- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Central America,

U.S. eye options

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. (Reuters) — U.S. and Central American security leaders yesterday discussed closer ties in battling drug trafficking, terrorism and other crime, including the touchy issue of whether military troops in Central America might assume police duties.

“The military is not the answer” alone to regional stability and prosperity, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told defense and security ministers from seven Central American nations on the first day of a two-day conference.

It is against the law for U.S. active-duty troops to handle police work at home, but a senior American general said it was up to countries in Central America — a region with a dismal record on human rights — to decide what to do with their troops against terrorism and other threats.

Mr. Rumsfeld and other ministers, who pressed for closer cooperation in law enforcement, intelligence, border protection and response to natural disasters, announced no decision on whether militaries should take up the baton against criminals.

“Each country will have to decide if and how they will have their armed forces support law enforcement. And, if so, to what degree,” U.S. Army Gen. Bantz Craddock, head of the Pentagon’s Miami-based Southern Command, told the ministers.

The Washington Office on Latin America, a rights watchdog group, quickly attacked that attitude as “old school — defaulting to the region’s militaries to solve problems.”

“Why are we talking with the militaries about combating crime? Shouldn’t a different set of actors be in the room?” said Joy Olson, executive director of the group.

But Mr. Rumsfeld, responding later to questions from reporters, said the region had been moving steadily to develop free economic and political systems, including civilian control over the military.

“I think that we have to recognize that each of these countries will end up fashioning their own rules under their democracies as appropriate to them,” he said.

Central America, especially Guatemala, sustained 1,000 deaths this month from the heavy rains and catastrophic mudslides brought by Hurricane Stan.

Belize Home Affairs Minister Ralph Fonseca warned that crime could threaten tourism in his small country, but cautioned that if troops were used to battle crime it must be with “stringent rules of engagement.”

Guatemalan Defense Minister Maj. Gen. Carlos Villanueva said that nation planned a joint peacekeeping battalion with El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, but made no mention of any use beyond regional and international peacekeeping.

“We are going to try to have a [joint] unit at a battalion level,” he said. “We need political support for this.”

Some Latin American specialists say Washington is trying to encourage more military involvement in fighting criminals. The issue is touchy in a region that suffered brutal dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s.

Mr. Rumsfeld said that era would not return.

“Today, the dictatorships of previous decades have given way to democracies, and rivalries that once threatened stability are now past,” he said.

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