All posts by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez

The Vibrant Military (and Criminal) Activities Across the Caribbean Sea

By Wilder Alejandro Sánchez

Written by Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, The Southern Tide addresses maritime security issues throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. The column discusses regional navies’ challenges, 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.

Whether [working] against COVID, transnational criminal organizations, the predatory actions of China, the malign influence of Russia, or natural disasters, there’s nothing we cannot overcome or achieve through an integrated response with our interagency allies and partners.” – General Laura J. Richardson, Commander, U.S. Southern Command

While the Caribbean Sea is currently not as dangerous as the Black Sea or the Red Sea, from combating drug trafficking and illegal fishing to humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations to a belligerent Nicolas Maduro regime in Venezuela, Caribbean naval forces have many daily missions and priorities. The United States, via US Southern Command and the US Coast Guard, and the armed forces of France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom – which have overseas territories across the Caribbean – are all present across Caribbean waters and are critical partners of regional defense forces.

This commentary briefly summarizes the joint military Caribbean exercises scheduled for 2024 and other recent high-level meetings to understand the concrete actions regional armed forces are carrying out to tackle the region’s threats and challenges.

Exercises and Training…

Two major multinational military exercises will take place in the Caribbean. Later this year, the US-sponsored multinational military exercise Tradewinds 2024 will occur, with Barbados serving as the host. The Main Planning Conference (MPC) commenced in Bridgetown on January 29. “The main planning conference for Tradewinds 24 underscores our collective commitment to fostering regional security and stability,” said Maj. Angela Valcin, the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) lead planner for Tradewinds 2024. The following “pivotal juncture” in the Tradewinds planning process will be the final planning conference in March, explained the Command.

Also this year, France will organize the multinational Caribbean exercise Caraibes 2024, which will take place on June 1-6. The January 23-24 planning conference held at the Joint Staff of the Forces Armées aux Antilles had representatives of the armed forces from the United States, Canada, Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Netherlands, as well as numerous other state partners and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The maneuvers are focused “on a scenario involving assistance to the population following a natural disaster affecting the French Caribbean islands.”

Caribbean navies, along with several partners, also train via exercise Event Horizon, a multinational, multi-agency event aimed at strengthening the capacity of Caribbean and Central American countries in areas like maritime law enforcement, aeronautical and maritime research, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR). The 2024 version of the exercise included troops and assets from the Royal Bahamas Defence Force (RBDF), Jamaica Defence Force (JDF), Cayman Island Coast Guard, Turk and Caicos Islands Regiment, the Dominican Republic Navy, and the Belize Coast Guard, in addition to the Colombian Navy and Canadian Armed Forces.

Bilateral maneuvers also occur with regularity, including passing exercises (PASSEX). The French patrol vessel La Combattante trained with the Colombian Oceanic Patrol Vessel ARC Victoria as part of exercise Royal Tucan in January 2024. A Colombian aircraft of undisclosed model and ships assigned to the Colombian Coast Guard also participated in the Caribbean exercises. “Operation Toucan Royal is part of a strategy to combat drug trafficking by sea and its related crimes;” the two navies are engaged in “operational and naval training activities… to enhance the capabilities of the two institutions and improve interoperability,” explained the Colombian Navy. Royal Tucan 2024 was the second iteration of the exercise.

In other words, there is plenty of year-round training across Caribbean waters. The three major Caribbean-focused multinational maneuvers are Tradewinds, Caraibes, and Event Horizon, but there are several bilateral exercises, such as Royal Tucan. (While a land-based exercise, it is also worth mentioning exercise Red Stripe between the JDF and British Army, which took place in January 2024.)

….And Meetings

Finally, while summits between Caribbean presidents and prime ministers with their US and European peers do not occur often, there is robust communication between these militaries. Just this past January, the 4th United Kingdom and Caribbean Heads of Defence Conference took place in Guyana to discuss issues including regional security.

As for the US, Southern Command’s commander, US Army General Laura Richardson, participated in the Caribbean Nations Security Conference 2023, co-organized by Southern Command and the Jamaica Defence Force, last June 2023. A total of 16 nations from across the Caribbean, plus the United States, participated. More recently, the 2023 Caribbean-US High-Level Security Cooperation Dialogue took place last November. A dialogue statement announced how the participating governments pledged to cooperate on issues like maritime law enforcement and maritime security and defense. Specific topics addressed included commencing the implementation of the Caribbean Maritime Security Strategy “to advance sustainable and complementary defense and law enforcement cooperation, improve maritime operational capacity and security,” and also to “employ Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) technology to identify and disrupt illicit networks and more effectively detect illicit maritime activity throughout the Region.”

The examples above highlight constant communication, apart from training, between Caribbean defense forces and their partners.

