Category Archives: Latin America

Provide SOUTHCOM with Permanently Assigned Littoral Combat Ships

By Wilder Alejandro Sánchez and Ryan Markey

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 United States Navy has announced plans to decommission two Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs) in 2024. The Independence-variants USS Jackson (LCS 6) and USS Montgomery (LCS 8) will be decommissioned and then available for foreign military sale (FMS) for U.S. allies and partners around the world. At the same time, new LCSs continue to be constructed; the 16th and final Freedom-variant LCS, the future USS Cleveland (LCS 31), was launched in mid-April.

The LCS program has offered mixed results for the U.S. Navy. That said, the LCSs have proven valuable for U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and its naval component, U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command/U.S. Fourth Fleet, for operations across the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific. SOUTHCOM deserves permanently assigned LCSs to help make the most of these ships and to better fulfill the missions within the region.

The Situation 

The problems with the LCSs have been well-recorded, including major issues with the structure of some hullsengines, and other systems. Arguably, the U.S. Navy made necessary adjustments to the LCS program, which mitigates sunk costs. For example, manning is scaled back to one crew per vessel, and starting with USS Minneapolis-Saint Paul (LCS 21), the ships are delivered to the fleet with a combining gear fix. Nevertheless, the LCS fleet has been sharply criticized, and often for good reason. In an April 2023 commentary for Proceedings, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Anthony Carrillo aptly summarizes the problems with the LCS, including risks to the aluminum hulls.

On the other hand, across Latin American and Caribbean waters, the LCSs have been quite effective. To summarize, U.S. Navy (USN) and U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) operations across these waters feature patrol operations, freedom of navigation operations, and exercises with regional partners – including exercise UNITAS, Tradewinds (which will occur in Guyana in July 2023) PASSEX, among others. Moreover, vessels from these services help regional partners with humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, search and rescue, and surveillance operations. Perhaps, the most well-known application of surface operations in SOUTHCOM’s waters is the combination of USN and USCG assets cracking down on maritime crimes, particularly smuggling, IUU fishing, and drug trafficking, carried out by the infamous go fast-vessels and narco-submarines. Ships from both services work alongside Latin American and Caribbean naval and coast guard platforms to combat a large variety of maritime crimes.

Fourth Fleet does not have any permanently assigned ships, making the fleet responsible for the Panama Canal devoid of ships. Since SOUTHCOM has historically been the lowest priority Combatant Command of the U.S. military, the assets and platforms made available to SOUTHCOM are tightly limited in quantity and duration. Generally speaking, LCSs and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers (DDGs) have operated in SOUTHCOM’s area of responsibilities (AOR) in recent years. Case in point, SOUTHCOM announced on April 6 how “USS Farragut (DDG 99) offloaded approximately 2,314 kilograms of cocaine and 1,986 pounds of marijuana worth a combined $69 million in Port Everglades, Florida,” The offloaded drugs were seized from four go-fast smuggling vessel interdictions by the Farragut crew “with an embarked Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment (LEDET) 406 and Navy Combat Element (CEL) One from the ‘Jaguars’ of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron Six Zero (HSM-60).” Farragut’s operations took place across the Eastern Pacific Ocean in the SOUTHCOM area of responsibility.

Members of U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment 406 push bales of illegal narcotics aboard USS Farragut (DDG 99) for a drug offload in Port Everglades, Florida, April 4, 2023. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Chelsea Palmer)

LCSs that have been assigned to SOUTHCOM include Freedom-variant USS Milwaukee (LCS 5), Freedom-variant USS Billings (LCS 15), and Freedom-variant USS Sioux City (LCS 11). These ships have engaged in bilateral exercises and missions to combat transnational organized crime, demonstrating the versatility of the LCS in partnering with regional maritime forces for these missions.


One of the authors has written about the operations carried out by the Mercy-class hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) across Latin American and Caribbean waters and why the Comfort, or a future hospital ship, should be permanently assigned to SOUTHCOM (See CIMSEC’s “Hospital Ships: A Vital Asset for SOUTHCOM and South American Navies,” and “U.S. Southern Command needs a Permanently-Assigned Hospital Ship”). The same argument can be made for the LCSs.

