Category Archives: South America

Analysis related to USSOUTHCOM

How the U.S. Can Better Suppress Illegal Drug Trafficking in the Caribbean

By Laura Burroughs

Introduction

On April 1, President Trump announced that the United States is doubling its counternarcotics operations in the Western Hemisphere. The administration is concerned that illicit actors in Venezuela will exploit the focus on the COVID-19 pandemic to smuggle narcotics undetected. It deployed Navy destroyers, combat ships, aircraft and helicopters, Coast Guard cutters, and air force surveillance aircraft to suppress drug trafficking coming toward the U.S. The move includes forces in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific, but the Trump administration appears particularly concerned with Venezuela.

The country lacks maritime intelligence and enforcement capacity. Corruption, poverty, and food insecurity are leading to increased crime on land and at sea. Drug trafficking in Venezuela does appear to have increased and the U.S. has the tools to fill this gap, with the strongest and largest navy in the region.

However, while this increased presence is likely to result in more seizures over the short-term, it cannot change the root drivers of illicit maritime activity. A more sustainable solution requires more than increased assets on the water for search and seizure. Furthermore, without supporting local organizations and addressing the conditions driving so many Venezuelans to illicit activities, the impacts of the effort will not be sustainable. The following enhancements could improve the U.S. effort to reduce drug trafficking and help ensure a lasting solution.

Measures For Enhancing Effectiveness

Illicit actors can conceal drug trafficking. A robust maritime security approach requires a holistic perspective on maritime crime. Illicit actors around the world display a great deal of agility and ability to conceal their activities. In 2019, the U.S. Coast Guard confiscated $466 million worth of cocaine concealed on fishing vessels along the Pacific Coast of Central America and Mexico. Because illegal fishing often goes unnoticed and generates lower penalties, it is a convenient cover for more high-penalty crimes like drug trafficking. Drugs are even smuggled inside fish.

The U.S. must be sensitive to shifts toward other illicit crimes. In the Caribbean, maritime enforcement has largely focused on drug trafficking. However, illicit actors have diversified their activities. Gold and fuel smuggling have also become common. While these goods appear more innocuous than drugs, they provide an important funding source for illicit actors. Venezuelan criminal groups own mining towns and manage trafficking routes into bordering Colombia and Brazil, generating violence, conflict, and instability. Gold mining in Venezuela has even been compared to West and Central African blood diamonds. And those hardest hit are indigenous local groups that are being immersed in violence and pollution from mining operations. Many Venezuelans are also forced into illicit gold mining because of low wages and are subsequently required to pay criminal gangs large portions of their earnings.

Venezuelan criminals have also turned to the maritime space, stealing boat engines, conducting robberies, and even conducting kidnap-for-ransom operations. Low-priced fuel is being smuggled through Venezuela and traded to neighboring countries. This displays the array of options from which illicit actors in Venezuela can generate funds. Funds from these activities will help illicit actors sustain their funding and networks, and ease their return to narco-trafficking once the U.S. redeploys its assets.

The U.S. must balance its efforts with a geographic focus on the Pacific. The United States may not effectively combat drug trafficking with its focus on the Atlantic. Illicit actors are also geographically flexible. Due to a strong focus on anti-narcotics enforcement in the Caribbean, much of the cocaine traffic has shifted to the Pacific coast. 84 percent of confiscated South American cocaine is routed through the Pacific. In fact, more cocaine appears to be traveling through the Galapagos than the Caribbean, where illicit actors can travel undetected or disguise themselves as fishers.

Some of the U.S. naval forces are being directed at the eastern Pacific, with a recent seizure of 1,700 pounds of cocaine off the Pacific coast of Central America, but this illustrates the geographic agility of narco-traffickers and the need for maintaining sufficient resources so that investment in one domain does not come at the expense of the other.

The U.S. must empower regional organizations. While the U.S. has engaged 22 partner nations on this effort, it is still dominating the Venezuelan counter-narcotics operation. In order to improve maritime security long-term, it is important to support and empower regional organizations. This increases the operation’s legitimacy as well as regional capacity.