Ships and More Ships

Apart from the importance of training and high-level meetings, several Caribbean defense forces are in the process of obtaining new vessels to modernize their fleets: the Guyana Defence Force is awaiting to receive a patrol vessel purchased from the US shipyard Metal Shark; the Royal Bahamas Defence Force has purchased four craft from Safe Boats International; and the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) commissioned its new offshore patrol vessel, HMJS Norman Stanley, in November 2023. While acquisition programs are not as splendid as those of global naval powers or regional powers like Brazil, which is domestically manufacturing submarines and frigates, Caribbean militaries are slowly revamping their naval fleets. With that said, regional militaries require more (modern) ships at sea to properly patrol their vast territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.

The limited size of Caribbean fleets means that regional and extra-regional partners are critical partners. SOUTHCOM, via the US Fourth Fleet and the US Coast Guard, already carries out continuous operations across the Caribbean. (In previous analyses for CIMSEC, the author had proposed that SOUTHCOM should be permanently assigned a hospital ship and one, if not two, littoral combat ships.) Similarly, the three European states with Caribbean territories deploy assets to the region. The Netherlands, for example, has a rotating offshore patrol vessel in the Dutch Caribbean, in addition to the Dutch Caribbean Coast Guard. In January, the Dutch military’s General Atomic MQ9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles flew their final surveillance missions across the Dutch Caribbean before their new deployment in Romania. 


While the Caribbean does not receive the attention it deserves in Washington, militaries and coast guards have been active across these waters in January 2024 alone, with several important maritime operations: the Dutch Caribbean Coast Guard deployed a Metal Shark patrol vessel and a helo to intercept a small speedboat between Little Curacao and Curacao islands; aboard were packages totaling over 218 kilograms of cocaine. Similarly, The JDF Coast Guard intercepted a vessel transporting “2,600 pounds of ganja;” the operation represents “a major dent against the drug-for-guns trade between Jamaica and Haiti.” As the violence and instability in Haiti will not improve anytime soon, it is important for Caribbean navies and coast guards to have larger, and more modern, maritime and air assets to patrol their own waters to combat crimes related to Haiti.

Also in January, the US Coast Guard Cutter Resolute (WMEC 620) docked in Saint Petersburg, Florida, completing a 60-day mission. The Cutter unloaded “approximately $55 million worth of illicit narcotics” during its operations as part of Joint Interagency Task Force-South. The same month, the Coast Guard Cutter Margaret Norvell (WPC-1105) “offloaded more than 2,450 pounds of cocaine with an assessed street value of approximately $32.2 million” in two separate missions. Drug trafficking continues to be rampant across the Caribbean waters. Hence, Navy and Coast Guard vessels voyaging the seas, not to mention maritime patrol aircraft and UAVs serving as a vital eye in the sky, are necessary to crack down on this never-ending crime. Vessels and supporting aircraft are essential to combat other maritime crimes, such as illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, piracy, or smuggling of weapons or human trafficking.

Moreover, HADR operations are vital during the annual hurricane season in the summer months. Past hurricanes like Irma in 2017Dorian in 2019, and Eta and Iota in 2020 devastated Caribbean islands and Central America. As this article was being written, the international media reported that scientists are proposing hurricanes have a Category 6 (the current maximum is Category 5), given that climate change will increase their strength and destructiveness in the coming years. Cooperation and experience to work jointly will be critical when, inevitably, Category 6 hurricanes hit the Caribbean and militaries, including extra-regional partners, are deployed to the frontlines of HADR operations.

While inter-state conflict remains unlikely, the Maduro regime in Venezuela remains a security concern, certainly not for the United States, with threats to neighboring military-weaker Guyana especially concerning. The collusion between the Maduro regime and drug-trafficking cartels makes the regime even more of a regional and global concern. In late 2023, the British patrol vessel HMS Trent voyaged by Guyanese waters to support Georgetown against controversial and belligerent statements and actions by the Nicolas Maduro regime, including a December 2023 referendum.

This year is already shaping up to be full of capacity training and joint interoperability training for Caribbean naval forces, given exercises Tradewinds, Caraibes, and Event Horizon, not to mention several bilateral exercises. While the situation across the Caribbean is not as dire as the Black Sea or the Red Sea, its geographical proximity to the US, the plethora of regional allies, the ever-present drug trafficking (among other crimes), and upcoming natural disasters mean that Washington should provide relevant agencies and partners with more assets and resources.

Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is an analyst who focuses on international defense, security, and geopolitical issues across the Western Hemisphere, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. He is the President of Second Floor Strategies, a consulting firm in Washington, DC, and a non-resident Senior Associate at the Americas Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies. Follow him on X/Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

Featured Image: Belize Defense Force, Meixcan Marines, and US Marines conduct culminating exercises including vehicle takedown, search and seizure, arrest, riot control, and building raids May 19, 2022 at Belize Police Training Academy for Tradewinds 2022 (Belizian government photo by Spc. Emiliano Alcorta). 

