China, Russia and cartels pose rising threats in hemisphere, U.S. commander says

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The world’s attention may be focused on the fighting in Ukraine and the posturing over Taiwan, but there’s plenty to worry about closer to home, the commander of U.S. military forces in Latin America said Thursday.

The U.S. is also willing to replace Russian military firepower now used by armies in Latin America so it can be shipped to Ukraine to help Kyiv fight off Russian invaders, Army Gen. Laura Richardson, the head of U.S. Southern Command, told a Washington think tank.

“We have a lot at stake. This region matters,” Gen. Richardson said. “It has a lot to do with national security. We need to step up our game.”

While leftist regimes Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua are considered firmly in Moscow’s camp, Gen. Richardson said Washington is working with other countries in South America that still use military hardware that originated in Russia, which she called her “No. 2 adversary in the region.”

“A total of nine [countries] have Russian equipment in them and we are working to replace that Russian equipment with United States equipment,” Gen. Richardson said in the online conversation hosted by the Atlantic Council.

Gen. Richardson considers Russia and China, both of whom have reached out to Central and South American states in recent years, to be “malign state actors” in the region. 

“This is very concerning to me — to see the tentacles of the [People’s Republic of China] in the countries of the Western Hemisphere,” she said. “We are very much in a strategic competition in the Western Hemisphere.”

China’s ever-expanding footprint in South America has long worried U.S. strategists. Beijing’s trade footprint in the region has grown from $18 billion in 2002 to $450 billion now. The trade is predicted to be about $750 billion in the near future, she said.

Beijing has at least 30 port facilities scattered throughout the region, including five located on the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the Panama Canal. It operates a satellite tracking station in Argentina that reports to the People’s Liberation Army and has no oversight from local officials in Buenos Aires.

“I worry about these dual-use, state-owned enterprises that pop up” from China, Gen. Richardson said. “I worry about the dual-use capability, being able to flip them around and use them for the military.”

At least seven Chinese-owned banks are also operating in Latin America, making heavy infrastructure investments that outpace the U.S. presence. Much of the region is struggling economically and Beijing is willing to write checks now. Even with strings attached, it is a tempting deal that many are unable to pass up.

“The people are getting impatient. They need help now,” Gen. Richardson said. “We are just not investing in the region as we could or should be.”

Even as it struggles in Ukraine, Moscow continues to cultivate relationships with countries like Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. High-level Russian delegations visited all three countries just before the invasion of Ukraine 11 months ago, Gen. Richardson said.

“They will keep up those relationships for as long as they can to keep their foothold in the region,” she said. “The more they can sow that insecurity [and] that instability, they can keep countries looking away from the United States and away from democracy.”

She said her third major concern in Latin America is the drug cartels and other transnational criminal organizations. The groups are responsible for about $310 billion worth of criminal activity in the region every year, including funds derived from narcotics trafficking and human smuggling.

“They sow insecurity and instability in the region, which allows the malign state actors such as [China] and Russia to move in and to flourish,” Gen. Richardson said.

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