By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala, April 26, 2014 – On his first visit to Guatemala as U.S. defense secretary, Chuck Hagel spent the day with the nation’s leaders, and with them visited a small town that is the most recent site of humanitarian projects that U.S. and Guatemalan troops work side by side to complete.
Hagel visited Guatemala after a stop in Mexico to attend what he called a successful second North American Defense Ministerial with his counterparts from Mexico and Canada.
On Friday the secretary began his day in the country’s capital, Guatemala City, at the Central Air Force Command to meet with President Otto Perez Molina.
During the meeting Hagel conveyed among other things, according to Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, U.S. support for a key partner in a region challenged by narcotics trafficking and transnational crime.
It was the first visit to Guatemala by a U.S. defense secretary since 2005, Kirby added.
“It was a very good meeting,” Hagel said of his talks with President Molina during the day, as they walked to and from briefings and rode in helicopters.
“We were able to spend a lot of time … talking and walking and we addressed all the big issues,” the secretary added. “We talked about cooperation.”
Most Latin American countries allow their presidents just one term so their approach to governance is interesting, Hagel explained, adding that President Molina is impressive.
“He has a reputation for reaching out to the people,” the secretary said. “I asked him how often he gets outside of Guatemala City, and he said he goes somewhere in the country every Friday and Saturday.”
Molina “has really upped the game on human rights down there,” Hagel said of what he characterized as “a country that used to be in a lot of trouble.”
He added, “Through some courageous, visionary leadership they have really pulled themselves up” from human rights abuses.
Hagel also met there with Minister of Foreign Affairs Fernando Carrera and Minister of Defense Army Maj. Gen. Manuel Lopez Ambrosio.
With support from the Defense Department, defense officials said, Guatemala has made important progress in reforming and modernizing its defense institutions, and Hagel will communicate DOD’s continued support of these efforts.
After these meetings, Hagel, Molina, Lope and the secretary’s delegation loaded into Blackhawk helicopters and flew 50 minutes to Los Limones, a town of about 1,000 people in east central Guatemala, where U.S. and Guatemalan troops are preparing to participate in the upcoming April-to-June annual Beyond the Horizon humanitarian and civic assistance exercises.
U.S. Southern Command sponsors the joint foreign military exercises and Army South plans and leads them. They last for several months and provide assistance to partner nations throughout the Central and South America and Caribbean region.
The exercises tend to occur in rural, underprivileged areas and they are a major component of the U.S. military's regional engagement efforts. They offer a unique opportunity to train U.S. service members alongside partner nation personnel, while providing needed services to communities in the region, Southcom exercise fact sheets say.
“Some of the most significant opportunities the United States has to reach out to people and affect their lives in very positive ways is through our military, and I think what we saw today was a clear demonstration of that,” Hagel said later in a briefing to reporters traveling with him.
“Really changing people's lives, helping people through these clinics, building a school -- they're teaching people in these countries who have very little, who have not had much attention over the years, to be able to bring the sophistication of our assets and technology to these countries and help them in very meaningful ways,” the secretary added.
“Not theory, not policy, not speeches, but really affect their lives,” he said. “When you can do something about their teeth and help educate their kids, that lasts a long time and those young people will never forget it.”
During the exercises, which this year will be held in Belize, the Dominican Republic and Guatemala, according to Southcom, U.S. troops work with governmental, nongovernmental and private-sector organizations to train in civil-military operations skills while they provide medical and dental care and engineering support to local populations.
This year on April 22, days before Beyond the Horizon was to start in Los Limones, an Army radio operator stationed there died, according to an advisory from Army South.
Army Specialist Hernaldo Beltran Jr., 24, assigned to the 56th Signal Battalion at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, died during what may have been a practice exercise for Beyond the Horizon, which had not yet begun. A large tree branch fell on a group of soldiers working on an engineering project in Los Limones.
Three other soldiers received nonlife-threatening injuries and all were evacuated to Mega Medica Hospital in Zacapa, Guatemala, by Blackhawk helicopter, attended by a unit doctor.
Beltran, whose home of record is El Paso, Texas, enlisted in the Army Dec. 29, 2009, and completed basic training at Fort Knox, Ky., in 2010. After basic combat training, he attended advanced individual training at Fort Gordon, Ga.
In July 2010, he arrived at his first duty station with the 56th Signal Battalion, where he served as a radio operator. Beltran had deployed in support of Beyond the Horizon to Guatemala in 2012 and Panama in 2013.
The circumstances surrounding the incident are being investigated, Hagel said, adding, “I expressed our condolences and [President Barack Obama’s] condolences, as Guatemalan President Molina did to the families and all those involved.”
At Los Limones, Hagel also visited with U.S. troops who are engaged in medical training and civil affairs exercises alongside the Guatemalan military.
Back at the airport in Guatemala City, before boarding his military aircraft for Washington, Hagel and his delegation walked through a military capability display of troops and equipment with the Guatemalan government and military leaders.
During a briefing later with reporters traveling with him, Hagel said Guatemala is on the right path.
“They’re going to be okay if they just keep finding the kind of leaders they've been able to find, and their ministers are impressive,” he added. “I really did appreciate the opportunity to spend some time with [President Molina] and I'll give President Obama my observations when I see him next week.”