Panetta Promises Continued Commitment to Colombia
By Cheryl Pellerin
BOGOTA, Colombia, April 23, 2012 - After a meeting today with Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón Bueno, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta promised the U.S. military partner of 60 years continued commitment and assistance.
On the first day of a weeklong visit to South America, Panetta said it is appropriate that Colombia was his first stop.
"This country is one of our closest partners in the hemisphere," the secretary said, "and an emerging regional and global leader."
After a meeting in Bogota, Pinzon took Panetta on a tour of some of the Colombian Army's best Special Forces troops at Tolemaida Air Base, 47 miles southwest of the capital city. For an hour, paratroopers and other service members performed technical demonstrations against a backdrop of green mountains and dark clouds.
Later, in a nearby hangar, the two defense leaders positioned themselves at twin podiums and spoke with a crowd of journalists and broadcasters. Behind them in the hangar was a much-used Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter.
"In our discussions today," Panetta announced, "I affirmed that the United States stands in solidarity with Colombia and its campaign against [the narcoterrorist group FARC, for Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia], and that we will continue to provide training, equipment and assistance that Colombia has requested in order to defeat this common enemy."
As one example, he added, "the United States is prepared to facilitate the sale of 10 helicopters -- five U.S. Army Black Hawks and five commercial helicopters to help Colombia's efforts against the FARC."
After having been a "receiver of grants over the course of the last few years," Pinzon said through a translator, "Colombia is now exporting knowledge and capacity in terms of regional security."
What Colombian soldiers on land, sea and air do is appreciated worldwide, Pinzon said, adding, "We don't forget that many of those capacities were developed thanks to the effective cooperation of the U.S. government."
Panetta said the progress Colombia has made in resolving its internal security challenges has helped strengthen the U.S.-Colombian relationship and cooperation on regional security challenges, especially those emanating from Central America.
"Our two nations both understand that our security depends on stability not just within our borders but beyond our borders," the secretary said.
From that cooperation arises the potential for the two military forces to work closely to help build the capacity of other nations in this region to address the same kinds of security challenges.
Earlier this month, during President Barack Obama's visit to Colombia, he and President Juan Manuel Santos signed a new U.S.-Colombia Action Plan on Regional Security.
As part of the plan, the White House said in a statement, discussions between technical experts and policy officials will focus on four key areas that align with hemispheric citizen security goals and priorities.
These include fighting narcotics trafficking, combating crime, strengthening institutions, and fostering resilient communities.
Both countries, the White House said, will develop complementary security assistance programs and operational efforts to support hemispheric and international partner nations afflicted by effects of transnational organized crime.
"Minister Pinzon and I had a very productive discussion today," Panetta said, "about the next steps we can take within the framework of this plan to achieve our shared desire for a secure, stable and prosperous Western Hemisphere."
A specific step includes establishing a State Partnership Program between Columbia and the U.S. National Guard.
The program links U.S. states with partner countries to support security cooperation objectives of the region's combatant commander.
"This program has helped deepen our defense cooperation with other partners in the region," the secretary said, "including Chile, Peru and Uruguay.
State partnership programs, he added, "have helped us share lessons learned and expertise for disaster response and other missions where the armed forces can provide critical support to our civil authorities."
Establishing such a program represents an opportunity to further enhance our capabilities in this area, and an important new avenue for defense cooperation, the secretary said.
Special Report: Travels With Panetta