The Caribbean includes several international organizations. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM), composed of 15 Caribbean countries, aims to improve regional cooperation on economic issues and foreign policy. CARICOM includes a branch called the Caribbean Community Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (CARICOM IMPACS). CARICOM IMPACS promotes information exchange, regional capacity building, and collaboration to improve regional security. The Regional Security System (RSS), a separate sub-regional body focused on collective security among seven of the CARICOM member states, analyzes criminal activity in the region and conducts air, land, and sea patrols. However, it has had to reduce its maritime patrols in recent years, despite maintaining two regularly operating maritime patrol aircraft.

In order for the U.S. operation to be perceived as legitimate as possible and be able to counter illicit maritime operations in the long-term, the U.S. should support capacity building for regional organizations like CARICOM-IMPACS and RSS to more effectively fulfill their mandates. This will also enable the U.S. to ultimately spend fewer resources in the region.

The U.S. must be mindful of threats to conflict and coastal welfare. One of the most important root causes of illicit trafficking is poverty and insecurity on land. In Venezuela, food insecurity and a lack of viable livelihood opportunities are turning citizens to illicit crime. In 2017, the average Venezuelan lost 24 pounds, and 90 percent of the country is now living in poverty. Food and economic insecurity and violence in Venezuela has catalyzed four million migrants and refugees to leave the country. These conditions are causing many Venezuelans to turn to illicit crime for survival. With more pressure against Venezuela, the United States may only push more Venezuelans into desperation. If it wants to develop a long-term solution to illicit trafficking in the region, it is vital for the United States to consider the impacts of its decisions on coastal welfare. 

Conclusion

The United States has the largest and most advanced navy in the world, and is an important actor in the Caribbean region and the Western Hemisphere as a whole. Increased maritime enforcement is vital, especially to combat drug trafficking in the region. However, aiming to control drug trafficking will not make these criminal groups disappear. They will take alternate routes and capitalize on trading other illicit goods. In order to establish a sustainable and peaceful approach to the region’s maritime security challenges, the U.S. must take a holistic approach to maritime security threats and empower local organizations to solve regional security challenges at their source. The U.S. will be spending a great deal of time and resources in this effort. It is important to generate a long-term solution to the problem, lest the U.S. find itself in an expensive, endless battle against drug trafficking.

Laura Burroughs has served for five years at the NGO One Earth Future (OEF) that works closely with the UN, navies, and the private sector. She has experience in maritime security, facilitating sessions, and developing reports for the Caught Red-Handed project a series of workshops hosted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) to promote interagency coordination to improve maritime security.

Featured Image: U.S. Coast Guard members sit atop a seized semi-submersible suspected smuggling vessel in international waters of the Eastern Pacific Ocean as the cutter Harriet Lane maneuvers nearby Oct. 24, 2019. (U.S. Coast Guard photo/Patrick Kelley)

Rising to Lead: Female Commanding Officers in Latin America’s Navies

The Southern Tide

Written by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“We focus on partnerships…Our partners want to work with us. They want the advantage of the United States education, training, exercises and military equipment. It’s the best in the world. And so it’s up to us to deliver that in a way that’s relevant and also provides a return on investment for American taxpayer. So that is our focus.” –Navy Adm. Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee July 9, 2019.

By Wilder Alejandro Sanchez

A historical milestone was reached in Uruguay as Capitan Valeria Sorrenti became the first female commander of an Uruguayan Navy vessel. With that said, it is important to keep in mind that she is only the latest example of a growing trend. In recent years there were a number of positive “firsts” when it comes to female naval officers taking command of ships among various Latin American navies, a trend that will hopefully continue.

The Uruguayan Navy’s Newest Ship Commander

At a ceremony held in Montevideo in early March, Captain Sorrenti became the commander of Audaz (ROU 34), a Kondor II-class minesweeper. The ship was commissioned in the South American country’s navy in the early 1990s, after previously serving in the East German Navy. The officer is no stranger to Audaz as she previously served as the ship’s second in-command. With its new commander, Audaz will be tasked to monitor Uruguay’s territorial waters, with a focus on combating maritime crimes (particularly illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing), conducting mine-sweeping exercises, and performing search-and-rescue operations.

