Photo of General Laura J. Richardson, Commander, US Army Southern Command. (Southcom.mil/US Army)
DENVER – U.S. Army Southern Command General Laura Richardson is focused on strengthening military relations with countries in South America despite tense politics, she said just over a month after took office.
Richardson, the highest ranked woman in the U.S. military, was in Denver to speak at a graduation ceremony at her alma mater, Metropolitan State University. She said that while the politics between the United States and the countries of South America may not be what “we would like … the military relationship is really strong,” Richardson said during a roundtable with the media on Friday.
Richardson cited an example in El Salvador where American political relations are deteriorating. In November, Jean Manes, the interim charge d’affaires in El Salvador announced that she was stepping down and said that 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 deal 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 National Defense Minister René Francis Merino Monroy to offer condolences to her deceased son as as pilot in a plane crash. The United States also sent a helicopter unit from Honduras to assist with search and rescue, she said.
Richardson noted that 23 countries attended the Southern Command change of command ceremony in October, where she was officially given the post of head of the agency.
“It was really great to have so many people come to represent because they want to partner 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 visited Colombia and Brazil. She remembered her father in 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 was considering how to maintain relationships with nations large and small, “so that we never leave anyone … unharmed or feel like we are not in partnership with them “.
Richardson said Southern Command’s work is increasingly linked to humanitarian response due to climate change-related disasters like hurricanes or earthquakes. They also face increased illicit drug trafficking, noting that metric tons of cocaine intercepted by the United States have “more than doubled” between 2019 and 2020.
As a woman who has stepped through many glass ceilings in the military, Richardson said she strives to represent her people and make them proud and joking, “you can go in there and hang and sting with the rest. of them”.