this hemisphere for granted, especially as our strategic competitors seek to shift the balance in their favor,” Melissa Dalton, an assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee.

Much of the defense analysts’ concern was directed at China and Russia, who they accused of seeking military influence.

The Chinese will often use trade deals for industrial mining or installation of telecommunications that have a dual purpose of helping China’s military, the defense analysts said.

“We are concerned that [the People’s Republic of China’s] offers of military cooperation, scientific exchanges and information technology assistance have nefarious objectives,” Dalton said. “We are also concerned that [China’s] economic investments are predatory in nature and may mask military purposes.”

For some deals, China has promised more favorable terms if their Latin American trading partners denounce Taiwan.

Taiwan is a large island that China claims as part of its territory. The Taiwanese insist they are an independent country and an ally of the U.S.

Their disagreement has sometimes tilted toward war.

China has tried to consolidate its Latin America influence through its Belt and Road Initiative. Twenty-one Latin American and Caribbean countries have joined the trade alliance.

China exchanges about $314 billion in trade with the region and another $136 billion in loans from its policy banks.

Russia’s threat in Latin America consists mostly of military assistance to U.S. adversaries, such as Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, according to the analysts. The Russians try to boost their influence through disinformation campaigns that portray Americans as a threat to their southern neighbors.

U.S. denunciations of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could mean Russians seek greater influence in Latin America to counter the perceived American threat, Dalton said.

“Russia is pursuing more of an opportunistic approach,” she said.

Other security risks for the U.S. come from drug gangs pushing the opioid epidemic and transnational crime that moves across the border with illegal immigration, the analysts said.

“Drug trafficking and other transnational criminal organizations continue to accrue billions of dollars in illicit profit at the expense of American lives and regional security,” Dalton said. “They engage in illicit activities such as trafficking in humans and weapons and illegal mining.”

More than a risk for individual victims, the gangs interfere with the ability of small Latin American countries to maintain political stability and sovereignty, she said.

A leading proposal for confronting Latin American security risks is the Western Hemisphere Security Strategy Act, pending in the Senate.

It would require the secretaries of State and Defense to develop a strategy to enhance diplomatic and security relations in the Western Hemisphere, focusing heavily on drug trafficking and transnational crime. It would include military training exercises with partner nations and disaster relief preparation.

Brigadier General Frank Bradfield, an assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense, said one of the best tools for U.S. security is stronger partnerships with allies. Funding levels now are too low to ensure strong partnerships, he said.

“We can’t do this alone,” he said.

The U.S. emphasis on human rights already has given the U.S. favorable relations with many Latin American countries, he said.

“We are the preferred partner of choice,” Bradfield said.

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., agreed U.S. security strategies for Latin America need to be modified.

“Just doing the same thing every year, I don’t think we can expect a different result,” said Kelly, chairman of the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said, “Make no mistake, China is on … offense in the Western Hemisphere.”

Tom can be reached at tom@thewellnews.com

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