Touring South America, Panetta renews defense ties with Peru

LIMA Sat Oct 6, 2012 2:38pm EDT

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks next to New Zealand's Minister of Defence Jonathan Coleman (not pictured) as they hold a joint news conference at the Government House Pavilion in Auckland September 21, 2012. REUTERS/Larry Downing

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta speaks next to New Zealand's Minister of Defence Jonathan Coleman (not pictured) as they hold a joint news conference at the Government House Pavilion in Auckland September 21, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Larry Downing

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LIMA (Reuters) - Defense ministers from Peru and the United States agreed on Saturday to update their 60-year-old defense cooperation agreement as a step toward deepening military ties between the two countries.

The accord was reached as the United States works to re-engage Latin America, a region that has at times complained of being neglected over the past decade as Washington fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The principle thrust of our defense strategy, our new defense strategy, is aimed at reaching out and developing partnerships and alliances throughout the world and particularly in this region," U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Saturday after meeting Peruvian President Ollanta Humala and his defense minister.

Panetta said U.S. strategy was not aimed at establishing bases on foreign soil but at helping countries in the region develop capabilities to provide security for their citizens.

Washington is especially worried about drug trafficking and violence in Mexico and Central America, and cocaine production and rebel groups in Peru and Colombia.

"The United States is part of the family of the Americas and we face some common challenges. We face the challenge of terrorism, we face the challenge of drug trafficking," Panetta said on the first stop of a Latin American tour that will also take him to a regional meeting of defense ministers in Uruguay.

Humala, a former army officer, has vowed to stamp out a ragtag band of former Shining Path rebels who work in the country's remote jungles alongside coca planters and cocaine traffickers.

Peru is virtually tied with Colombia as the world's No. 1 coca producer, according to U.S. and U.N. studies.

Though Humala has made some high-profile arrests, the rebels have frequently caught soldiers in deadly ambushes that have embarrassed the president and forced him to replace his defense and interior ministers several times over the last year.

Critics say Humala needs more effective strategies to curb the drug trade and avert any efforts by the Maoist Shining Path, which nearly toppled the state in the 1990s, to rebuild.

Panetta said providing security to Peruvians could be part of Humala's efforts to fight poverty.

"In order to improve the lives of the people here, we have to provide for their security," Panetta said.

"Our country will do whatever we can to work with our friends here in Peru to provide whatever assistance is necessary," he said. (Reporting By David Alexander; Editing by Terry Wade and Vicki Allen)

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