THE United States has 25 security-cooperation offices in Latin America and the Caribbean. Also called security-assistance offices, the one in Panama is called the Office of Defense Cooperation. In Guatemala it's the U.S. Military Group, Guatemala.<br/><br/>Each serves as a security link to the U.S. military, said COL Linda Gould, commander of the U.S. MILGROUP, Guatemala.<br/><br/>"Much of our focus here is on counter-terrorism and counter-drug operations. What we can do to help the Guatemalans fight terrorism and drugs can only help the United States in the long run," she said.<br/><br/>"To support U.S. Southern Command, we're their eyes, ears and hands in Guatemala, to conduct security assistance and implement the theater-security cooperation plan," said LTC Matthew Greco, an Army section chief at the MILGROUP.<br/><br/>"It means we help set up training that the U.S. military wants to conduct here," Greco said. That includes medical-readiness exercises, which are conducted four or five times annually to train U.S. Reserve Soldiers, "honing their skills in a harsh environment, providing valuable services to the local people, and fostering popular support for the U.S. Department of Defense and its policies."<br/><br/>The MILGROUP also coordinates the shipment of any equipment the U.S. military wants to send to Guatemala, and it's USSOUTHCOM's lead military disaster-response agency whenever there's a natural disaster in the region, such as Hurricane Stan in 2005.<br/><br/>Additionally, the MILGROUP is responsible for setting up training in the United States for members of the Guatemalan military.<br/><br/>The U.S. defense attachAffA,A at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, LTC Edward Bonfoey III, is typically the face of the U.S. military at all state functions, he said. The man he works for, the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, gets no money for training Guatemala's military or procuring military equipment for its armed forces. That's the MILGROUP's role, Bonfoey said.<br/><br/>Greco interacts each day with senior officials of the Guatemalan army and with people in Guatemala's ministries of the interior, justice and defense.<br/><br/>"I often visit their army installations across the country to assess how the U.S. Army can provide assistance here," Greco said.<br/><br/>"We've become very actively engaged in assisting the Guatemalan government to establish sovereignty along the border with Mexico and other borders where there's a weak or nonexistent government presence, to help them combat illegal migration and trafficking of arms and narcotics," Greco said.<br/><br/>Some 500 tons of cocaine passed over Central America in fiscal year 2005, Greco said, citing a report of the Joint Interagency Task Force South - the agency in Key West, Fla., responsible for tracking and interdicting cocaine flowing out of Colombia.<br/><br/>The Guatemalan army uses American-built M-113 armored personnel carriers to patrol the borders, Gould said. "We got $500,000 through the U.S. Military Assistance Program to refurbish the vehicles and make them mission capable."<br/><br/>The United States is also furnishing $3.2 million from 2005 to 2010 so the Guatemalan army can purchase communications equipment, which will allow border-patrol personnel to immediately report illicit activities, Gould said. Some of the money will pay for spare parts for helicopters and individual soldier equipment.<br/><br/>Portions of the money are released to Guatemala, based on "what they tell us they need," Gould said.<br/><br/>"Strengthening partnerships in democracy is our goal," Bonfoey said. Guatemala suffered a 36-year civil armed conflict that formally ended in 1996.<br/><br/>Over the past few years Guatemala's armed forces have been reduced from some 46,000 to 15,500, said Bonfoey. The country's navy and air force are composed of roughly 1,500 people each, Gould added.<br/><br/>Today, besides the military's participation in U.N. missions - including the recent third rotation of soldiers to the U.N. mission in Congo - the Guatemalan army is much utilized in its own country, protecting its borders.<br/><br/>"The biggest change in the past three years here is the openness of the host nation's armed forces," said Ryan Rowlands, press officer at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala. "Today, military officials welcome reporters and are happy to show off their facilities and operations."<br/><br/>(Editor's note: This story was first printed in the September issue of Soldiers magazine.)

Page last updated Tue September 19th, 2006 at 08:29