Capitán de Corbeta Valeria Sorrenti of the Uruguayan Navy (Uruguyan Ministry of National Defense)

Such tasks are problematic for the Uruguayan Navy these days since, as the author discussed in a 2016 analysis for CIMSEC titled, “The UNCLCS Ruling and the Future of the Uruguayan Navy,” the country has one of the oldest fleets in South America. This presents a problem when it comes to the multiple tasks the fleet has to perform within territorial waters and also abroad, as Uruguay has an important presence in Antarctica.

The renewal of the fleet has been slow and revolves around the acquisition of small vessels. In August 2019, the U.S. delivered “a second batch of two Metal Shark 32-ft (9.8m) fast patrol boats … to the Uruguayan Navy Comando de Infanteria de Marina (Marines),” according to Jane’s Defence. That brings the total fleet of Uruguayan fast patrol boats to four platforms. In late 2018, the Navy also acquired two German-made search-and-rescue vessels, called Isla de Flores (ROU 51) and Isla de Lobos (ROU 52).

For years, the Uruguayan Navy has attempted to acquire new offshore patrol vessels to modernize its fleet, but this has yet to occur due to the defense ministry’s limited budget. Nevertheless, with commanders like Captain Sorrenti at the helm, the Navy may make the most of what it has.

Other “Firsts”

The promotion of Captain Sorrenti does not occur in a vacuum as throughout the past decade other female personnel have been promoted to positions of command throughout various Latin American navies.

In 2009, midshipman Erica Vanessa Bibbó was named commander of the Argentine coastal patrol boat ARA Zurubi (P-55). That same year, Frigate Lieutenant Raquel Elena Romero of the Colombian Navy became the commander of the buoy-deploying ship ARC Isla Palma. Some years later, in 2013, Captain Hildelene Lobato Bahia became the first Brazilian female officer in command of a vessel of the country’s merchant navy, the tanker Rômulo Almeida.

Furthermore, in January 2018, Captain Casandra Silva became the first female commander of a Peruvian Navy vessel – the offshore patrol vessel Rio Cañete (PM-205), manufactured by the Peruvian state-run shipyard SIMA. Under her command, Rio Cañete intercepted a vessel in Northern Peru, which was reportedly carrying 1,850 kilograms of cocaine. A year later in January 2019, 2nd Lieutenant Carolina Cuadras was named the captain of the patrol boat Salinas (LPC-1816), which has its home port in Iquique, Northern Chile. Cuadras is the first woman to obtain the command of a ship in the Chilean Navy.

It is also worth noting that female officers are also in command of naval facilities. Captain Nora Benavides Luna is the first female commander of a Peruvian naval base, located in Pucallpa port, in the Peruvian Amazon. Finally, there are female commanders of civilian ships, such as the tug boat Monte Cristi in the Dominican Republic which has an all-female crew.

On the other hand, one tragic case is that of Captain Eliana Krawczyk, Argentina’s first ever female submarine officer. Sadly, she was aboard the Argentina submarine ARA San Juan when it disappeared in November 2017. She and the other 43 crew members of the boat were lost.

Captain Eliana Krawczyk of the Argentine Navy (ASSA – Agrupación Suboficiales Submarinistas Argentinos)

Primed to Rise

Discussing the history of women in Latin American militaries in general, or navies in particular, would require a volume to do it proper justice. Focusing on senior officers, there are already women who have managed to achieve high-ranking positions in various Latin American navies, but their numbers are few. There are two in Brazil, including Rear Admiral Dalva Mendes and Rear Admiral Luciana Mascarenhas da Costa Marroni, and Rear Admiral Mayra Alicia Díaz of the Dominican Republic’s Navy. Another female admiral can be found in Venezuela, Admiral Érika Virgüez Oviedo, who also serves as a deputy defense minister for the regime of Nicolas Maduro.

Rear Admiral Luciana Mascarenhas da Costa Marroni of the Brazilian Navy (BBC News Brasil)

In an interview with the author, Vice Admiral (ret.) Omar Eduardo Andujar-Zaiter of the Dominican Republic’s Navy (DRN), highlighted how in the Caribbean nation’s navy there are already female personnel whose ranks range from ensign to admiral. He added that while currently there are no female commanders of vessels, “it’s just a matter of time before this occurs.”