The Uruguayan Navy: Preparing for the 21st century

By Wilder Alejandro Sanchez

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.

“Whether [working] against COVID, transnational criminal organizations, the predatory actions of China, the malign influence of Russia, or natural disasters, there’s nothing we cannot overcome or achieve through an integrated response with our interagency allies and partners.” – General Laura J. Richardson, Commander, U.S. Southern Command

In a speech to commemorate the service’s sea day (Día de la Fuerza de Mar) on August 21, Uruguayan Navy Captain Daniel Di Bono stated, “Starting today, it is time to start writing another page of this story. Ours, [the story] of the older ones, those of the Frigates, the Minesweepers, the [marine research vessel] Vanguardia, is already coming to an end. The period of modern, agile, and flexible ocean patrol vessels, coastal patrol vessels, and scientific vessels is approaching.”

Navies constantly evolve due to new challenges, objectives, visions, and realities. However, analysts rarely witness a sharp evolution of a Navy and its fleet. The Uruguayan Navy is undergoing that process, and as a reliable U.S. ally, Washington needs to understand what is going on and why.

Out With the Old, In With the New

For decades, the Uruguayan Navy operated one of the oldest fleets in South America. Aside from landlocked Bolivia and Paraguay and not considering Guyana and Suriname (more generally associated with the Caribbean), Uruguay is the only South American country that does not possess submarines. The fleet’s flagship is the Luneburg-class logistics vessel ROU 04 General Artigas, launched in the 1960s. The service has decommissioned several in recent years, including its only frigate, the former ROU 01 Uruguay – formerly Portugal’s Comandante Joao Belo (F480). In other words, currently, the Navy has no main combat ships.

On the other hand, the service is receiving new(ish) vessels. In late 2022, the Uruguayan Navy commissioned three Marine Protector-class patrol boats formerly operated by the United States Coast Guard. The three ships are already operating across Uruguayan waters: ROU 14 Río Arapey, ROU 15 Río de la Plata, and ROU 16 Río Yaguarón. Moreover, after around a decade of negotiations, brand-new ships are on the horizon. In July, the Ministry of Defense announced that two offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) will be purchased from a Spanish shipyard. Crucially, the OPVs will be capable of carrying helicopters, an ability that the fleet currently lacks.

Three former Coast Guard cutters, now serving the Uruguay Navy as ROU-14 Rio Arapey, ROU-15 Rio de La Plata and ROU-16 Rio Yaguaron, stop at Coast Guard Sector San Juan Sept. 24, 2022, during their more than two-month transit from Baltimore to Uruguay. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Capt. Robert Pirone)

Uruguay is scheduled to hold general elections in October 2024. Therefore, one can only hope that the OPV acquisition will be confirmed and all necessary agreements signed so the deal does not fall victim to traditional election-related debates and delays.

Evolving Challenges

A fact mentioned earlier deserves more analysis – the Uruguayan Navy does not possess subs and currently does operate heavy warships in its fleet. As discussed in Captain Di Bono’s speech, that era is ending for this service. Geopolitics is a reason for this statement: Uruguay borders two countries, Argentina and Brazil, and bilateral relations are quite strong. For example, the Brazilian Ministry of Defense has donated M41C Walker Bulldog tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery platforms to the Uruguayan Army. The likelihood of an inter-state war is minimal; therefore, as the Uruguayan officials have also stated, the Navy’s necessity to operate cruisers and minesweepers is similarly minimal. Dr. Andrea Resende, associate professor at Brazil’s University Center of Belo Horizonte (UNIBH), explained to CIMSEC that “there is some tension between Argentina and Uruguay, however not like in the previous decades. Yet, Brazil has always played a third party during conflicts and tensions in the region because the stability of its borders frontiers depends on a peaceful environment.”

To promote close military relations, from September 11-15, the navies of Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay carried out a new iteration of an academic exercise on trilateral warfare (Juego de Guerra Trilateral) in Carrasco, Uruguay. “The Trilateral War Game, carried out annually, was designed to allow interaction in the formulation, analysis and solution of international crisis problems in the South Atlantic region, based on a fictitious situation, using naval forces,” explains the Argentine Navy’s publication Gaceta Maritima.

Nowadays, the Uruguayan Navy is evolving into a smaller, faster, more modern fleet. What are its challenges? Controlling the country’s vast maritime waters is critical to combat illegal, unreported, or unregulated (IUU) fishing and other maritime crimes like drug trafficking and smuggling. In other words, protecting Uruguay’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from non-interstate threats is critical.

