U.S. Helping Colombian Military Cope With Drug War's Legacy
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
MIAMI, Nov. 29, 2005 While U.S. servicemembers are in the Middle East fighting the war on terrorism, Colombia is fighting its own war against terrorists -- narco-traffickers and violent militias that support them in the country's mountainous rural areas.
The U.S. military is helping to train Colombian forces to deal with these violent groups and providing support in other ways, but stopping short of actually getting involved in military action in the country's triple-canopy jungles.
"The Colombian army is on the offensive for the first time," Steve Lucas, a spokesman for U.S. Southern Command here, said.
Under the Colombian government's "Plan Patriota," the country's military is making advances against armed groups used to operating unmolested in ungoverned areas of Colombia where drug trafficking has thrived. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - called FARC from the Spanish "Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia" -and the National Liberation Army - called ELN from "Ejército de Liberación Nacional" - are the main guerrilla groups operating in Colombia's rural areas. Other guerrilla, paramilitary and criminal groups also pose threats.
The U.S. military has provided training assistance for decades. Currently aid to Colombia consists of about 200 trainers and about 200 other troops providing "information support" in the form of reconnaissance support and leadership and planning guidance. Until early fiscal 2005, Congress had imposed a 400-troop cap on U.S. forces in Colombia. The cap is now 800 servicemembers.
No U.S. troops or advisers operate with Colombian operational forces, Lucas said. "U.S. involvement is limited to training in garrison and planning support to headquarters elements," he explained.
U.S. soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group provide most of the training, Lucas said. "They are expert land warriors with extensive training in the region," he said.
U.S. forces provide training on command and staff procedures, basic soldier skills, and "riverine capabilities," among other areas, he said. Riverine capabilities in warfare are employed when a waterway is the main line of communication and transportation, such as in dense jungles.
Lucas added that the 7th Group soldiers often come away feeling a kinship with the Colombian troops they train, calling them "brothers in arms."
"They know they're fighting for their countrymen," he said.
The U.S. objective is to train Colombian military trainers, so they can, in turn, train the bulk of their country's forces. "This is the Colombians' war to win, not our war," Lucas said.
The U.S. State Department carefully vets Colombian units that receive U.S. aid for substantiated human-rights violations, officials said.
"They're making a lot of progress regaining their country because of the training we've been able to provide," Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Mentemeyer, SOUTHCOM's deputy commander, said.
U.S.-provided medical training for Colombia's military forces has paid huge dividends. In recent years the Colombian military has seen its "death-from-wounds rate" drop from nearly 100 percent to about 30 percent, largely because of combat-medic training provided by U.S. Special Forces soldiers.
U.S. Southern Command has also helped the Colombian military set up a sergeants major academy to help train a professional noncommissioned officer corps. "We're working extensively with them to develop an NCO corps," Army Command Sgt. Maj. Michael Balch, SOUTHCOM's senior enlisted advisor, said.
Balch said the Colombians have so far run four iterations of the 10-week course, with 35 to 60 people in each course. They have also opened it up to members of other Latin American countries' militaries. The Honduran sergeant major of the army and a Bolivian NCO have graduated from the course, Balch said.
"(The academy) is clearly improving the morale of their professional enlisted force," Balch said. "They have role models and something to aspire to."
It's in the United States' best interest to provide training help to Colombia's forces so they can counter internal guerrilla, paramilitary and criminal groups, because more stable neighbors improve American security, SOUTHCOM officials said.
Helping Latin American countries deal with their internal problems is also important because international criminal groups are natural bedfellows for terrorists targeting U.S. interests. Trafficking in undocumented immigrants and weapons can add to the terrorist threat in the United States.
For example, between January and June 2004, Mexico deported about 130 Ethiopians transiting Mexico to get to the United States, Nicaraguan Defense Minister Avil Ramirez Valdivia said Oct. 12 during a meeting of Central American defense ministers in South Florida. Roughly the same number of people from each Costa Rica and Belize were also deported from Mexico trying to reach the United States.
This is an example of how many undocumented people from other parts of the world work to enter the U.S. through Latin America. "This shows very clearly how these networks of gangs, drug traffickers, alien traffickers can lead to ... terrorism," Ramirez said.
Lucas also said the United States has a moral obligation to help Colombia deal with its internal terrorist groups, since the United States "is the largest market for cocaine, the flow of which is corrupting their society."
The vast majority of the world's cocaine comes from the "Andean Ridge," consisting of the countries of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, all linked by the immense Andes mountain chain.
Any efforts to help the Colombians also help to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. "In terms of impact on society, illegal drugs could be called weapons of mass destruction," Lucas said. "It's hard to quantify (the impact): crime, affect to families, the increase in the prison population."
Finally, the United States needs to help nations in Latin America develop their professional militaries, because if the U.S. doesn't, then other countries will, Balch said. U.S. officials have seen evidence of China, Venezuela and Cuba providing military aid in the region. "We want to be the partner of choice in the region," Balch said.
During a visit to the command Nov. 21, Army Command Sgt. Maj. William J. Gainey, newly appointed senior enlisted advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, praised SOUTHCOM for its efforts on behalf of the Colombian military and throughout Latin America and urged patience in the face of sometimes slow progress.
"You're breaking ground here," Gainey said. "You know how you eat an elephant, right? One small bite at a time."