Rather than decommissioning Jackson and Montgomery, the Navy, the Department of Defense, and Congress should seriously consider increasing SOUTHCOM’s budget to operate these two ships permanently, or at least long-term. Unlike other theaters where the U.S. Navy operates, the maritime operations carried out by SOUTHCOM and potential threats are best suited for LCS capabilities.

In his commentary, Lieutenant Carrillo argues, “Ships should fit a purpose, and the purpose of ships should fit into the vision of how the fleet fights,” and suggesting that “considering the lack of useful employment for LCSs in retirement, the best option is to cannibalize them for parts.” But there are other options for these ships. Focusing solely on fleet combat operations is counterproductive by asserting the LCSs are useless if they cannot be effective in major combat. This may generally be valid for the Indo-Pacific region, among others, but what makes SOUTHCOM unique is that the challenges found in Latin America and the Caribbean waters are dissimilar to other regions.

PACIFIC OCEAN (Oct. 20, 2020) The Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10) transits the Pacific Ocean while conducting flight operations in the U.S. 4th Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Allen Michael Amani)

Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, the U.S. Navy lacks maritime competitors. Moreover, SOUTHCOM is fortunate because most Latin American and Caribbean governments have cordial, if not robust, diplomatic and defense relations with Washington. Realistically speaking, only Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela have openly hostile governments towards the U.S. (Bolivia has a navy but the country is landlocked). However, none of these countries have strong naval capabilities – even the Venezuelan Navy is no Kraken of the Caribbean. Hence, if Jackson and Montgomery were transferred to SOUTHCOM, there would be less of a concern or demand to heavily arm them (such as with complex mission modules) for an impending confrontation with a regional navy’s warships, which is more the case in other regions. Virtually all maritime operations in the SOUTHCOM region occur below the threshold of armed conflict, and the focus on countering crime and illegal fishing is highly complementary with the broader U.S. national security goal of enhancing rules-based order by defending the global commons.

Moreover, occasionally ships from states with whom Washington shares an adversarial relationship travel to the region, most recently the Iranian base ship IRIS Makran and the frigate IRIS Dena – whichdocked in Brazil in late February. A permanent U.S. naval presence could serve as a deterrent and competing actor to the potential presence of maritime forces from nations such as China, Iran, and Russia.

IRIS Makran of the Iranian Navy. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Additionally, permanently assigned LCSs would give the commander of U.S. Southern Command much-needed mobile staging assets in the wake of a natural disaster or any other crisis. However, authorizing the deployment of a previously unassigned surface vessel takes too long for many crises. Add the time for a ship to steam from the homeport to the point of incident and the crisis may already be over. Thus, SOUTHCOM requires enough ships to be assigned so it can maintain consistent presence in the Caribbean and the Eastern Pacific, which would require ships homeported on both U.S. coasts.

Finally, if enough LCS are transferred, their ability to bring organic unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) assets for time-sensitive intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) collection will give the SOUTHCOM Commander improved situational awareness and decision-making space. General Laura Richardson, SOUTHCOM’s current Commander, and Admiral Craig Faller, her predecessor, publicly expressed their concerns concerning U.S. Southern Command’s lack of ISR capabilities. In her 2022 Posture Statement, Richardson noted “USSOUTHCOM employs less than 2% of DoD ISR resources to counter malign state and nonstate actors. To meet the mission, we are pushing the envelope with innovative techniques, integrating publicly available information, advanced analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and open collaboration with allies and partners to disrupt threats.” They both testified to Congress that SOUTHCOM requires a significant increase in airborne ISR, and they require a quick reaction capability to gain situational awareness. If employed creatively, the LCS might not completely cover the ISR gap, but the ship and its organic aviation detachment will provide part of the solution.


