By Kathleen T. Rhem
MANAGUA, Nicaragua, Oct. 3, 2006 – Twenty years ago, Central America was riddled with fighting among its countries. Today, progress and growing prosperity define the region, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said here yesterday at a Defense Ministers of the Americas conference. "International cooperation is the promise of this new century, which is why conferences such as this can be so valuable," he said in brief remarks to the assembled delegations of 33 countries in attendance.
Rumsfeld stressed that terrorism is everybody's problem and that no country can fight that threat on its own. "Almost every minister here ... has attested to that fact," he said.
The secretary said the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks weren't just targeting the United States, "but civilization itself and, with it, the international system that supports security, freedom and the promise of growing prosperity for our people."
A common theme of remarks from various defense ministers from Western Hemisphere nations was cooperation and coordination. Navy Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, told a small group of reporters that remarks from the ministers were "reassuringly similar and supportive."
Countries recognize that problems like narcotics trafficking and organized crime know no borders, so regional cooperation is the only way to defeat them. "The folks down here are emphasizing that it's not one unit alone that can do it, whether it be diplomatic or military or economic or social or medical," Keating said. "It's a system of systems, and it's collaboration and cooperation."
In his speech, Rumsfeld called these illegal enterprises "anti-social elements" and said they have a common thread. "They destroy faith in government by casting a dark shadow on the democratic process and by eroding economic opportunities for our people.
"They are destabilizing forces in a part of the world that has worked so hard and suffered so much bloodshed to trade dictatorships and civil war for democracy and stability," he said.
Some countries in Latin American have had great success fighting narcoterrorists and organized gangs and are now sharing that expertise with their neighbors. Some are even considering using their hard-earned expertise to help countries outside their region, including Afghanistan and Iraq.
Maj. Gen. Omar Halleslevens, chief of the Nicaraguan army, said today that his country would send troops with mine-clearing expertise to Afghanistan if asked to do so.
U.S. Army Gen. Bantz Craddock said officials are working with Colombia to send forces from that country to Iraq to help the Iraqis devise ways to better protect their oil pipelines and other infrastructure from terrorist attacks. Craddock has been commander of U.S. Southern Command, which has responsibility for military operations in Latin America, for nearly two years. He is set to give up his SOUTHCOM command and take over U.S. European Command later this month.
"(Some Latin American countries) have enormous expertise, and they have worked through many of those challenges," he said. "Now there's an opportunity where they may see a chance to help other countries overcome the problems they have faced in the past. Wherever we can, we're going to help do that."
Interagency cooperation within individual countries is important, as well, Keating said. Since it stood up four years ago, NORTHCOM has become effective at cooperating with other countries and other U.S. government agencies, and the command's leaders are working to share these lessons with other countries in the hemisphere.
"NORTHCOM has a lot of good ideas to share with these countries, ways to combat terrorism, ways that we work with the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, CIA, all the interagency partners and state and local partners, and increasingly with commercial partners," he said, noting that commercial shipping companies are anxious to ensure their containers are secure.
"So we, working with the Department of Homeland Security, have kind of a playbook, and we're happy to share that information with countries down here," Keating said.
In remarks opening the ceremony, Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos noted how important security is to prosperity. "National security is inseparable from sustainable development," he said.
"I believe that it's a simple equation: more security is equal to more investment, which is equal to more jobs, which is equal to less poverty, which is equal to more well-being, which is what we want," he said through a translator.
In his comments later, Rumsfeld echoed the sentiment. "Too often people fail to realize just how closely connected security is to democracy and to free markets," he said. "It is up to us to communicate to our legislatures and our citizens how open economies, effective security and responsive democratic institutions all contribute each in their own way to national, regional and hemispheric stability."
Rumsfeld, who has traveled extensively in Latin America during his time as defense secretary, said cooperation among nations here is better than ever. "It is very clear that the cohesion and the cooperation -- real cooperation among these countries -- is greater today than I have seen it in the past six years," he said. "It is particularly true in Central America."