Marine Corps Shuts Down Central America Deployment Amid Budget Pressures

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U.S. Marine briefs Honduran Marines.
U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Oscar Saldivar, an instructor and interpreter with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Southern Command, briefs Honduran Marines during a land navigation evaluation in Puerto Castilla, Honduras, Nov. 6, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Jose Gonzalez)

After six years of sending a small contingent of Marines to Central and South America each year to train with allies and support hurricane relief efforts, the Corps has halted the rotation in an apparent effort to save money.

"The Marine Corps is adjusting its procedures for Marine rotational forces to best position warfighters and their support systems to fight and win," a description in a Navy overview of the White House's fiscal 2022 defense budget request reads.

Ending the rotational deployment, known as Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Southern Command, will save $3 million annually, according to the document. Personnel and resources will be "realigned" from Marine Corps Forces South to Marine Forces Command, based in Norfolk, Virginia, it adds.

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U.S. Southern Command, which includes the Caribbean as well as South and Central America, has historically had minimal U.S. military presence. The U.S. Coast Guard operates heavily in the region to perform drug interdictions, but SOUTHCOM commanders have frequently had to fight for other resources, such as Navy ships.

Yet military leaders have long emphasized the importance of shoring up partnerships with militaries in friendly nations such as Honduras, Belize and Colombia. With SOUTHCOM's headquarters in Miami, Florida, the Marines' rotational deployment provided a key touchpoint with allies.

The task force was launched in 2014 following a 2012 agreement between then-President Barack Obama and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on regional security cooperation and cracking down on transnational organized crime.

"This fiscal year, the action plan includes more than 150 planned capacity-building activities with six countries from Central America and the Caribbean," a 2014 SOUTHCOM news release states.

The first task force deployment of about 200 Marines from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, built three new elementary schools and renovated an airfield in Honduras, allowing it to accommodate C-130 Hercules aircraft for future humanitarian aid missions. The Marines also trained with partner militaries in four host nations.

In the years since, deploying Marines have supported major relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew in 2016; formed the core of Joint Task Force-Leeward Islands to provide aid after Hurricane Maria in 2017; and built shelters and support facilities for displaced families after the 2018 eruption of Volcan de Fuego in Guatemala. The task force underscored partnership efforts by making a Colombian lieutenant colonel the unit's deputy commander in 2018.

Though hampered by COVID-19, a final task force deployment did take place in 2020. More than 60 Marines deployed to various parts of SOUTHCOM, some of them joining up with a Navy ship in the region to provide security. Others exchanged information with partner militaries and assisted with COVID-19 and medical relief efforts, delivering 3,000 masks, 60 newborn care kits and five wheelchairs to a Honduran hospital.

"Despite some shifts in our missions, our purpose always remained the same -- to support the efforts of our partner nations," Maj. Don Newberry, executive officer of the final task force rotation, said in a statement last November as the Marines returned home.

A spokesman for Marine Forces South, Maj. Thomas Perna, told Military.com the command will continue to work with partner militaries on training missions and security cooperation plans even though the deployment rotation has ended.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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