Having OPVs that carry helicopters will also be helpful for interdiction operations and search-and-rescue missions. Smaller craft can also operate along some of Uruguay’s rivers for security and patrol operations and to participate in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) missions. It is worth noting that the Navy has created a tactical operations center (Centro de Operaciones Tácticas: COT) that oversees the deployment of surface and aerial assets to combat illegal maritime activities.

Dr. Resende warned of a potential spillover effect from the other side of the Atlantic: “While piracy, robbery, and hijacking are major problems in the Gulf of Guinea, they can overflow across the entire region, so there is a need for the South Atlantic navies to be ready and to participate in joint exercises and operations,” to maintain their readiness and to be able to work together. In other words, having a smaller fleet does not mean giving up some capabilities, particularly regarding maritime law enforcement and patrol.

With that said, there will always be a need for heavier, more specialized ships. Science is a good reason for having them. The Uruguayan Navy has an active role in scientific and oceanographic research, but unfortunately, the scientific vessel ROU 22 Oyarvide was decommissioned in 2022 without a replacement ready. While not a priority as compared to the OPVs, Montevideo must assign financial assets to acquire a new scientific vessel soon. Moreover, Uruguay has a robust presence in Antarctica, and General Artigas participated in the country’s recent 2022/2023 Antarctic campaign. Upon its return to Montevideo in February, Defense Minister Javier García noted, “[Artigas] was a ship that had not sailed since 2018, which was overhauled, the things that needed to be fixed were fixed, and it once again provided an essential service in an Antarctic mission.” In other words, the Uruguayan Navy has a critical role in scientific operations across Uruguayan and Antarctic waters; therefore, scientific and polar-capable vessels must be components of the future fleet.

The service has yet to disclose when the ancient Artigas will be decommissioned. The ship is currently the fleet’s heaviest vessel, so a similar platform will be needed to replace it for local transportation operations and Uruguay’s future Antarctic campaigns.

Montevideo-Washington Relations: Moving Forward

Finally, a word about U.S.-Uruguay naval relations is necessary. They may not be as constant as the U.S. Navy’s and U.S. Coast Guard’s presence across the Greater Caribbean, but they exist. The donation of the Marine Protector vessels to the Uruguayan Navy and helicopters to the Uruguayan Air Force over the past two years are an excellent example of close bilateral defense relations.

Moreover, in February, the U.S. Coast Guard Legend-class cutter Stone’s (WMSL-758) visit to Montevideo port coincided with the 70th anniversary of the mutual defense cooperation agreement signed between the two countries in 1953. “The agreement served as the foundation for the long history of cooperation between the two democracies in defense equipment, training, and peacekeeping operations around the world that continues to thrive today,” explained the U.S. embassy in Uruguay in a press release.

Given the ongoing war in Ukraine (and news of successful attacks against Russian ships and submarines), tensions with China, and regular incidents at sea with Iran, it may appear puzzling for Washington that a Navy can operate without frigates or submarines. However, the geopolitics of Latin America and the Caribbean differ from other areas of the world. In particular, inter-state relations between Uruguay with Argentina and Brazil remain strong in the South Atlantic. The participation in joint exercises by these three militaries is an effective confidence-building mechanism.

“One can never predict the future [but a military service must be] prepared for whatever may come. And this is the case for Uruguay. Even if we live in a relative state of peace, the maritime space is threatened daily with cyberattacks, IUU fishing, piracy, and illegal trafficking,” concluded Dr. Resende. Smaller but faster and more modern ships, with more interdiction and surveillance capabilities, will be the pillars of the Uruguayan Navy’s fleet in the 21st century. The threats may be changing, but the mission remains the same.

Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is an analyst who focuses on international defense, security, and geopolitical issues across the Western Hemisphere, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. He is the President of Second Floor Strategies, a consulting firm in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez

Featured Image: The Uruguayan naval frigate Uruguay (ROU 1) transits the Atlantic Ocean. (Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Daniel Barker.)

Hospital Ships: A Vital Asset for SOUTHCOM and South American Navies

By Wilder Alejandro Sánchez

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.

“Whether [working] against COVID, transnational criminal organizations, the predatory actions of China, the malign influence of Russia, or natural disasters, there’s nothing we cannot overcome or achieve through an integrated response with our interagency allies and partners.” –General Laura J. Richardson, Commander, U.S. Southern Command

The hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) has returned to Latin American waters, as the vessel carried out a medical assistance mission across the Caribbean from October to December 2022. This is the first time in years Comfort has been in the region since the pandemic begun. Other South American navies also have hospital vessels that carry out similar missions, primarily for their domestic populations. Hospital ships are some of the region’s most vital yet underappreciated assets, while also being one of the most tangible elements of how many regional populations interact with navies. The U.S. and regional countries should consider the benefits of hospital ship operations with a view toward potentially investing in more of these valuable vessels.

