Myers Travels South to Discuss War on Terror With Colombian Leaders
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
BOGOTA, Colombia, Aug. 11, 2003 Joint Chiefs Chairman Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers began a three-day visit to South and Central American Aug. 11 by highlighting the successes leaders here have achieved in the war on terrorism.
While in Colombia the chairman will meet with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who celebrated a year in office Aug. 7. Uribe has aggressively sought to re-establish the government in rebel-held areas and has pursued three narcoterrorist factions.
The chairman will also meet with Defense Minister Martha Lucia Ramerez and Gen. Jorge Mora, the Colombian Chief of Defense.
The relationship between the United States and Colombia has changed. In the past, U.S. efforts were directed exclusively at the threat posed by drug traffickers.
But the rebels groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the United Self-defense Groups of Colombia (AUC) use tactics indistinguishable from terrorists. Officials estimate the FARC the largest rebel group has roughly 15,000 hard-core adherents with another 5,000 "sleeper cells." Officials estimate the ELN has about 5,000 supporters and the AUC has about 10,000. All of the groups are allied with drug traffickers and sell drugs to buy weapons and finance their operations. The United States has expanded the help it provides to Colombia to take on the terrorist groups.
"You can't cure just half a cancer" was the way one senior military official put it in describing the change to U.S. policy. "The expansion from counternarcotics to counterterrorism is exactly the right thing to do," said a senior military official. The official said the Colombian military is very capable and that the people want free and democratic rule.
With U.S. training provided by some 400 Army Special Forces and contract personnel the military will become even more capable, the official said.
The chairman will discuss how the programs are going in the country and listen to Colombian officials as they detail their experiences and needs in the war on terrorism.
For his part, the chairman will share with Colombian leaders some of the U.S. "lessons learned" from actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. He will specifically speak about the effectiveness of joint operations, the necessity of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and ways to "operationalize" intelligence.
The FARC, ELN and AUC are all listed on the State Department's terrorist organization list. For decades, the organizations have cowed the populace into cooperating with them.
In one recent incident, FARC members paid an 8-year-old boy 25 pesos to ride a bicycle up to a police station. The bicycle was packed with explosives and when the boy arrived at the station, operatives using remote control detonated the bomb. They killed the boy, a pregnant woman and some police, and wounded many others.
The groups also target the infrastructure needed to run the country. From January to May 2002, for example, the groups launched 406 attacks against oil pipelines, electric towers, communications towers and bridges.
The Colombian government is fighting back. The government has opened police stations, army bases and placed services in areas that the rebels controlled before. Officials are working to ensure the judicial system gets back on track. Rebels had targeted judges for assassination an in one instance killed 12 justices during an attack on Colombia's Supreme Court.
The Colombian military is also protecting local mayors and town council who too often were rebel targets in the past. "There are places in Colombia that are seeing the government for the first time in 30 years," said a Defense official.
The military is fighting back and now the FARC, which used to work in battalion-sized units with impunity, is now forced to fight in company- sized or smaller units, officials said.
From January to May 2003, attacks on infrastructure targets dropped to 191: a reduction of 53 percent from 2002.
Counterterrorism units are making headway. According to U.S. Southern Command, the Colombian military captured 5,784 rebels from August 2002 to May 2003, compared to 2,790 during a similar period beginning August 2001. The Colombian government killed or wounded 1,548 rebels in 2003 and seized almost 4,500 weapons.
U.S. Southern Command officials said the number of rebel deserters has "skyrocketed," with 1,375 since Uribe took office in August 2002.
While the program is part of the global war on terrorism, it does not ignore the drug aspect. In 2002, the most recent year for statistics, Colombian authorities arrested 33,340 traffickers. They also seized 94 metric tons of cocaine and 23 metric tons of coca base.
The chairman will discuss regional aspects of the war on terror. Officials said he will discuss allegations that some of the rebel groups are finding refuge in neighboring Venezuela.