Hopefully, with more young women enlisting and many already currently deployed aboard ships, more Latin American vessels will be commanded by female officers in the near future. One example can be found in Colombia, where in 2018, for the first time an overwhelming majority of female cadets  (51 in total and three men) were aboard the navy’s training vessel ARC Gloria as part of a training exercise. Hopefully several of these young cadets will have the opportunity to command their own ship in the coming years.

One clear obstacle preventing more women from obtaining high-ranking positions is that navies, along with other services and careers, have limited the types of fields that women can join, hence limiting how high up the chain of command they can go. A December 2019 article in Americas Quarterly, entitled “Why It’s Essential to Have More Women in Latin America’s Militaries,” explains how “high-ranking female officers in Latin America are few in number. Some have served as doctors, teachers and computer scientists, but training for roles directly involved in security is still almost exclusively left for males.” A March 2020 report in the BBC’s Portuguese service about the history of women in the Brazilian Navy mentions how Rear Admiral Mendes focused on health services while Rear Admiral da Costa Marroni concentrated on engineering and telecommunications.

Without a doubt there is still a long way to go for greater gender equality amongst Latin American defense forces. An April 2019 article by Plaza Publica discusses the lack of female generals (or admirals) in the Guatemalan armed forces. Gender discrimination is still an ever-present problem that needs to be tackled.

It is important that female navy officers are now commanding vessels, not only because of this achievement in and of itself, but also because these types of posts will help them advance even more in their careers.

Conclusion

The Uruguayan Navy now has its very first female ship commander – an important achievement for  Captain Sorrenti, the Uruguayan Navy, and Latin American navies in general. There are already female admirals in the region, but female commanders of vessels are still a rarity. Hence the importance of female officers commanding ships in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Peru cannot be overstated.

As Latin American navies undergo modernization, with a focus on operating more domestically-manufactured vessels and submarines, it is similarly important to monitor who is commanding them. “Female naval personnel in the DRN have maintained the strictest standards of conduct,” explains Vice Admiral Andujar-Zaiter, thanks to which false paradigms and orthodox myths about women in the armed forces have been debunked. Without a doubt, only the most capable officers should lead a ship, and female Latin American naval officers are proving that they are more than up to the challenge.

Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is an analyst who focuses on international security and geopolitics. The views expressed in this article belong the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: Capitán de Corbeta Valeria Sorrenti of the Uruguayan Navy taking command of the minesweeper Audaz (Uruguyan Ministry of National Defense)

Asian Fishing Fleets Commit Yet Another Illegal Fishing Incident in Argentine Waters

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“My plain and simple message to our friends in the region is ‘the United States is a reliable and trustworthy security partner….Latin America and the Caribbean are not our backyard. It’s our shared neighborhood… And like the neighborhood … where I grew up, good neighbors respect each other’s sovereignty, treat each other as equal partners with respect, and commit to a strong neighborhood watch.”  Vice Admiral Craig Faller, USN,  before the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Sep. 25, 2018. 

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

The Argentine Coast Guard stopped a South Korean trawler that was allegedly operating without authorization in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in early February. The non-violent operation highlights how Asian fleets are willing to travel long distances in order to make a profit, and how Latin American navies and coast guards need to be more focused than ever before on combating unauthorized fishing.

The O Yang 77

The latest international fishing incident in Argentine waters occurred when the South Korean trawler O Yang 77 was detected by Argentine authorities, which deployed PNA Doctor Manuel Matilla (GC-24), a Mantilla-class patrol boat, to stop said vessel. According to Infobae, the vessel was detected around Chubut province, in the Southern part of Argentina, with its nets down. Aboard the vessel, Argentine authorities found some 130 tonnes of fish. A 11 February video posted on the Argentine coast guard’s Twitter account shows the  O Yang 77 docked in the South American country’s Comodoro  Rivadavia port.

South Korean authorities argue that the vessel, which belongs to Sajo Oyang Corporation, did not violate Argentina’s EEZ.

