US Troops Continue Central American Missions as Trump Vows to Pull Aid

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U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Brandon Penamejia, landing support specialist, Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Southern Command guides a CH-53E Super Stallion on Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, July 10, 2015. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Abraham Lopez)
U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Brandon Penamejia, landing support specialist, Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Southern Command guides a CH-53E Super Stallion on Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, July 10, 2015. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Abraham Lopez)

The U.S. military is still carrying out training and humanitarian missions in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador after the commander in chief threatened to pull aid from the three countries.

"There have been no immediate changes to our security cooperation in that region," said Jose Ruiz, a spokesman for U.S. Southern Command, which oversees military operations in Central America. "Our security cooperation with Central America's northern-tier countries supports our collaborative efforts to counter regional threats and security challenges of mutual concern."

President Donald Trump said the U.S. would "begin cutting off, or substantially reducing the massive foreign aid routinely given to" Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador after accusing leaders there of not doing enough to stop their citizens from "coming illegally to the U.S."

The commander-in-chief's threats come as thousands of members of a Central American migrant caravan are marching toward the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump has called the situation a "national emergency," adding that he'd warned the military and border patrol.

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Ruiz referred any additional questions about how Trump's tweet might affect military operations in Central America to the White House. The White House did not respond to questions from Military.com about whether the Pentagon has or would be instructed to review or stop any military missions there.

U.S. troops carry out a variety of missions throughout Central America and the Caribbean. They train local forces fighting drug cartels, respond to hurricanes and other natural disasters, and provide medical assistance in countries with overtaxed health care systems.

Just last week, members of Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-South wrapped up a four-month-long humanitarian mission in Guatemala, where they built nearly 200 family shelters, seven water towers, a clinic and other facilities after hundreds were killed or displaced when a volcano destroyed neighborhoods and homes.

There are about 300 Marines with the task force, who deploy from Reserve units across the country, along with heavy-lift helicopters and equipment, during hurricane season, said Gunnery Sgt. Zachary Dyer, a spokesman with Marine Corps Forces South. This year, an additional 30 Marines and sailors were attached to the unit to assist Guatemala's army corps of engineers after the volcanic eruption, he added.

Last month, Marines with that same unit repaired a broken valve that had cut off water delivery to about 8,000 Hondurans along the northern coast, about 220 miles outside San Pedro Sula. Sailors also trained with troops from El Salvador, Panama and other countries in the SOUTHCOM area of responsibility during Southern Partnership Station, an annual military exercise.

The Marine task force also dispatches small security-cooperation teams to train with local troops in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Belize.

"This deployment of the SCT Team will mark U.S. Marine Corps Forces South's sixth year of persistent security cooperation training support in Latin America and the Caribbean," Dyer said.

In fiscal 2019, the U.S. planned to give $65 million to Honduras, $69 million to Guatemala and $45 million to El Salvador, according to ForeignAssistance.gov, totaling about $180 million. Those numbers have declined since 2016, when the three countries received almost a combined $300 million in aid.

Whether Trump's vow to cut that further will impact military partnerships remains to be seen. For now, Ruiz said SOUTHCOM is in the early stages of planning multinational exercises for fiscal 2019, which are slated to include El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ginaaharkins.

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