SOUTHDEC 2022 opening remarks: General Laura Richardson
September 14th, 2022
(As prepared for delivery)
Buenos dias! Bom gia! Goedemorgen! And Good Morning!
Ambassador Baki, Minister Lara, LTG Proano, thank you for welcoming us to your beautiful country for this year’s South American Defense Conference, SOUTHDEC.
It’s such an honor, and a pleasure, to be here in Ecuador. The country’s distinct beauty and wonderful diversity, from the Galapagos to the Amazonian jungle and Andean highlands. What a treat for all of us.
I want to welcome our US Ambassador to Ecuador, Ambassador Fitzpatrick.
A big welcome to all the Ministers of Defense and Chiefs of Defense from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guyana, Peru, Paraguay, Suriname, and Uruguay.
I also want to welcome representatives from Canada, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and our interagency partners.
My colleague, Chief of the National Guard Bureau, General Dan Hokanson and also the Adjutant General from the State of Kentucky, BG Hal Lamberton.
Also the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is here, the Inter-American Defense Board VADM Alexandre Rabello De Faria, the Inter-American Defense College MG JT Taylor, and also Perry Center.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Dan Erikson will join us Wednesday evening, and numerous friends and colleagues are joining us virtually, such as the State Department, USAID, and the U.S. Coast Guard.
The collective presence of all of You, participating in this conference —demonstrates the power of partnerships.
Since taking command of U.S. SOUTHCOM at the end of October last year, I’ve had the privilege of visiting several South American countries: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Guyana, Suriname, and now Ecuador.
And I plan on visiting the remaining South American countries before the end of this year.
I’ve spoken to many of your heads of state, your military leaders, your Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines.
I’ve walked along your streets, tried your delicious foods, and am diligently learning the fascinating histories of your respective countries.
Our nations were born out of similar circumstances: a desire for self-government, a strong sense of sovereignty, and a yearning for democracy.
That flame for freedom inspired Founding Fathers like George Washington, Simon Bolivar, Jose de San Martin, Cheddi Jagan, and Johan Ferrier, to name a few.
That flame forged unbreakable bonds between the United States and our South American partners—bonds that have lasted decades, and some for as long as two centuries!
But we gather here at a critical moment when our democracies face a host of cross-cutting challenges that threaten our way of life and could dim the flame of freedom that unites us. Our countries and everyday people across the region are bearing the economic and social burdens of these challenges. We have to show that democracy can deliver for our populations.
South American families still mourn the loss of loved ones from the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID hit Latin America and the Caribbean hard — 8% of the world’s population reside in Latin America and the Caribbean, yet 30% of all COVID-related deaths occurred in this region.
We have stood together throughout this pandemic – and I want to specifically recognize the defense and security forces who worked tirelessly to serve our populations along with the Ministries of Health and others.
Over the course of the pandemic, SOUTHCOM delivered $95.2 million in support of the broader U.S. Government effort to support the region with vaccines and critical supplies.
Mothers and fathers are struggling to put food on the table and gas in their cars because of supply shortfalls and sharp rise in prices. These troubling circumstances reflect the pandemic, Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine, and related social factors.
Transnational Criminal Organizations (TOCs) like the First Capital Command, or PCC, in Brazil and cartels as far away as Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generacion are destabilizing our shared neighborhood. They are poisoning our people with drugs and stretching their tentacles of violence and corruption across the region.
Two overarching security problems exacerbate all the others; these are the two problems we’ll focus on during this conference.
The first problem is Environmental Insecurity. It involves malign nonstate and state actors.
TCOs are engaging in illegal mining, illegal logging, and deforestation. Seventy-five percent of the wood sold in South America is likely acquired illegally through TCO-sponsored entities.
The wide range of illicit TCO activities generate their $300 billion annual war chest at the expense of the environment, the health of our citizens, and the economic future of our hemisphere.
Other malign actors like State-Owned Enterprises from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are also causing environmental damage in the region. Independent studies from regional Latin American organizations have concluded that many PRC-funded regional megaprojects are causing river erosion, polluting the water, destroying fertile land, and destabilizing the delicate ecosystems that Indigenous groups and local citizens cherish.
The PRC is also the largest offender of illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing (IUUF) in this region and around the world.
Every year, about 350 to 600 PRC Deep Water Fishing vessels operate near the Galapagos and other Exclusive Economic Zones near South America.
These government subsidized, PRC vessels severely deplete fish stocks, destabilize the economies of coastal states, dump plastic waste at sea, and prevent local fishermen from earning nearly $3 billion in annual revenue.