Illegal Fishing and Incidents

The aforementioned incident highlights one obvious fact: illegal, unauthorized and unregulated (IUU) fishing does not occur simply because Latin American and Caribbean fishing vessels break the law, but extra-regional vessels, particularly large fleets from Asian nations, are willing to travel long distances in order to make a profit and satisfy their nation’s demands.

Previous commentaries by the author noted the problem of IUU fishing in Latin America (see CIMSEC’s Latin American Navies Combat Illegal Fishing”), of which Chinese fleets are repeated offenders. For example, in 2016 the Argentine Coast Guard shot at and sank a Chinese fishing vessel, Lu Yan Yuan Yu, which was part of a larger fleet operating in Argentina’s EEZ. The following year, the Chinese vessel Fu Yuang Yu Leng 999 was spotted close to the Galapagos Islands and detained by Ecuadorian authorities. An inspection discovered over 300 tons of a variety of fishes, particularly hammerhead and silky sharks as well as other endangered species (see CIMSEC’s “A Growing Concern: Chinese Illegal Fishing in Latin America”). A year later, in late 2018, Peruvian authorities stopped the Chinese vessel Runda 608 for fishing without authorization in Peruvian waters.

Ironically, at the time of this writing, yet another incident regarding Asian fishing fleets occurred in the South Atlantic. In mid-February, the patrol boat Mantilla was once again called into action, this time to help the Zhongyuanyu 11, a Chinese fishing boat that collided with the Spanish fishing vessel Pesca Vaqueiro, some 16 km outside Argentina’s EEZ. The Argentine platform was deployed to rescue the crew of the sinking Chinese ship, while the Spanish vessel apparently did not suffer significant damage. These incidents highlight the constant presence of extra-regional fishing vessels in the South Atlantic.

How are Regional Governments and Navies Reacting?

Unsurprisingly, whenever a major illegal fishing incident occurs, there is an understandable public outcry and regional governments promise to protect a country’s maritime resources. For example, after the Lu Yan Yuan Yu incident in the Galapagos Islands, the Ecuadorian Navy deployed its submarine Huancavilca to help combat unauthorized fishing. Quito also reportedly sent a formal letter of protest to Chinese authorities about the incident, though it is unclear (and highly doubtful) if any measures have been implemented to avoid future violations of Ecuador’s maritime sovereignty by Chinese vessels.

Successfully and efficiently protecting an EEZ is not easy. Additional vessels for navies and coast guards would certainly be helpful and, to be fair, several Latin American nations continue to upgrade and expand their navies. For example Argentina has confirmed the purchase of four French offshore patrol vessels; Brazil has purchased a carrier (see CIMSEC’s “Atlantico: Brazil’s New Carrier”) and is constructing submarines; Mexico has constructed a long-rang patrol vessel and various OPVs; and Peru is constructing a second landing platform dock, BAP Paita.

However, it is also necessary to obtain aerial platforms that can help monitor and intercept suspicious vessels faster. Space programs can be additionally helpful to locate suspicious ships as well – the Chinese vessel Runda 608 was reportedly located via space-based capabilities. In other words, the answer is not just adding more ships to a fleet to successfully combat illegal fishing; aerial platforms and even space technology are also critically important.

Moreover, governments have a vital role to play. Robust legislation to combat IUU fishing is necessary, such as heavy fines or even prison time for offenders, but there also has to be action at the diplomatic level when illegal fishing is conducted across national borders. It will be important to monitor whether Buenos Aires confronts Seoul over the latest incident, though it is unlikely as Buenos Aires-Beijing relations remain the same after the Fu Yuang Yu Leng 999 incident.

As a corollary to this analysis there is an ironic detail worth highlighting: in late January the Argentine news service Ambito reported that South Korea is planning to donate an Ulsan-class frigate to Argentina. This report has been frequently cited in other media outlets. Such a move is not without precedent as Seoul donated a corvette to Peru a few years ago as well. It will be interesting to see if Seoul does in fact donate a warship to Buenos Aires, which would likely be utilized for patrol operations to crack down on maritime crimes in Argentina’s EEZ, such as illegal fishing.

