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Panetta Targets Drug and Arms Deals in South America Tour

April 23 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is embarking today on a week-long visit to Colombia, Brazil and Chile for talks on drug trafficking, arms deals and bolstering smaller militaries in Latin America and elsewhere.

His agenda includes potential military aircraft deals with Brazil and a request from Colombia for more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aid to fight the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrilla group, known as FARC, two U.S. defense officials said in briefing reporters before the trip.

Panetta also is looking to coordinate with the three regional powers to provide military training for smaller countries in Central America and Africa that are fighting the drug trade, the officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private talks in advance.

“These are three countries that are on the upswing in many areas,” said George Little, a spokesman for the Pentagon. “It’s time for us to enhance our already strong cooperation with all three.”

The visits underscore the Pentagon’s increasing reliance on partner nations to confront common threats, support the U.S. defense industry and provide military assistance worldwide. The Defense Department has begun making at least $490 billion in budget cuts over the next 10 years, paring personnel, eliminating major weapons programs and replacing forces deployed overseas with rotating units.

Brazil Deals

In Brazil, Panetta will be prepared to discuss weapons deals involving U.S. and Brazilian companies and the two governments, the officials said, declining to elaborate on specific transactions.

Brazilian airplane maker Embraer SA is subcontractor to closely held American partner Sierra Nevada Corp. on a potentially $1 billion U.S. Air Force contract for light attack aircraft that they won, then lost when it was canceled earlier this year. The Air Force said April 13 it would restart the competition, aimed at acquiring aircraft for Afghanistan’s military.

In another potential deal, Boeing Co.’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is competing against Dassault Aviation SA’s Rafale and Saab AB’s Grippen for a contract to supply Brazil with a fleet of fighter jets that the U.S. State Department estimates could be worth as much as $4 billion. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said she didn’t discuss the plans with President Barack Obama during her White House visit earlier this month.

Military Training

Before his visits to Brasilia and Rio de Janeiro, Panetta will stop in Bogota to discuss joint efforts against the FARC under Plan Colombia, an aid program that has cost more the U.S. more than $7 billion since 2000. The U.S. has about 150 military trainers and an additional 150 contractors working in Colombia.

Panetta and his counterparts also will discuss coordinating assistance to police and military forces in Mexico and other Central American countries. Colombia is training helicopter pilots in Mexico and police in Honduras and Guatemala, the U.S. defense officials said.

Outgoing World Bank President Robert Zoellick said last week that rising drug violence in Central America, including some of the world’s highest murder rates, represents a security threat to the U.S. and a significant drag on the region’s growth.

Brazil might help train military forces in Africa on operations such as maritime drug interdiction. More traffickers are ferrying narcotics from South America through Central America and across the Atlantic to Europe via North Africa, one of the officials said.

Humanitarian Aid

Guatemala’s Pacific coast is becoming a destination for precursor chemicals for methamphetamine and other drugs from the eastern Pacific, the official said. Chile, the final stop on Panetta’s five-day tour, is trying to assist with naval patrols off the Central American coast, the official said.

Panetta also will follow up on plans discussed by his predecessor, Robert Gates, at the last Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas in November 2010, to improve humanitarian aid coordination among the region’s militaries.

The assistance effort after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake faltered in the early days in part because many different military forces arrived to help, one of the U.S. defense officials said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Viola Gienger in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at

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