By David Alexander
PUNTA DEL ESTE, Uruguay (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta cautioned Western Hemisphere countries on Monday against relying on the military to perform police duties, telling a meeting of the region's defense ministers that civilian authorities should be strengthened to deal with law enforcement on their own.
Addressing an issue faced by many Latin American countries as they grapple with insurgencies or drug trafficking, Panetta told the officials, "The use of the military to perform civil law enforcement cannot be a long-term solution."
He acknowledged it is sometimes difficult to tell whether transnational threats to peace and stability should be handled by the military or law enforcement, a debate that has divided the United States as it responded to the September 11 attacks over the past decade.
"As partners, the United States will do what we can to bridge the capability gaps between armed forces and law enforcement," he said at the 10th Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas.
"We are committed to do so in a manner respectful of human rights, the rule of law and civilian authority," he said. "We can and we will provide a helping hand, but ultimately civilian authorities must be able to shoulder this burden on their own."
Panetta spoke on the last day of a three-day visit to South America, where in meeting with fellow defense ministers he pressed for greater collaboration among militaries as part of the Pentagon's new defense strategy.
The strategy, which was approved earlier this year, calls for greater U.S. focus on the Asia-Pacific region.
The Pentagon's Western Hemisphere Defense Policy Statement released last week emphasized threats like terrorism and drug trafficking, and called for the Pentagon to help partner countries - those with whom the United States does not have a formal treaty of alliance - develop and professionalize their military forces.
The strategy seeks to renew U.S. military ties with Latin America after a decade in which Washington was focused on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and countries in the region complained of neglect.
But with a long, complicated history of interventions and meddling in Latin America, the United States will have to overcome deep suspicions as it works to build broader military ties in a region where stable democracies have taken root in recent decades
In visits to Peru and Uruguay, Panetta took steps to implement the U.S. strategy. He agreed to begin work with each country to update their 60-year-old defense cooperation accords to move them beyond Cold War themes and accommodate changes in the laws. Officials said that would enable broader cooperation.
In opening remarks to the plenary session of the conference, Panetta praised what he said was a "remarkable transformation in defense collaboration" in the hemisphere over the past decade, with more and more countries contributing to collective defense efforts like peacekeeping and humanitarian relief.
"We have an historic opportunity to create a new era in our relationship - an era of broad and constructive hemispheric defense collaboration," he said.
Panetta said the United States would like to see the region's militaries improve coordination of their response to natural disasters and humanitarian crises. He said Washington also would work to promote stronger government institutions in the region as a means of promoting security.
U.S. officials have pointed to the devastating magnitude 7 earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010 as an example where more effective coordination of the military response could have saved lives.
"Western Hemisphere nations worked together to provide much-needed help, but we lacked a mechanism to collaborate in real-time and focus our efforts where they were needed most," Panetta said.
He urged the defense ministers to agree to a Chilean initiative which would establish a Web-based system for militaries to coordinate assets they have available to respond to a disaster.
"That's what the Chilean initiative is all about - rapid and fully integrated response. We should implement that initiative now so that we're ready to respond quickly and effectively when the next disaster strikes," Panetta said.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Jackie Frank)