Immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as US Coast Guard vessels and surveillance aircraft all but abandoned the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico and rushed to protect domestic ports, Pentagon officials were quietly alarmed by a major gap in US maritime defenses.
"We suddenly realized there was a big hole, and we didn't have enough resources," one defense official explains.
Meanwhile, in an unusual sign of regional solidarity, members of the Organization of American States (OAS) quickly decided to invoke a 1947 treaty which states that an attack on one member country is an attack on all.
Those two events helped catapult a new Pentagon plan to increase military funding and links to Latin American nations in an effort to strengthen regional security against a growing list of threats, including terrorism. Already, defense officials say, foreign military financing to the region has doubled to $800 million over the past three years.
"New threats must be countered with new capabilities," US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a gathering of top officials from 34 nations at the Defense Ministerial of the Americas that convened Tuesday in Santiago, Chile.
The plan aims to bolster the defense, military, and intelligence capabilities of regional states and enable them to work together to tackle problems of "ungoverned space" - from open seas and remote border areas to jungle skies and cyberspace. This is where terrorist groups, gun smugglers, pirates, and human-traffickers operate freely.
As such, the plan represents a deliberate shift away from a Latin American policy that the Bush administration considers overly focused on counter narcotics efforts. One US maritime initiative, still under discussion, would strengthen regional defenses against possible terrorist attacks on ports or key waterways while stemming an illicit arms trade that threatens to destabilize societies, particularly in the Caribbean. "The Caribbean is our third border," one defense official says.
The initiative could provide military equipment and training for coast guards in the Caribbean and Central America and for navies in such countries as Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Venezuela.
Gear that could range from spare parts to patrol boats and ship-based helicopters would improve their ability to carry out maritime interdictions, while radios and other communications equipment would enable them to operate together and with American forces, US defense and military officials say.
The initiative may also broaden the mandate of an existing intelligence-sharing group - the Joint Inter-Agency Task Force (JIATF) based in Key West, Fla. - to cover terrorism and arms smuggling in addition to counter narcotics. Current funding limits JIATF, which has Latin American and European liaison officers, to focus on the illicit drug trade.
Another US proposal would help integrate the peacekeeping resources of countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Canada, and Uruguay, to enable them to act as one region in peacekeeping and stability operations around the world.
Training and logistics have limited the reach of such forces so far. For example, Argentina offered to supply peacekeepers and a field hospital to Afghanistan, but lacked the required airlift - 22 C-5 transport planes - to get there quickly.
More broadly, the United States seeks to promote a stronger yet flexible security apparatus under the OAS at a meeting of the body in May 2003. US officials draw parallels between these efforts and policies to expand the role and functions of NATO.
Key to these plans are US steps to enhance civilian control over the military in Latin American countries. Since 1995 the United States has run a program that has trained more than 1,000 civilian defense officials from democratic states in the continent.