Good afternoon. My name is Karen Chandler, and I have recently taken on a new role as the Director for the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (or WRA) within the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. I previously served as the Director of the interagency Man Portable Air Defense Systems Task Force, which is housed within WRA. It is my honor and pleasure to participate in today’s UXO Caucus event.
I would like to first thank Representative Jackie Speier and Representative Bill Johnson for their continued leadership on this issue and their support of the Congressional UXO Caucus. I also want to acknowledge HALO for their continuing role in coordinating these events.
The United States takes great pride in leading the world in support of conventional weapons destruction and addressing vulnerabilities in physical security and stockpile management. Today, I would like to highlight our ongoing efforts to combat this issue in Latin America and reveal how successful conventional weapons destruction and physical security and stockpile management can powerfully influence the root causes of irregular migration and promote regional stability.
The United States has long been the world’s largest international donor to conventional weapons destruction, providing more than $4 billion to support humanitarian mine action, physical security and stockpile management, and associated activities in more than 100 countries since 1993. In Latin America and the Caribbean alone, the United States has provided more than $225 million in conventional weapons destruction assistance.
Throughout the region, our programming strengthens the physical security and stockpile management of partner nations’ weapons depots to curb the pilferage and illicit trafficking of small arms and light weapons from state-held stockpiles – including weapons of particular concern, like Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS). This programming also reduces the risk of catastrophic unplanned explosions at munitions storage sites, promotes regional stability and economic development, and protects the U.S. southern border.
In Central America and elsewhere in the hemisphere, traffickers, criminal gangs, and terrorists use illegally obtained small arms and light weapons to advance a culture of violence and fear that threatens civilian security and contributes to the root causes of migration. These criminal activities pose a threat to the citizens of their own countries, which has prompted thousands to seek the security of our southern border, and it is a priority for the Department of State to use our available resources to improve these conditions. Responsible physical security and stockpile management practices reduce the number of illicit weapons available throughout the region and disrupt the criminal activities contributing to migration.
So, how is the Conventional Weapons Destruction program helping to secure these weapons? In Latin America, we currently support physical security and stockpile management programs in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Ecuador, and Peru. Most recently, we began a regional project in the Caribbean through the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace, Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean, or UNLIREC. In this context we are supporting the Caribbean Community’s (CARICOM) efforts to implement the regional roadmap it adopted last year to combat illicit firearms trafficking. Additionally, our regional conventional weapons destruction project in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras contributes to Pillar 4 of the White House Strategy to Address the Root Causes of Migration in Central America. Pillar 4’s goal is to “Counter and prevent violence, extortion, and other crimes perpetrated by criminal gangs, trafficking networks, and other organized criminal organizations.”
Our implementing partners throughout the region coordinate with U.S. Embassies and partner nation governments to assist with the destruction of state-held excess or obsolete weapons and ammunition, provide physical security and infrastructure upgrades to vulnerable weapons storage facilities, and implement physical security and stockpile management and explosive ordnance disposal training opportunities to build the capacity of host nation security forces to continue responsible weapons management independent of U.S. assistance. In Latin America and globally, we have seen an increase in the prioritization of the request for physical security and stockpile management assistance from the United States as the proliferation of illicit weapons supports nearly every aspect of the criminal economy. The United States continues to encourage the full and effective implementation of the UN Program of Action on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons. Our assistance for physical security and stockpile management helps Latin American countries with their own implementation of the UN Program of Action.
Our implementing partners in Latin America, like HALO and MAG, have worked to find innovative ways to assess and address the threat that vulnerable small arms and light weapons pose to the region. In 2020 and 2021 alone, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, U.S.-funded efforts have resulted in the destruction of more than 400 tons of ordnance and 278,000 rounds of small arms ammunition. Despite the pandemic, U.S. funded efforts also trained nearly 100 security forces personnel in physical security and stockpile management and explosive ordnance disposal. Additionally, we have seen the introduction of additional data-based assessments, which increase collaboration amongst donors and provide information that can inform current and future U.S. conventional weapons destruction priorities.
In addition to our physical security and stockpile management programming, the United States supports humanitarian demining efforts in Colombia, as landmines and explosive remnants of war threaten civilians in the aftermath of conflicts for decades after fighting has ended. Since 2001, the United States has invested more than $159 million to support Colombia’s mine action sector by facilitating the survey of priority municipalities and clearance of high-impact minefields, focusing on areas where such efforts coincide with planned development and stabilization projects.
Additionally, the interagency MANPADS Task Force, in coordination with the Organization of American States, has recently launched a series of regional aviation security seminars – which address the threat MANPADS pose – to assist foreign security officials at airports, border crossings, seaports, national police, and customs in their efforts to improve aviation security infrastructure, as well as counterproliferation efforts regarding advanced weapons systems.
In conclusion, the U.S. commitment to conventional weapons destruction in Latin America and the Caribbean continues to grow. Our commitment is grounded in over 25 years of bipartisan Congressional and taxpayer support, combined with the experience and determination of our implementing partners. Together, we have worked with host governments, as well as communities at the local level, to create a resilient program that has evolved and adapted along with the threat from landmines, unexploded ordnance, small arms and light weapons, and related munitions. The American taxpayer can be proud of the assistance rendered to this part of the world.