Comfort Returns

As part of Operation Continuing Promise 2022 (CP2022), organized by U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. 4th Fleet, the 1,000-bed hospital ship commissioned in 1986 visited Colombia, the Dominican Republic (DR), Guatemala, Haiti, and Honduras. The ship departed Naval Station Norfolk on October 19 and returned to Norfolk on December 21. As SOUTHCOM explained during the operation, “During these mission stops, Continuing Promise medical teams will focus on working alongside partner nation medical personnel to provide care on board and at land-based medical sites to increase medical readiness.”

Some medical services offered to Latin American and Caribbean citizens include preventive medicine, optometry screenings, general surgery, eye-wear distribution, and public health training. Comfort’s crew for CP2022 had military personnel from U.S. partners, including “Canada, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and more than a dozen non-governmental organizations.”

General Laura Richardson, who took command of SOUTHCOM in 2021, personally participated in the humanitarian mission. She traveled to Colombia when Comfort was there and visited the Dominican Republic to observe “the #USNSComfort’s #ContinuingPromise humanitarian mission & meet with security officials to discuss the USUS-#DominicanRepublic partnership,” SOUTHCOM tweeted on November 29.

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (Nov. 27, 2022) – The hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) sits anchored in the harbor of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic on Nov. 27, 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Deven Fernandez)

The CP2022 was Comfort’s eighth deployment to the region since 2007. Since 2007, Continuing Promise medical personnel have treated more than 582,000 people, and conducted more than 7,000 surgeries, SOUTHCOM notes.

Hospital Ships in South America

Comfort is not the only hospital vessel that operates in Latin American waters. A quick perusal finds several of these invaluable assets across regional navies.

Peru is a good example. The country’s shipyard SIMA has built a fleet of medical and social service ships (Plataformas Itinerantes de Acción Social: PIAS) that operate throughout Peru’s various rivers, with one platform, PIAS Lago Titicaca I, exclusively assigned to sail in Lake Titicaca, which Peru shares with Bolivia. The ships provide medical and state services, like issuing national IDs, and bank services. For example, Lago Titicaca set sail on November 14 from Puno port to assist the populations of Moho, Yunguyo, and Puno with 14 stops. This was the ship’s fourth tour in 2022 alone. 

The vessel PIAS Lake Titicaca I. (Photo via Peru Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion)

The Brazilian Navy operates several hospital ships (Navios de Assistência Hospitalar: NAsH): Doutor Montenegro (U16), Oswaldo Cruz (U19), Carlos Chagas (U19), Soares de Meirelles (U21), and Tenente Maximiano (U28). A new vessel, Anna Nery (U170), is currently in construction. Like Peru’s PIAS, these ships regularly sail through Brazilian rivers, providing medical assistance to isolated riverine communities.

Andrea Resende, Ph.D., an Associate Professor at the University Center of Belo Horizonte (UNIBH), explained to the author, four vessels operate in the Amazonian region, comprised by the 4th and 9th naval districts, and the NAsH Tenente Maximiano operates in the 6th District, the pantanal region. Doutor Montenegro carried out Operation Acre XXII in 2022, visiting indigenous and riverine communities in Acre and Amazonas states. With a crew of 85 military personnel and 29 health experts, the vessel provided a variety of services, like X-ray tests, surgeries, mammograms, testing for HIV, dengue, and malaria, and also providing vaccines.

Resende highlighted the importance of this fleet – “They are the main source of medical support for indigenous people and the ‘Riberinhos,’ a traditional population in Brazil… Considering that the Pantanal and the Amazonian region have large masses of water but low demographic distribution, the NAsH fleet is the only source of medical assistance that can reach those populations.” Helicopters can reach these communities with vital equipment and supplies, but the ships carry more personnel and capacity to provide services aboard.

The Brazilian Navy Hospital Assistance Ship Soares de Meirelles (U21) on the Rio Negro. The name is a tribute to Joaquim Cândido Xavier Soares de Meirelles, patron of the Health Corps of the Brazilian Navy. (Brazilian Navy photo by Cabo Jhonatan)

Resende noted that humanitarian operations carried out by the Brazilian Navy also rely on partnerships: “The Navy performs operations with the Unified Health System (SUS – the public health care system) and NGOs. For example, in November 2022, the NAsH Carlos Chagas operated with the NGO Operation Smile, bringing a multidisciplinary crew to treat patients with cleft lips/palate in the Amazonian Region,” she explained.