Final Thoughts

The O Yang 77 incident will not be the last time that Asian fleets fish without authorization in Latin American waters as these vessels constantly operate in the South Atlantic – this is best demonstrated by the collision between the Zhongyuanyu 11 and the  Pesca Vaqueiro just days after the  arrest of the O Yang 77. Demographic growth, the eternal quest for profit, and depleting maritime life in other bodies of water mean that extra-regional fleets will travel great distances for new sources of fish. 

It is bad enough when illegal fishing occurs domestically (e.g. a Peruvian fishing vessel operating illegally in Peruvian waters) or across regional borders (e.g. a Ecuadorian vessel ilegally fishing in Peruvian waters). The scope of IUU fishing by Asian fishing fleets could help bring about the destruction of an already fragile Latin American maritime ecosystem.

Latin American navies and coast guards are the tip of the spear in combating IUU fishing, and they have a mighty opponent in front of them.

Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is an analyst who focuses on geopolitical, military, and cybersecurity issues. He tweets at @W_Alex_Sanchez.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: Coast Guard patrol GC-24 Mantilla. (Mercopress)

USNS Comfort’s Latest Humanitarian Mission Throughout Latin America

The Southern Tide

Written by W. Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It discusses the challenges regional navies face including limited defense budgets, inter-state tensions, and transnational crimes. It also examines how these challenges influence current and future defense strategies, platform acquisitions, and relations with global powers.

“My plain and simple message to our friends in the region is ‘the United States is a reliable and trustworthy security partner….Latin America and the Caribbean are not our backyard. It’s our shared neighborhood… And like the neighborhood … where I grew up, good neighbors respect each other’s sovereignty, treat each other as equal partners with respect, and commit to a strong neighborhood watch.”  Vice Admiral Craig Faller, USN,  before the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Sep. 25, 2018. 

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

Introduction

USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) has finished another deployment to the Western Hemisphere as part of the Enduring Promise initiative. The U.S. hospital ship’s latest tour took it to Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, and Peru where it provided free medical assistance to thousands of individuals in need. This is an example of medical diplomacy at work and a great initiative to improve U.S.-Latin American relations at a time when more cohesion among governments in the Western Hemisphere is needed.

Current Deployment

Comfort is a large vessel, with a length of 894 feet and a beam of 105 feet, the same as its sister ship, USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) – the two are converted San Clemente-class super tankers. According to the U.S. Navy, each platform “contain[s] 12 fully-equipped operating rooms, a 1,000 bed hospital facility, digital radiological services, a medical laboratory, a pharmacy, an optometry lab, a CAT-scan and two oxygen producing plants,” along with helicopter decks. Hence, the vessel is able to provide for vast numbers of patients simultaneously with different services. The vessel’s most recent tour, the sixth time that it has been deployed to the region, lasted 11 weeks.

Comfort was well-received by the local populations. For example, the vessel was in the city of Esmeraldas, Ecuador, from 22-26 October. According to the Ecuadorian Ministry of Defense the medical staff attended between 500-750 per day, while a Southern Command press release stated that “Comfort has treated more than 4,000 patients, including nearly 2,500 medical patients, 1,100 optometry patients, 450 dental patients, and performed 81 surgeries.” An Ecuadorian ministry press release explained “The arrival of the vessel is part of the strengthening of defense relations between Ecuador and the USA.”

Comfort then traveled to Paita, in northern Peru, where it treated over 5,000 patients, according to the Peruvian government. The U.S. hospital ship also donated wheelchairs and medical supplies. The Peruvian government noted that this is the third time that Comfort has visited Peru, in 2011 it provided medical assistance to 7,352 patients, and in 2007, it aided 9,223 Peruvian citizens.

TRUJILLO, Honduras (Dec. 10, 2018) – Hospitalman Eric Trybus, from Oklahoma City, Okla., helps a patient walk to a medical station to receive treatment at one of two medical sites. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman J. Keith Wilson/Released)

The vessel’s stops in Colombia and Honduras had similarly positive results. In Colombia, the U.S. hospital ship docked in Turbo (Antioquia) and then Riohacha (La Guajira), with the local government estimating that some 7,400 patients were treated by Comfort’s medical staff. As a final point, it is worth noting that the citizens of these nations were not the only ones to receive treatment aboard Comfort. Case in point, while in Colombia medical personnel also helped Venezuelan migrants who have settled in Riohacha as they flee the political and socio-economic crisis in their homeland.

