COMALAPA AIR BASE, El Salvador - Servicemembers and civilians from 20 nations and three international organizations converged at various locations in Central and North America this week for Fuerzas Aliadas (Allied Forces) PANAMAX 2008, a multinational exercise focused on the security of the Panama Canal.

Co-sponsored by the Panamanian government and U.S. Southern Command in Miami, the operation is led this year by San Antonio-based U.S. Army South, whose 183 deployed personnel comprise the core of a Multinational Force-South (MNF-S) at Comalapa Air Base, El Salvador, while 113 Texas National Guardsmen from the 36th Infantry Division (Light) form the core of Multinational Division-South (MND-S) at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras.

In addition, seven vessels from the U.S. Navy and 22 from partner nations are at sea in the Caribbean and Pacific approaches to the Canal as part of a Combined Forces Maritime Component Command (CFMCC) led by U.S. Navy South, while U.S. personnel at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona perform the role of a Combined Forces Air Component Command (CFACC) and Special Operations personnel at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida serve as a Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF).

PANAMAX began in 2003 with just three participating nations and has grown significantly over the last five years to include this year's roster of 20 nations: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, the United States and Uruguay.

France, Mexico, Paraguay, and Spain are scheduled to participate as observers, and the three participating international organizations are the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the Conference of Central American Armies.

"The increased participation in FA PANAMAX over the years underscores the importance the international community places on cooperative efforts and strong partnerships as pillars of worldwide security and stability," says Maj. Gen. Keith M. Huber, commander of U.S. Army South and MNF-S.

While the operation focuses on the security of the Panama Canal, there are many other real-world threats to the nations of Central America and the Caribbean that could lead to the deployment of a multinational force similar to the one formed this year for PANAMAX. Hurricanes and earthquakes have wrought horrific amounts of damage to the region in recent decades; in late 1998, a U.S. joint task force was established here at Comalapa Air Base to coordinate disaster-relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, and in 2004 a U.S.-led multinational force helped restore stability in Haiti after a wave of violent civil conflict-a mission that has since been led by Brazil.

The exercise portion of PANAMAX officially began Monday and lasts until next Thursday, followed by a closing ceremony in Panama on Friday.

In addition, there will be a multinational humanitarian-assistance / disaster-relief mission in Honduras, a training event in Guatemala for a Central American peacekeeping battalion, and a bilateral command-and-control event with the Armed Forces Joint Operating Center in the Dominican Republic.

"These distributive operations build partnerships and increase multinational interoperability," says Col. Rick Riera, the U.S. Army South director of operations. "Everyone that participates in PANAMAX learns from the other participants."