Another example is the Chilean Navy, which operates a medical patrol boat (Patrullero Médico Dental-74), Cirujano Videla. The vessel was commissioned in 1994 as a patrol vessel but was modified by the Chilean state-run shipyard ASMAR. In 2006, it was renamed and tasked with carrying out medical duties, in addition to other missions. From November 15-19, Videla assisted communities in Quellón and Queilen, Southern Chile. Since its recommissioning over a decade and a half ago, the vessel has provided “over 80,000 medical services ” to assist the population of Chile’s Chiloé archipelago.

Mario Pedreros, a retired officer of the Chilean Navy and vice president of the Washington DC-based The Georgetown Consulting Group, explained to this author that the Chilean Navy and the Chiloé health service signed a cooperation agreement via which Videla sails the archipelago composed of some 50 islands to assist local communities that can range from 20 to 200 people each. “The medical services provided in the Chiloé archipelago by PMD Videla are the only option residents have” to access medical services, Pedreros noted. Hence Videla’s deployments are “essential and an operation only the Navy can provide, and that is recognized and appreciated by residents.”

Chilean Navy Dental Medical Patrolman Cirujano Videla (PMD-74) (Chilean Navy photo)

Sailing Forward

Having hospital ships in a fleet brings obvious advantages during times of war. However, the navies of Brazil, Chile, and Peru utilize their hospital ships to routinely assist their fellow citizens. Similarly, Comfort is a significant expression of the U.S. desire to help people in need throughout the hemisphere. But more can be done to leverage these platforms and capitalize on the goodwill they have earned.

In a previous commentary, this author argued that SOUTHCOM should have a permanently-assigned hospital vessel. A similar argument can be made for Latin American navies. For Brazil and Peru, more riverine hospital ships are certainly welcome. It is a positive development that the PIAS fleet in Peru is fairly modern, as it was built over the past decade (an idea of former President Ollanta Humala), while Brazil is building Anna Nery – the first of the active fleet to have a female name, another positive development. Therefore, it is not unthinkable that Peru’s SIMA and a Brazilian shipyard could team in a joint venture to design a new model of riverine hospital ships. Similarly, as the Chilean Navy looks to upgrade its fleet of transportation vessels by domestically building new platforms at the Chilean state-run shipyard ASMAR, constructing an additional hospital ship is an idea that should not be overlooked. 

That said, regional navies indeed have multipurpose vessels that can be utilized for HA/DR operations or medical assistance. Peru has the Landing Platform Dock BAP Pisco (AMP-156), and its sister ship BAP Paita was launched on December 9. Similarly, Chile has other logistical platforms like transport vessel Aquiles (AP-41), Sargento Aldea (LSDH-91), Chacabuco (LST-95), and Rancagua (LST-92); “these are all logistical vessels with medical capabilities of varying degrees,” Pedreros noted. “Even the icebreaker [which local shipyard ASMAR is currently building] also has medical facilities,” the retired naval officer added.

When asked by the author if the Chilean Navy should invest in another hospital vessel like Videla, Pedreros noted, “nowadays, logistical vessels have various roles… and the new vessels of project Escotillón IV [a shipbuilding project also carried out by ASMAR] will have the capacity to carry medical beds for patients, and also medical equipment onboard, therefore increasing their [medical] capabilities.”

Building a hospital vessel is a complicated matter from a budgetary standpoint. Each Latin American Navy must consider its area of responsibilities and debate the requirements for hospital ships, including whether a single vessel is sufficient for distant operations. For Peru, having a fleet of PIAS is beneficial to cover the country’s vast Amazonian territory and Lake Titicaca, but multipurpose vessels are arguably sufficient for coastal HA/DR operations. The Brazilian Navy is in a similar situation. Nevertheless, acquiring at least one single but modern hospital ship that is capable of open-water operations could be vastly beneficial for several countries and fleets.

The work carried out by hospital ships throughout the Western Hemisphere has proven invaluable and delivered tangible humanitarian benefit. SOUTHCOM and Latin American navies should consider supporting the construction of more of these assets. The many civilians whose ailments will be addressed by the medical personnel aboard these vital maritime assets will undoubtedly thank them.

Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is an analyst who focuses on international security and geopolitics. He is the President of the new consulting firm Second Floor Strategies. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez.

Featured Image: Brazilian Navy Hospital Assistance Vessel Doutor Montenegro (U16) (Photo via Wikimedia Commons).

Naval Operations Across South American Rivers: The “Other” Theater of Operations

By Wilder Alejandro Sánchez

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.

“Whether [working] against COVID, transnational criminal organizations, the predatory actions of China, the malign influence of Russia, or natural disasters, there’s nothing we cannot overcome or achieve through an integrated response with our interagency allies and partners.” – General Laura J. Richardson, Commander, U.S. Southern Command

When thinking about navies, there is a natural tendency to focus on operations in the open sea and the role of carriers, frigates, and submarines. However, aside from protecting their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones, South American navies have another equally important theater of operation: inland water bodies like lakes and rivers.