Discussion 

Enduring Promise is an example of a medical diplomacy initiative that helps promote a positive image of the U.S. In this case, the people that were helped by Comfort, along with their families and other loved ones, will likely now have a more positive view of the U.S. and its military due to the free and professional medical services they received. An indigenous person from the Wayuu ethnic community in Colombia described Comfort’s visit as a “blessing from God” as it helped vulnerable communities, peasants, and Venezuelan migrants, according to Colombia’s daily El Nacional. Even more, governments also get a load taken off their shoulders, as Comfort provided services that local medical services could not offer, or were too financially costly for families to afford. For the U.S. and its partners, this was a win-win situation.

One important fact to mention is that Comfort visited Ecuador. A few years ago, when former President Rafael Correa was in power, this trip would have been unthinkable, as the former South American leader was known for his anti-U.S. sentiments. He famously expelled the U.S. military from its base in Manta, in 2009, and he was a close ally of the late-Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

Nevertheless, President Lenin Moreno has carried out a complete turnaround to Ecuador’s foreign policy by rapproaching the U.S. In recent months, the Ecuadorian Esmeraldas-class corvette BAE Los Ríos (CM 13) participated in the U.S.-sponsored UNITAS multinational exercise in Colombia, personnel from the U.S. Naval Small Craft Instruction and Technical Training School visited the South American country, and Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrin has visited the headquarters of U.S. Southern Command. Comfort’s visit, thus, is the proverbial cherry on top of the cake of improving bilateral relations.

As for Honduras, the visit is likewise significant as a caravan of Central American migrants, mostly Hondurans, is attempting to enter the U.S. as they escape poverty and violence in their homeland. Comfort’s visit to the Central American state is an example of SOUTHCOM and the U.S. Navy providing humanitarian aid to Hondurans in need, irrespective of the rhetoric coming out of Washington lately. Hence, it is refreshing to read SOUTHCOM’s 25 October communique, which explains that “the embarked medical team will provide care on board and at land-based medical sites, helping to relieve pressure on national medical systems caused partly by an increase in cross-border migrants. The deployment reflects the United States’ enduring promise of friendship, partnership and solidarity with the Americas.”

China’s Peace Ark 

As a caveat to this analysis, it is necessary to mention China’s hospital ship, Peace Ark. In a previous CIMSEC commentary, “The Significance of U.S. and Chinese Hospital Ship Deployments to Latin America,” the author discussed how both Washington and Beijing utilize their hospital vessels as diplomatic tools in order to improve their image in countries that said ships visit during their humanitarian tours. As it turns out, both ships would be deployed simultaneously to the Western Hemisphere. While Comfort visited the aforementioned nations, Peace Ark visited Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Venezuela. Even more, on 15 November the Ecuadorian Ministry of Defense announced that the vessel had docked in Guayaquil to provide medical assistance to as many as 3,200 patients.

While governments are free to decide which vessels from foreign powers can enter their ports, it is impossible to avoid the irony that the hospital vessels of two nations that continue to be at odds with each other, from trade wars to incidents in Asian waters, are back-to-back welcomed in the territory of third-party states. As a result, Ecuadorians living in the Esmeraldas and Guayaquil regions enjoyed free medical services from two rival powers, while Quito maintains good relations with both nations.

Final Thoughts 

Medical diplomacy is an effective way to improve bilateral ties between the U.S. and its Latin American allies. Comfort’s visit to four Latin American nations, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, and Peru will improve the U.S. image at the grassroot level, as the citizens of these nations that received free and professional medical service will know that, irrespective of the current rhetoric coming out of Washington, U.S. medical personnel are still there to help those in need.

Wilder Alejandro Sanchez is a researcher who focuses on geopolitical, military and cyber security issues in the Western Hemisphere. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

Featured Image: TRUJILLO, Honduras (Dec. 6, 2018) – The hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) is anchored off the coast of Honduras as part of an 11-week medical support mission to Central and South America as part of U.S. Southern Command’s Enduring Promise initiative. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Scott Bigley)