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South American Defense Leaders Meet to Discuss Regional Threats, Cooperation

CARTEGENA, Colombia (Aug. 25, 2023) — U.S. Army Gen. Laura J. Richardson, the commander of U.S. Southern Command, joined regional defense leaders to discuss security challenges and regional cooperation during the South American Defense Conference 2023 (SOUTHDEC 23) Aug. 23-24. The conference aimed to strengthen partnerships to address two key issues that concern security leaders and citizens: cyber security and climate/environmental security. During SOUTHDEC, leaders worked to identify ways to strengthen those capabilities and collaborate to assume an environmental defense role in South America.

“Climate Change and environmental degradation remain ‘threat multipliers’ and pose a significant risk to our security.  The fallout of Covid-19 continues to impact our economies. The malign activities of Transnational Criminal Organizations, Iran, and our Strategic Competitors, China and Russia remain,” Richardson told attendees during SOUTHDEC’s opening ceremony.   “And the dire situation in Venezuela casts a long shadow over the region. The fact is these transboundary threats demand our attention as they place an undue burden on our citizens,” she said. Richardson joined defense leaders from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname and Uruguay for SOUTHDEC. Representatives from Canada, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the United Kingdom also took part as observers.

They were joined by U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Western Hemisphere Daniel Erikson, other U.S. governments leaders, and U.S. National Guard leaders from Connecticut, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and West Virginia, whose national guards have state partnerships with the 11 South American nations represented in SOUTHDEC. General Commander of the Colombian Military Forces, Gen. Helder Giraldo and the Colombian military co-hosted this year’s SOUTHDEC with U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), which sponsors the annual conference.

Following the opening ceremony, SOUTHDEC participants took part in two days of dialogue, briefings, roundtables and bilateral meetings. During SOUTHDEC, leaders agreed on working towards collective action to address threats and challenges in South America and will establish a working group, chaired by SOUTHCOM, that will meet quarterly over the next year to share information and collaborate. “[The working group] will focus on steps identified by experts to achieve cyber defense objectives and assign the region’s armed forces effective roles that bolster climate change resiliency and environment defense capabilities in the continent,” said Richardson.

Regional Challenges

During the opening ceremony, Richardson warned of malign cyber actors who are “steadily increasing the size and scope of their attacks” in the region. “Malign state actors like China, Russia, Iran — along with non-state cyber-criminal and hacktivist groups — operate in the gray zone, below the threshold of armed conflict, as they deploy advanced and low-cost tools to influence, undermine, and destabilize societies,” said Richardson. Richardson noted that Russia, China and Iran are also trying to manipulate regional partner nation populations through disinformation campaigns and malign cyber activities. Through these campaigns, Russia, China and Iran continue to support the authoritarian, authoritarian regimes in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba.

“Operations in the gray zone aim to establish access, steal sensitive data, and utilize disinformation and misinformation to influence the decision-making of governments, private industry, and everyday citizens,” Richardson said. “These malign cyber activities pose a deep threat to international norms and to our collective security,” said Richardson. Richardson also discussed the threat of climate change and environmental degradation in the region, calling it “a critical issue” that negatively affects military readiness and security.

“Climate change has made our ability to respond rapidly and collectively to disasters an imperative. We recognize that our ability to rapidly deploy crucial airlift, medical, rescue, communications, and engineering capabilities is vital to saving lives and lessening the anguish of victims impacted by record-breaking storms, droughts, floods and other conditions fueled by ongoing changes in our atmosphere,” said Richardson.

“We can no longer simply discuss the issues. We must act, and we must act together,” said Richardson.   “Together, we are Team Democracy. A team of like-minded allies and partners committed to working across all domains and boundaries to ensure a free, secure, and prosperous Western Hemisphere and world — for our generation and generations to come.”

Defense Cooperation in South America

The U.S. military and defense forces in South America have a long history of security cooperation. U.S. and regional forces routinely train together in annual exercises like UNITAS, Tradewinds and Fuerzas Comando, among others. U.S. military and South American partners also collaborate in efforts to detect, disrupt, and dismantle transnational criminal organizations and traffickers. SOUTHCOM also partners with regional forces and organizations to support humanitarian assistance efforts in the region. SOUTHDEC 2023 was the second time Cartagena has served as host. In 2009, the city hosted the first-ever SOUTHDEC. SOUTHCOM is one of the nation’s six geographically focused unified commands with responsibility for U.S. military operations in the Caribbean, Central America and South America, as well as security cooperation with defense and public-security forces in the region. 

Source: U.S.SC