By PATTY NIEBERG, Associated Press/Report for America
DENVER (AP) — New U.S. Army Southern Command Gen. Laura Richardson said Friday she is focused on strengthening military relations with South American nations despite tense politics.
Richardson was in Denver to speak at a graduation ceremony at her alma mater, Metropolitan State University, just over a month after assuming her role as the highest-ranking woman in the US military.
While the politics between the United States and South American nations may not be what “we would like … the military relationship is really strong,” Richardson said during a media roundtable. .
Richardson cited an example in El Salvador where US political relations are deteriorating. In November, Jean Manes, interim charge d’affaires in El Salvador, announced she was leaving her post and said the government of President Nayib Bukele “shows no interest” in improving bilateral relations.
Manes’ departure was preceded by the Bukele government’s withdrawal from an anti-corruption agreement with the Organization of American States and its refusal to extradite members of the MS-13 gang to the United States for trial.
Earlier this year, the US government also released lists of allegedly corrupt officials in Central America, including Bukele’s chief of staff, Carolina Recinos.
Meanwhile, Richardson said the security partnership between the United States and El Salvador remains strong, adding that she recently called Minister of National Defense Rene Francis Merino Monroy to offer condolences for his son who died in as a pilot in a plane crash. The United States also sent a helicopter unit from Honduras to help with search and rescue, she said.
Richardson noted that 23 countries came to Southern Command’s change of command ceremony in October, where she formally received her post as head of the agency.
“It was really great to have so many people come to represent because they want to associate with us,” she said. “They want to do the exercises. They want to work with us as much as possible.
Since taking office, Richardson has traveled to Colombia and Brazil. She called her father back to her hometown of Northglenn, Colorado, asking how far away she was and what time zone she was in.
“I wonder how many other people are like my dad and don’t realize how close things are,” she said. “Because they are our neighbors.”
As the agency’s new director, Richardson said she is considering how to maintain relationships with nations large and small, “so that we never leave anyone… untouched or feel do not associate ourselves with them”.
Richardson said Southern Command’s work is increasingly tied to humanitarian response due to climate change-related disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes. They also face an increase in illicit drug trafficking, noting that the metric tons of cocaine intercepted by the United States “more than doubled” between 2019 and 2020.
As a woman who broke through many glass ceilings in the military, Richardson said she strives to represent her demographic and make them proud and joke, “you can walk in there and hook and jab with the rest of them.”
Nieberg is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative body. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.
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