In First, Marine Task Force Gets Colombian Deputy Commander

Colombian Naval Infantry Lt. Col. Erick H. Del Rio, the deputy commander of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Southern Command, right, shakes hands with U.S. Navy Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, the commander of U.S. Southern Command, May 16, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Zachary Dyer)
Colombian Naval Infantry Lt. Col. Erick H. Del Rio, the deputy commander of Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force - Southern Command, right, shakes hands with U.S. Navy Adm. Kurt W. Tidd, the commander of U.S. Southern Command, May 16, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Zachary Dyer)

A specially designed Marine Corps task force for Latin America made history this month, deploying with a deputy commander from the Colombian Navy.

Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force South, created in 2015 to develop partner relationships and conduct hurricane and disaster relief efforts in Central America and the Caribbean, arrived in the region June 1 with Lt. Col. Erick H. del Rio on deck as deputy commander, according to a news release from the task force.

The deployment, and the installment of del Rio in a leadership position, marks a major shift for the unit as it positions itself as a multinational force, task force spokesman Capt. Jose Negrete told Military.com. In coming deployments, he said, the unit hopes to add leaders from other regional militaries to the task force's command structure and to incorporate elements of partner services within the 300-person unit.

"The commander at [Marine Forces Southern Command, Maj. Gen. David Bellon] came up with a vision where we recognize our partners ... we're giving them the place that they already had, and we're just recognizing it," Negrete said. "We're not looking to own this maritime multinational task force."

The creation of the task force, which deploys annually with the start of the hurricane season, marks a major outreach effort to a part of the world historically overlooked by the U.S. military, save for the Coast Guard. Negrete said this year's deployment would include return visits to Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, and -- in another first for the unit -- partner training and work in Colombia.

While he won't be giving orders to Marines, del Rio will help provide regional insights and craft doctrine, Negrete said.

"In terms of the deputy commander, even though he's not making the command decisions at the end of the day, he provides a different perspective, a regional perspective, as to how to approach things," he said. "We're learning from each other, working shoulder-to-shoulder."

Negrete emphasized that the intent of the task force is to allow different nations in the region to set their own agenda -- to let them communicate to the task force their individual interests and needs, and develop a plan of action in collaboration with the Marines.

"Whatever the mission is for that task force, the decisions are going to be made collectively," he said. "The Marine Corps is not going to dictate what happens with this task force. The thought process is to have a regional solution to address regional problems."

That collaborative effort can also be seen with Unitas, a major annual maritime exercise in the region. For 2018, a year in which a tabletop exercise is planned, Brazil will take the lead, creating a humanitarian assistance and disaster response scenario, Negrete said.

Planners hope partner nations will continue to take leadership roles in the exercise next year, when live training is planned.

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

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