By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Feb. 1, 2009 - The senior U.S. military officer focused on Latin America and the Caribbean arrived in Guatemala today to bolster the solid U.S.-Guatemalan partnership and underscore the growing importance of international and interagency cooperation in protecting regional stability. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, commander of U.S. Southern Command, left his Miami headquarters for Guatemala City, where he will meet with President Alvaro Colom Caballeros and his senior defense and military leaders. Stavridis also plans to visit one of Guatemala's major peacekeeper training centers.
Stavridis said that, throughout his visit, he'll echo the message he delivered just a few days earlier to Honduran government and defense leaders in Tegucigalpa: Partnership is vital because no one country can tackle the region's transnational security challenges alone.
"In everything we do at SOUTHCOM -- in every aspect of our security cooperation -- our approach is international," Stavridis told American Forces Press Service Jan. 30 during his return flight from Honduras. "We try to be a force for multinational activity, because of the power in everyone working together."
SOUTHCOM works actively to help partner nations build capacity within their armed forces through training programs, bilateral and multilateral exercises and equipment contributions.
While in Guatemala, for example, Stavridis will help christen three Boston Whaler vessels that will support Guatemala's counter-narcotics operations. The United States purchased the launches and 20 sets of night-vision goggles through a counterdrug security assistance program.
Days earlier, Honduras took delivery of four U.S.-funded "fast boats" to enhance its own capabilities in protecting its shores and waterways from transnational threats ranging from narcotics trafficking to piracy to global terrorism.
That effort, part of SOUTHCOM's Enduring Friendship security assistance program, also includes training in how to operate and maintain the watercraft, improving Honduras' ability to protect its shores.
Stavridis said he was impressed in Honduras by the country's deep interest in international cooperation and recognition of its benefits.
The day before his arrival, Honduran police seized 1.5 metric tons of cocaine with an estimated street value of $25 million, as well as an aircraft and two "go-fast" boats used by the drug runners. Tipped off by intelligence from SOUTHCOM's Joint Interagency Task Force-South counterdrug operation based in Key West, Fla., and with tracking and hand-off involving the U.S., Mexico, and Guatemala, Honduran forces swooped in on the traffickers in their first-ever aircraft interdiction.
Stavridis called the mission "a huge win" and said it exemplified the power of cooperation.
"The Hondurans were so excited about this drug bust which their forces concluded, but really was the result of Mexican, U.S., Guatemalan and Honduran activity coming together, in terms of both intelligence and actual activity," he said. "And in all our conversations, the Hondurans emphasized how excited they were about further international cooperation"
Stavridis praised the partnerships Honduras and Guatemala have forged with each other and other neighboring nations to promote their shared security interests. "They work together on everything from trade and the economy to counternarcotics, disaster relief and peacekeeping," he said.
This cooperation, he said, is paying off through increased information sharing and interoperability, and enhanced capability that promotes regional security and stability.
Stavridis noted the professionalism of the all-volunteer Honduran military, which includes a U.N.-certified peacekeeping battalion. It's reflective, he said, of the steady democratic leadership that's governed Honduras since 1983, a stark contrast to the country's first 150 volatile years of independence.
Writing in his personal blog during the return flight to Miami, Stavridis summed up his impressions after two days in Tegucigalpa.
"After a busy couple of days, I felt good about our security engagement and the continuing partnership," he wrote. "Clearly our interagency partners are doing fine work in their lane of development and diplomacy." He also noted that the largest Peace Corps contingent in the Americas is at work in Honduras.
"And I felt that our work on security and defense issues was a helpful part of the equation," he wrote.
During all his country visits, Stavridis said he carries the message about the strength of interagency as well as international cooperation. He said he hopes the U.S. example can serve as "a powerful model" for the region.
While in Honduras, he met with the embassy's country team to discuss security challenges and ongoing initiatives and pledge continued support to the collective interagency effort to help Honduras address them.
Stavridis spends about 75 percent of his time visiting the 45 countries and territories in his area of focus, which covers 16 million square miles. Since taking command two and a half years ago, he figures he's visited just about every country, and many two or three times.
That's because, he said, there's no better way to foster the relationships that lead to powerful partnerships than face to face.
Fluent in Spanish, Stavridis said he enjoys talking with officials and reporters alike in their own language, often surprising his hosts in what he views as a simple sign of respect. He's now studying Portuguese so he can better communicate directly when visiting Brazil.
In a region highly unlikely to experience all-out war, Stavridis calls communication the most important tool in his arsenal. "In this hemisphere, we are in the business of ideas, not missiles," he said. "Our main battery, so to speak, is communications."
And the best way to communicate, he said, is in person.
"You can write articles, post to blogs and send out videos and magazines, but nothing can beat personal contact," Stavridis said. "There is real power in human contact. It trumps everything. And that's really what these trips are all about."