SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras —
Joint Task Force-Bravo civil-military operations personnel visited four communities neighboring Soto Cano Air Base, Jan. 16, to discuss upcoming economic changes, focusing on opportunities to strengthen ties and partnerships with local governments.
JTF-Bravo operates out of Soto Cano AB, located in Palmerola in the department of Comayagua, just eight kilometers from its namesake city, and just 11 kilometers from the department of La Paz. The Honduran military installation is currently undergoing development to that will bring commercial operations to the airfield, turning it into a shared space between the future Palmerola International Airport, the Honduran Military Aviation Academy and JTF-Bravo. With the construction of a new international hub in proximity to the two small departments – which have historically subsisted mainly on agriculture – comes great expectations.
“The mayors are working together to adapt to the changes coming with the new airport. They are focusing on how they can create a more tourist-like environment to spur growth within their communities,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jeffrey Uherka, JTF-Bravo civil-military operations director, after the key leader engagement with four different mayors in the departments of La Paz and Comayagua.
The first stop was Villa de San Antonio, a municipality of approximately 211 square kilometers with a population of 27,000 people.
“The project will bring a lot of development but also new demands. A large influx of people will bring larger demands to our health and education systems, and it could also bring crime,” said Mayor of Villa de San Antonio Nestor Joel Mendoza. “One of our pillars is safety. People who move here have to register in our municipality, and they bring their background checks so we make sure they are honorable people. These protocols have allowed us to keep our city safe. We want to attract tourism, and we are investing in it. We are preparing ourselves, and we believe we are on the right track. Sometimes it’s difficult, but that’s our job.”
The mayor recognized his community faces many challenges, including not having enough clinics to provide proper care to all, but even with limited resources, Villa de San Antonio has developed construction projects for more clinics in the area. The challenge now is obtaining medication to keep them operational. This is where civil affairs comes in by having the unique capability to provide assistance outside the range of kinetic military operations by conducting humanitarian assistance projects through the Department of Defense in regions where humanitarian needs may pose major challenges to stability and prosperity.
HAPs offer a unique security cooperation tool to gain access and visibility within critical regions to achieve theater and U.S. national security objectives.
“We want to maintain the trust of our surrounding communities, to ensure they see us as an ally, as a friend and as another fellow American, so we can achieve common objectives together,” said Uherka. “Our goal is to reiterate to them that our 37 years at Soto Cano mean a lot to us. We want to build that friendship, so they know that we are part of that community and if we have the capability and the authorities, that we will do everything we can to help them. Yes, we are from the United States, but essentially we are all American – whether it’s Central American or North American, we are all Americans.”
The next stop for the team was Cane, a municipality in La Paz with a population of less than 6,000 people where education and literacy rate are their biggest source of pride.
During the meeting, Mayor Francisco Bustillo recalled how his community has benefited through one of JTF-Bravo’s volunteer programs – known as the Chapel Hike – not long ago. He recounted how the U.S. military helped build a small park and a classroom with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development, leaving a permanent mark of the good relationship they foster with the people of Cane.
Lejamaní, the smallest of the municipalities visited, also seeks to attract tourism.
“We are trying to develop our infrastructure, and we are preparing to receive people coming because of the airport. We have developed a regional planning team. We would like to work together with you [JTF-Bravo] and the Honduran authorities to strengthen our efforts,” said Mayor Francisco Mendez.
The final stop of the tour was Ajuterique, a developing community with a strong focus on innovation, where Mayor Mario Palencia emphasized the important role unity of efforts will have in preparing for the airport’s opening. He also emphasized how the region has always felt a strong sense of support from the task force through volunteer programs and disaster relief.
“We have always had high esteem for the people at [Soto Cano AB]. They are a part of our communities, and we have had experiences of their solidarity and friendship. We had floods ten years ago, and [some] of the first people on the ground were the U.S. Soldiers, supporting us and our people,” said Mayor Palencia. “Those are memories that have left a mark, and we feel that the U.S. military is not only here to defend their country and borders, they are also here to help their neighbors – and to us that is very important, so please feel at home.”
During the meetings, the civil affairs director and the local leaders discussed the benefits and challenges they foresee regarding the airport.
“JTFB welcomes the construction of the airport, not because it will be beneficial to our military operations in any way, but because we know it will bring jobs, economic growth and opportunities to the area. At the same time we share their concerns for an increase in population,” said Uherka. “We are socializing them with the U.S. Embassy to alleviate or mitigate some of the burden.”
When asked what his thoughts were on all the mayors remembering in one way or another how their people have been helped by JTF-Bravo, Uherka said that it shows how a humanitarian assistance program, however small, can have a huge, lasting impacts in these communities across the years.