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ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Friday the U.S. has moved into a new era in South America and is no longer the sole provider of security in the hemisphere.
Arriving in Peru, Panetta plans to offer to send U.S. defense experts to Lima to help the nation improve its military planning. And he will meet with defense leaders from across the continent in Uruguay, where they will unveil a new program to better coordinate disaster assistance in the region.
Speaking to reporters traveling with him, Panetta said the broader goal is for America to work with nations in the region to help them better develop their military capabilities and provide for their own security. The key issues are counter-narcotics, counterterrorism, and drug and human trafficking.
This is his second trip to South America this year, as Panetta works to expand U.S military cooperation in the region and build on relationships that also can help shore up America's interests in the Asia-Pacific region.
The offer to Peru will be the opportunity to participate in an advisory program that would send an American expert to the country for a year or two to work with them on planning, budgets, procurement and training. A defense official traveling with Panetta said that while Panetta will make the formal offer, the two countries have been discussing the program and Peru has expressed interest in expanding its current, more limited exchange program with the U.S.
Panetta will then travel to the seaside resort of Punta del Este in Uruguay for a meeting of defense ministers from Canada, North and South America. The ministers will take initial steps to set up a new database that will help organize and coordinate humanitarian relief efforts in the event of a disaster in the region. The database would allow countries to list the types of aid they are ready to provide and allow the affected nation to choose, in order to avoid duplication and better meet the most urgent needs.
Officials have said that while there was a lot of assistance sent to Haiti, it wasn't well coordinated and there was a lot of duplication. Defense officials are hoping that the database would solve some of those problems.
In his visit to Colombia, Brazil and Chile earlier this year, Panetta underscored their importance as military partners in the Pacific, where China is challenging U.S. influence in a number of countries. As those defense relationships grow, officials say it can only help U.S. economic and political ties across South America.