The second security problem is Gray Zone Conflict, especially in the Space, Cyber, and Information domains.
TCOs are infiltrating computer systems, stealing people’s sensitive data, and laundering money in cyberspace.
China and Russia are also culprits. Within South America, China is playing chess and Russia is playing checkers. Their combined multifaceted actions are destabilizing the region, empowering authoritarianism, and undercutting democratic principles.
Last year, Microsoft reported that a PRC-based hacking group called NICKEL conducted cyberattacks against 29 countries, seven of them in South America.
PRC-linked organizations have established space facilities in South America. They can use these restricted access facilities for military dual use, or to potentially access sensitive information about South American and U.S. citizens.
Russia is also trying to manipulate populations through disinformation campaigns and malign cyber activity. Russia continues to support authoritarian regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua.
All these cross-cutting security problems are too complex for one nation to handle on its own. We MUST work together—like a well-trained soccer team—actively communicating with each other and playing our respective positions in a harmonious, highly effective manner.
My boss, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin uses the term Integrated Deterrence. It means bringing partners together and using all available tools to collectively counter threats and systematically address difficult security problems.
Integrated deterrence is not military centric; instead, it deliberately blends the vast capabilities and specialties that reside across military and non-military government agencies, allies and partners, the private sector, academic institutions, and non-governmental organizations.
This is why SOUTHDEC is so important. In many regards, SOUTHDEC is the physical manifestation of integrated deterrence.
It enables likeminded democratic partners to synchronize, share best practices, lessons learned, and enhance interoperability. I look forward to us reviewing the progress we’ve made from last year’s SOUTHDEC and, discussing Environmental Security and Gray Zone Warfare.
I am also excited about meeting with each one of you, while we explore how to deepen the strength and effectiveness of our bilateral and multilateral partnerships. More specifically, how do we holistically assess, and cohesively address, the two overarching security problems: environmental security and gray zone conflict.
With regards to Environmental Security, how can we amplify our security cooperation to stop TCOs from illegal logging, mining, and deforestation? How do we dramatically reduce large scale, illegal commercial fishing?
How can we leverage the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—on environmental projects?
USACE is already planning and working on projects with numerous regional countries. They are working with Ecuador to refurbish a major hospital and mitigate environmental damage from a China-funded dam.
USACE is also working with Peru on an Emergency Operations Center; with Brazil on watershed development; and with Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay on a water resources database for the La Plata River Basin.
To counter illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing, how can we strengthen cooperation on protecting maritime territory? A great example of required cooperation is the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor (CMAR) Initiative, formed and ratified by Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Panama in 2004.
These four countries highlighted the value and utility of CMAR during the United Nations Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, last fall.
CMAR links several existing marine protected areas and creates an uninterrupted, sustainably managed biological corridor spanning more than 500,000 square kilometers. During the Summit of the Americas in June 2022, the U.S. Government signed a memorandum of understanding with the CMAR countries to solidify our cooperation on this important environmental initiative.
To counter Gray Zone activities, how can we work together with U.S. Cyber Command, the U.S. National Guard, the Inter-American Space Agency, and other regional agencies? How do we energize the creativity that resides in academic institutions and commercial business enterprises?
During last year’s SOUTHDEC, we discussed bringing in the commercial sector to enhance information and satellite intelligence sharing. We also explored
leveraging the Inter-American Defense Board and the Perry Center to counter disinformation campaigns and malign cyber activity.
How do we continue to build up our collective security, commerce, and research capabilities in space—a rapidly evolving and crucial domain?
Our shared security challenges require full utilization of all available talent that resides in our respective populations. This is why Women, Peace, and Security must be a core value, ensuring ALL talented people have equal access to opportunities, and can actively contribute to the safety of our citizens and region.
Harnessing and focusing on these fundamental areas of cooperation embody what true partnerships looks like among fellow democracies.
The Western Hemisphere is where our families live; it is our shared neighborhood. Good neighbors protect each other, encourage each other, help each other succeed, and lift each other up.
As we build shared understanding, combine resources, and solve mutual problems, there are no strings attached. No fine print. We do it because that’s what good neighbors do.
We do it because we are always stronger, more creative, and more effective when thinking and working together as a Team.
Partnership is how we strengthen our democracies and preserve our national sovereignty from increasingly capable adversaries and large-scale natural disasters.
It is how we ensure the flame of freedom continues to burn bright in this hemisphere—our shared home—today, tomorrow, and always.
Thank you for being here and your willingness to work as a Team to counter these threats!