The recently concluded riverine exercises ACRUX X and BRACOLPER and even last year’s UNITAS 2021 demonstrate the importance that regional navies place on inland bodies of water and riverine populations. Activities carried out by local navies, not to mention other armed services, including defense/security operations, combating crimes (illegal mining and smuggling are significant problems in the region), search and rescue, and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations. In South America, the armed forces help extend the reach of the state to areas where civilian agencies do not operate; navies utilize rivers as a system of complex highways via which they can move and operate just as efficiently as in the open sea.

Inland Water Bodies in South America

South America is home to many rivers like the Amazon, Orinoco, Parana, and Uruguay, not to mention lakes like Lake Titicaca. In several areas where roads are non-existent, rivers are vital for the movement of people and goods. Landlocked nations Bolivia and Paraguay also have navies tasked with protecting their rivers and lakes.

Given the dense web of rivers and tributaries blanketing South America, it is unsurprising that these bodies of water are used to determine borders between countries. For example, the Putumayo River creates a natural border between Colombia and Peru; the Uruguay River separates Argentina and Uruguay; while Parana and Iguazu Rivers make the famous “Triple Border” that unites Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. Finally, Lake Titicaca is shared between Bolivia and Peru.

In an interview with the author, Rear-Admiral (ret.) Máximo Pérez-León-Barreto, from the Argentine Navy, and current Director of Strategic Affairs for Fundación Argentina Global, explained how the maritime highway created by the Paraguay, Parana, and Uruguay rivers are a “free area of travel” along the border between Argentina and its neighbors. “For Argentina, this area is a prime source of resources [including water], a source of electricity, and where a significant part of our population lives.” Similarly, Andrea Resende, an Associate Professor at the University Center of Belo Horizonte (UNIBH) and Ph.D. candidate at the Pontifical Catholic University of Minas Gerais (PUC MINAS), explained to CIMSEC that in Brazil, there is about 60,000 km of waterways with 12 different drainage basins.

Like gold, oil, or land, waterways were previously a reason to go to war. In the case of Brazil, “the waterways were so important that the Imperial Brazilian Navy sent gunboats by the Paraná River to fight in the Paraguayan War (1864 – 1870), which resulted in the Riachuelo Battle (1865),” Resende explained. Anecdotally, the battle lends its name to Brazil’s first domestically manufactured submarine, the Riachuelo (S-40). While the Brazilian Navy is much more focused on its blue water capabilities these days, under its “Blue Amazon” initiative, rivers and lakes should not be overlooked by strategic planners. Resende noted that “with the publication of the White Book of Defense (2012) and the Navy’s Strategic Plan for 2040 (PEM 2040), released in 2020, the waterways have regained relevance in the strategic thought.” 

Operations across Rivers and Lakes

Listing all recent operations that South American navies have performed would be problematic due to space considerations. In recent months, several activities demonstrate the plethora of activities navies carry out across these inland bodies of water. For example, the Peruvian Navy, alongside the Army, Air Force, and Police, are combating illegal mining in the Madre de Dios region.

To crack down on crimes along the border with Brazil, the Bolivian Navy has deployed its special task force Diablos Azules (Blue Devils), including riverine ships Cf. Adrian Cuellar Claure (TM-247) and Ing. Alfonso Gumucio (TM-341), in addition to smaller craft. The platforms patrol the Ibare, Mamoré, Iténez, Machupo, and Blanco Rivers, routinely stopping and searching vessels on said rivers to locate potential contraband.

Similarly, Resende explains that “all kinds of illegal trafficking are present in the Brazilian Rivers,” including the trafficking of drugs, animals, people, illegal fishing, illegal logging, and illegal mining (gold, ore, and other minerals). In recent months there have been reports of illegal logging in the North of the country. “This is not a surprise since official reports from the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment (IMAZON), which coordinates programs to surveil the Amazon rain forest, claims that the illegal logging in the region is the highest in 15 years,” the Brazilian academic explained.

Navies are also involved in humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations. The Brazilian and Peruvian navies regularly deploy hospital ships across their rivers (and Lake Titicaca, in the case of Peru) to reach isolated coastal communities and provide medical services. The Bolivian Navy also has a hospital ship utilized for similar purposes.

Resende also added the vital work the Brazilian Navy has carried out during the COVID-19 pandemic. “They continuously delivered food, health care, and educational support for [riverine] communities. When the city of Manaus, capital of the Amazonia state, suffered an oxygen crisis in the middle of the pandemic… the Navy quickly established a mission to bring oxygen cylinders to the city with the help of the Air Force.” The service also took the lead in delivering vaccines when they became available across the country. A similar situation has occurred in Argentina; as Rear Admiral Pérez-León-Barreto explained, the Argentine Navy assists “communities that have limited connectivity [to the rest of the country] due to the geography, via sanitation campaigns” in coordination with other agencies.

