U.S. Marines Prepare for Central American Emergencies
New task force will respond to disasters and train troops to fight drug cartels
While most of the Pentagon’s attention remains focused on the Middle East, the U.S. Marine Corps is expanding its presence in Central America. A new task force will soon be ready to help out American allies during disasters and other crises.
By the end of 2015, some 200 Marines will spread across the region. While the final structure is still being worked out, the force will include a number of aircraft—likely a combination of helicopters, MV-22 Osprey tiltrotors and KC-130 Hercules tankers.
The new unit “is designed to respond to emergencies mainly dealing with humanitarian assistance and disaster relief types of missions,” according to public affairs officers at the Marine Corps headquarters for the region.
Since 1990, the Pentagon has provided aid to countries in Central and South America after hurricanes, earthquakes and floods. “The United States has often taken the lead in responding to natural disasters in the region,” says a Congressional Research Service report on Latin America and the Caribbean released in January.
Helicopters and Ospreys—which fly like a regular plane, but can land like a chopper—could easily deliver supplies and rescue civilians after a major hurricane or earthquake.
The extra Marines will supplement an existing response force of about 120 troops currently based in the United States. Different units already take turns being on call in case an American embassy comes under attack or a similar crisis erupts.
When not responding to a crisis, the new Marines will work along existing teams situated in Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. For the last four years, these elements have trained local forces to fight drug cartels.
The new task force will participate in these events and run their own sessions. “These partnerships are at the core of dealing with regional issues,” the public affairs officials explained.
While the Marine Corps does expect the new unit to participate in any fights, other American troops, ships and aircraft have actively participated in missions against drug runners, currently dubbed Operation Martillo. For two months in 2012, 200 Marines and four UH-1N Huey choppers hunted smuggling boats from a base in Guatemala.
The Pentagon—and private companies working for them—regularly fly reconnaissance missions over Colombia.
In 2003, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia kidnapped captured contractors Marc Gonsalves, Keith Stansell and Tom Howes after their spy plane crashed. Five years later, the Colombian government rescued the three civilians while disguised as members of the Red Cross.
Two years ago, another private aerial spy crashed into a mountain near the border between Panama and Colombia. Four of the six crew died in the crash, including a member of the Air National Guard. Colombian forces were the closest troops able to reach the crash site.
And officials describe the force as “low-cost and small-footprint.” With the Pentagon currently pitching its new budget, the Marine Corps is no doubt happy to promote the plan as cost effective.
But there’s another reason why the Pentagon wants to keep its Marine force small. U.S. troops in Latin America are always politically controversial.
During the Cold War, the U.S. backed authoritarian, anti-communist governments in the hemisphere. During the past decade, governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have been especially outspoken at what they see as American meddling.
“The imperial power of the north has entered a dangerous phase of desperation, and they have gone on to speak to governments of the hemisphere to announce the overthrow of my government,” Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro said on Feb. 1.
Maduro then went on to specifically name Vice Pres. Joe Biden as being a key member of this coup plot. The State Department has categorically denied the Venezuelan leader’s claims.
After the 2008 hostage rescue mission, the International Committee of the Red Cross was deeply upset that the Colombian government had abused their impartial status.
The Marine Corps—which has its own long history of intervention in the region—is well aware of these issues. The Marine Corps Hymn opens with a mention of “the Halls of Montezuma,” a reference to the Mexican-American War.
Most notably, the Marine Corps’ experiences in Latin America provided a foundation for the lessons contained in its famous Small Wars Manual. To this day, military officials and academics alike study and refer to this work.
“The nature of the operational environment in the Western Hemisphere is very different in comparison to other areas of the globe,” the public affairs personnel added.
The Pentagon will likely formally call the unit the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Southern Command. But officials may more commonly refer to it simply as SPMAGTF-South.
The very word “crisis” can apparently have negative connotations. For many in the region, the term implies political upheaval and regime change, often directed by foreign powers.