A Navy ship sailing around South America was supposed to stop in Peru this month for training exercises, but the plans were abruptly canceled after the country was thrown into a political crisis.
More than 1,400 sailors and Marines aboard the amphibious assault ship Wasp were slated to conduct humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercises alongside Peruvian troops near Lima and the Paita district, according to defense officials.
But those plans were unexpectedly changed, according to several defense officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, after a series of events led to the country's congress being dissolved and the president being suspended. Military officials exhausted all efforts to get the clearance from Peru to make the stops there, one official said.
The political unrest in Peru began playing out as the Wasp got underway from San Diego. The ship, which has a 65-person Marine task force aboard, is sailing around the horn of South American as it heads to its new homeport in Virginia where it will undergo maintenance.
Officials with U.S. Southern Command and Naval Forces Southern Command declined to comment about the change. The State Department referred questions back to the Defense Department, and officials with the Peruvian Embassy did not immediately respond to questions about why the Navy and Marine Corps didn't get the clearance to conduct exercises there.
Gonzalo Bonifaz, the minister counselor in the Peruvian foreign service at the embassy, said only that the country has excellent relations with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.
"Peru and the U.S. are great partners," Bonifaz said. "We share common values based on the respect of the rule of law, democracy and economic freedom."
The ship is now sailing toward Valparaíso, Chile, where the Marines will depart and return to California, Cmdr. Kate Meadows with Naval Forces Southern Command said. There were initial plans to send about 200 Marines on the Wasp, but Meadows said the number dropped to about 65 before they got underway.
The Marines have done amphibious and cultural exchanges with troops from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and El Salvador, who have been aboard the ship.
When the ship stops in Chile and the Marines leave, Meadows said about 20 other international partners will board. That includes personnel from Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Peru, she said.
As the Wasp heads toward its next stop in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, those troops will conduct a humanitarian assistance-disaster relief training scenario, Meadows said.
The Wasp is shifting homeports from Japan to the East Coast. Adm. Craig Faller, the head of U.S. Southern Command, told reporters last week he tries to use every ship that passes through his area of operations to work with partners and enhance sailors' and Marines' readiness.
"But [the ships have] places they've got to be and the path they've got to take," he said.
-- Richard Sisk contributed to this report.