By Heike HasenauerSeptember 19, 2006
Long known for its humanitarian and drug-interdiction work throughout Latin America, U.S. Army, South, continues to perform vital missions in Latin America from its home at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.The humanitarian-aid projects the U.S. military continues to conduct in Latin America are as critical today as ever, said LTC Andres Ortegon, a command spokesman.Exercise Fuerzas Aliadas Humanitarias in Honduras helps pave the way for multinational relief following natural disasters, he said, by bringing government and nongovernmental organizations together - before a disaster strikes - to draw up plans.Peacekeeping exercises, such as those in Guatemala and Peru in June and July, respectively, are also a USARSO priority.That's because "there's a growing threat in Latin America," Ortegon said. "Everybody says 'drugs,' but it's drugs and gangs. We believe there are more than 100,000 gang members in Central America, and gangs are said to be cashing in on bounties offered to them by people who smuggle human beings."Add to that the drug trade, fragile governments and poor economies in which many people barely have life's necessities, and the doors are open for coercion and corruption.USARSO works daily to help the people and governments of the Caribbean and Latin America live their lives peacefully by aiding in the improvement of basic infrastructure - by building schools, clinics, wells and community centers, and by conducting medical-readiness exercises that bring doctors, nurses and medicines to villages where people may never have seen a medical professional before, said LTC Gary Robinson, chief of USARSO's Humanitarian & Civic Assistance Division.Some 5,000 U.S. Soldiers rotate through Central America each year, many of them Reserve and National Guard members performing their annual active-duty training. At any given time, about 400 Soldiers are in the region performing a variety of missions.USARSO's Soldiers also help train the soldiers of Latin American nations, in efforts to improve the individual country's stability. And there are platoon exchanges between the U.S. and Central American militaries. In April, for example, 37 Soldiers deployed to El Salvador from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., which in turn hosted a platoon of Salvadoran troops.In August 2006 USARSO hosted a conference for senior Latin American noncommissioned officers - one of the ways in which USARSO helps bring NCOs from Central America up to the U.S. NCO standard, as per requests from foreign military officials who have long recognized that NCOs in the U.S. military are given much more responsibility, said USARSO G-3 SGM Jose M. Lopez.The first Latin-American and Caribbean defense forces senior-enlisted conference was held in Texas in 2005, Lopez said.The four-step soldier-exchange process includes a visit by U.S. NCOs to a particular Latin American nation; a reciprocal visit by that nation's NCOs to a U.S. NCO academy; a return trip to Latin America by U.S. NCOs to determine whether the Latin American NCO school is ready to produce top-notch NCOs; and, finally, completion of the NCO training curriculum.At the same time USARSO conducts myriad exercises far from its home station, the command - much like every other command in the Army - is working to transform itself. "We will become a bigger headquarters and will be joint-task-force capable," Ortegon said.When USARSO becomes Sixth Army, it will be able to better provide administrative and logistical support to U.S. forces in Latin America, as well as be able to conduct operations as a joint task force or joint force land component headquarters, he said.