Assigning permanent vessels to SOUTHCOM will require special funding so the combatant command can shoulder the burden of funding ships the Navy may not want to pay for. This funding is not only needed for fuel and maintenance of the ships, but also increased manning at Fourth Fleet and logistical support in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Navy, Department of Defense, and Congress need to take appropriate budgetary considerations in the upcoming fiscal years so the LCS(s) can operate under SOUTHCOM as permanently assigned assets. With its extremely limited resources, SOUTHCOM bolsters U.S. interests and supports U.S. allies across Latin America and the Caribbean. While no other combatant commands (or the Navy in general) appears that interested in the LCSs, imagine the outsized impact SOUTHCOM could reap with these permanently-assigned ships.

Wilder Alejandro Sánchez is president of Second Floor Strategies, a consulting firm in Washington, D.C. He is an analyst that monitors defense, geopolitical and trade issues across the Western Hemisphere, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia.

Ryan Markey is a retired Navy Commander and former Chief Maritime Strategist at U.S. Southern Command. He is the owner of Sarissa Solutions, a U.S. consulting firm with a permanent presence in Guatemala.

Featured Image: NAVAL STATION MAYPORT, Fla. (Sept. 9, 2021) The Freedom-variant littoral combat ship USS Sioux City (LCS 11) departs Naval Station Mayport for a deployment, Sept. 9, 2021. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Aaron Lau)

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).

China Next Door: How the CCP is Reshaping Latin America

By Captain Steven Arango, USMC

Americans hear about countries such as China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran on a frequent basis, and for good reason. All have been intertwined in global affairs, politics at home, or both for most of this century so far. But in stark contrast, the United States has treated Latin America with “benign neglect.”1

Although Russia and Iran have exploited Latin America for their purposes and to the United States’ detriment—China’s inroads into the region are among the most significant threats to U.S. national security.2 China’s actions in the region reveal short and long-term plans to become the predominant superpower in the region.3 To do so, China’s influence has sowed its roots in two main areas: military and economic.4 But most importantly, this influence is not superficial—China’s actions seep through all levels of Latin American governments, even down to city halls.5 China is not simply a regional challenge; it is a global challenge as demonstrated in Latin America.6 To ignore Latin America is to ignore the critical inroads being developed by the United States’ chief competitor in its own backyard.

Military Influence

China’s military influence in Latin America is mainly through soft power, not physical presence.7 China has fostered significant military relationships through arms sales, exchange programs, and training engagements.8 China has found a fruitful market for arm’s sales in Latin America; in roughly the last eight years China has sold more than $615 million in weapons to Venezuela.9 Military sales may have started as simply small arms, but China’s expansion in this market now includes “aircraft, armored vehicles, and radars.”10 But these sales are not simply about the equipment; the sale is just the beginning of a relationship. Opportunities for training and maintenance follow each transaction—leading to greater interaction between these countries, their militaries, and China.11 As these deals continue to grow, Chinese personnel and military bases in the region could follow.

China has also made major inroads with Latin American militaries through professional military education (PME) programs and exchange officer programs of significant scale. These programs steep Latin American servicemembers in Chinese military and political doctrine and anti-U.S. sentiment, while creating stronger relationships between the respective country and China.12 To attract military talent to these programs, China has also offered perks to Latin American military personnel. China will pay for business-class travel for exchange students, provide five-star hotels, and pay for other expenses while they live in China.13 Since 2015, China has “trained more Latin American military officers than the United States, and the difference has grown every year since.”14

Venezuela’s Chinese-made, light-armored VN-4 “Rhinoceros” personnel carriers drive 5 March 2014 in a parade commemorating the death of Hugo Chavez in Caracas, Venezuela. (Photo by Xavier Granja Cedeño, Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry)

Recent SOUTHCOM commander Adm. Craig Faller noted in Congressional testimony that China was sending five times as many Latin American military officers to its war colleges compared to the United States.15 According to John Kreul, who was acting deputy secretary of defense for the Western Hemisphere, the feedback on these professional military exchange programs suggested they were “straight up recruitment and propaganda 24/7.”16 Once these personnel are educated in China and establish professional connections with China’s military, the United States may have to be weary of working with these personnel because of the potential operational security risks.17