Rivers can be used to transport equipment for social activities too. For example, the Colombian Navy’s riverine gunboat ARC Leticia recently concluded a trip through the Amazon River; the goal was to set up a portable projector to show a movie to the children of Puerto Narino municipality. This social initiative is called “Cine 90.”

Riverine Exercises

Brazil, Colombia, and Peru border each other, with the Amazon River crossing them all. Their navies carry out BRACOLPER, one of the oldest joint multinational exercises in the region, dating back to 1974.

This exercise is a critical confidence-building mechanism by which vessels from the three countries travel the Amazon, crossing international borders, providing medical assistance to local inhabitants, and carrying out joint maneuvers and security operations. BRACOLPER 2022 lasted 35 days, according to Brazilian Vice Admiral Thadeu Marcos Orosco Coelho Lobo, commander of the Navy’s 9th Naval District. He explained “annually we cover around five thousand kilometers, across the Maranõn, Negro, and Solimões Rivers [and we perform] tactical naval exercises for riverine operations, with a focus on command, control, and communications.”

The 2022 maneuvers were divided into three phases: phases I and II along the Maranõn River in Peru between Leticia (Colombia) and Iquitos (Peru), while phase III occurred in Amazonas (Brazil) along the Negro and Solimões Rivers. Around 400 military personnel from the three countries participated, including Brazil’s riverine patrol ships Raposo Tavares, Rondonia, and the hospital ship Oswaldo Cruz. Peru deployed the riverine vessel BAP Clavero (CF-15).

Multinational Exercise BRACOLPER took place across three countries. Photo credit: Peruvian Navy

The other major riverine exercise in South America is ACRUX. Its latest iteration took place along the Uruguay River, which separates Argentina and Uruguay, with Montevideo hosting the exercises, which lasted from 16-24 August 2022. Around 500 military personnel and naval and aerial platforms participated from Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, while Bolivia and Paraguay sent observers.

According to information provided to the author, the platforms deployed included three Uruguayan ships, Río Negro (ROU 11), scientific vessel Maldonado (ROU 23), and support vessel Banco Ortiz (ROU 27); two Argentine ships, multipurpose ship ARA Ciudad de Zárate (Q-61) and patrol vessel Río Santiago (P-66), and two Brazilian platforms, the riverine patrol ship Parnaíba (U 17) and riverine support vessel Pontengi (G 17). As for aerial platforms, Brazil sent one Ecureuil/Esquilo helicopter, while Uruguay deployed one Bell 412 helicopter and four fixed-wing aircraft from its naval aviation: two Beechcraft B-200 Super King Air, one Cessna O-2 Skymaster, and one Beechcraft T-34 Mentor.

The exercises took place in Fray Bentos, Uruguay. They included marine traffic control, in which the naval command from the three nations, plus assets in the water, worked together during simulated emergency alerts, issuing meteorological bulletins, and classifying vessels that passed through the River, among other activities.

Multinational Exercise ACRUX X in the Uruguay River. Photo credit: Ministry of Defense of Uruguay

Rear Adm Pérez-León-Barreto stressed the importance of riverine exercises like ACRUX, “they allow [navies] to maintain a high degree of coordination to understand risks, prevent them and mitigate the effects” of potential disasters or other incidents. Resende had a similar opinion about the importance of BRACOLPER and ACRUX, adding, “those exercises are an essential part not only of the Brazilian Navy but expresses the sentiment of the whole continent: cooperation is always the key.”

The United States military understands the importance of riverine operations for its South American partners. Case in point, in 2021, the famous multinational exercise UNITAS included an Amazon phase for the first time. UNITAS LXII-Amazon included naval personnel from Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay, the United States, and Peru, which hosted the exercises. The Amazon phase took place in the Peruvian Amazon, close to Iquitos. It included fast rope insertion from helicopters, riverine patrols, river-crossing in improvised craft, and insertion and extraction on riverine combat craft, among other maneuvers.


Lakes and rivers across South America require the same protection that navies provide to the open ocean, as riverine crimes are vast. The recent exercises BRACOLPER, ACRUX, and UNITAS-Amazon 2021 highlight how South America’s militaries, particularly the navies, train to patrol and defend inland water bodies.

Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is an analyst who focuses on international security and geopolitics. He is the President of the new consulting firm Second Floor Strategies. Follow him on Twitter: @W_Alex_Sanchez

Featured Image: A Peruvian MI-8T conducts fastrope operations to the BAP Clavero during BRACOLPER2022. Photo credit: Peruvian Navy.