Chinese Influence—Economic

Economic influence in Latin America is China’s main focus in the region. In 2000, China’s total trade value with Latin America was $12 billion. Today it is roughly $450 billion, and economists predict it could exceed $700 billion within the next 15 years.18 China is South America’s top trading partner and second only to the United States for all of Latin America.19 Underlying this trade is the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s ambitious $1 trillion trade and infrastructure program spanning across the globe.20 One portion of this program is a proposed transcontinental railway that can link South America’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts from Brazil to Chile.21

As it does elsewhere, trade naturally builds relationships and influence in the countries China builds in.22 China can then use its powerful economic leverage in pursuit of political goals, such as persuading regional countries to withhold recognition of Taiwan—which it has.23

China also engages in debt-trap diplomacy. Through deceptive trade and loan practices, China can manipulate and coerce countries that are unable to repay their loans.24 For example, China uses contractual language that allows it to cancel and demand repayment on one loan when a country defaults on a separate loan from a “different lender,” which is unusual for government loans.25 These contracts also allow China to cancel the loan if the “debtor country undertakes policy changes adverse” to China’s preferences.26

Loans from China have penetrated significant sectors of Latin America, including energy and mineral sectors, port infrastructure, and telecommunications.27 China is also willing to offer cheaper credit even to countries with poor track records of paying off debt, raising the likelihood that Latin American countries choose Chinese loans over competing loans from other countries.28 And with the acute economic and domestic pressures in the region, many developing countries may not effectively consider the long-term consequences that may stem from these loans.29

China has used these practices around the globe. Similar contracts forced Sri Lanka to hand over a major port to Beijing in 2017 when it could not pay off its debts.30 There is also concern that countries with Chinese debt could be pressured into denying support to U.S. forces, including logistical infrastructure, staging areas, and ports.31 In fact, China has loans attached to “three [of the] largest projects of port construction by cost” in Latin America.32

China’s focus and investment in telecommunication technologies in Latin America poses a major issue, too. Chinese companies, such as Huawei and ZTE, have created networks for governments and private sector telecommunications companies, while integrating local government staffs with Chinese personnel who have ties to the Chinese government.33 These companies are willing to accept lower profits for greater access in Latin America because of the access it provides the Chinese government and vice versa.34

To be sure, these countries do receive the benefit of modern technology and creating networks that can reach underserved rural citizens. However, China may use this new infrastructure to surveil and undermine Latin American citizens and apply its authoritarian philosophies on personal privacy against populations outside of China.35 Indeed, one nation has asked the United States “for assistance in disassembling and disinvesting in the Huawei Smart City program because of excessive Chinese monitoring.”36 But the more Latin American governments adopt this technology, the more difficult it will be for the United States to engage with them on national security issues.37


Latin America is critical to U.S. national security and great power competition. Not only is it the geographic neighbor of the U.S., but the U.S. also has strong economic, political, and cultural ties to the region. According to the White House’s recently released National Security Strategy, the “Western Hemisphere directly impacts the United States more than any other region,” which is predominately Latin America.38 But China is in Latin America to pursue long-term interests, and to ignore this reality threatens the stability of the region and the United States.

The Middle East has attracted most of the United States’ attention for the past two decades. Now, Eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific have its attention. But the chief competitors in those regions are moving in next door. The muscular policies and military engagements that have been the hallmark of recent U.S. operations in the Middle East will not effectively compete in Latin America. The U.S. must use multifaceted soft power to combat China’s influence for the purposes of ensuring strong democratic governments and stability in the region.

Captain Steven Arango is a deputy staff judge advocate at Training and Education Command and currently working toward his LL.M. in national security and cybersecurity from the George Washington University School of Law. He was selected as a Regional Affairs Officer for Latin America. Prior to his time on active duty, Steven worked for the U.S. House of Representatives, the Department of Defense in the Office of General Counsel, International Affairs, and served as a federal law clerk for U.S. District Judge Fernando Rodriguez, who presides on the southern border.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Featured Image: Army commander of the Lanzhou Military Region of China Liu Yuejun shakes hands with Venezuelan defense minister Gen. Vladimir Padrino 17 April 2015 during a visit in Caracas, Venezuela. (Photo by Boris Vergara/Xinhua/Alamy Live News)

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.