U.S. Mission in Colombia Impresses Civic Leaders
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
BOGOTA, Colombia, Apr. 23, 2008 As a senior vice president of investments for UBS in Cincinnati, Steve Lee never gave much thought to Colombia.
“Not really at all,” said the easy-going executive, who is touring here as part of the Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, a program for America's civic and business leaders interested in expanding their knowledge of the military and national defense, sponsored by the secretary of defense.
Yesterday, Lee had a front-row seat to a dramatic show of the capabilities of the country’s special forces. He toured its drug eradication headquarters, saw a mockup of a jungle cocaine lab and watched in awe as a team of urban counterterrorist commandos rescued a mock hostage with precision fire, speed, explosions and smoke.
“I have opened my eyes to a whole new part of the world that I haven’t thought too much about,” Lee said at the end of the day.
This is the first time a JCOC has toured the U.S. Southern Command area of operations since the program began in 1948. And while most of the previous conferences have focused on shows of military might and have even featured trips to combat zones, this JCOC group is seeing more of the U.S. military’s humanitarian assistance and other aid-oriented missions, known as “soft power.”
Lee and the 47 others in the group were guided through the tour by members of the U.S. military group assigned here to help Colombia build its capabilities to fight its narco-terrorism problems. Terrorist groups in Colombia are heavily involved in narcotics production and trafficking. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, is believed to be responsible for more than half of the cocaine entering the United States, according to U.S. State Department documents.
Colombia is the size of Texas and California combined, with about 45 million people spread out over its diverse terrain. It has deserts in the north, tropical jungles in the south, high mountain ranges and two oceans on its borders.
The United States has its third-largest contingent of such military troops here, about 500, whose strategic objectives are to defend a fellow democracy, stop the flow of drugs to the United States and build a regional partnership, Army Col. Kevin Saderup, the military group commander here.
The U.S. servicemembers serve in an advisory role, mostly helping Colombian troops to allocate the $150 million in annual U.S. assistance to ensure they get the right equipment and training.
Many Colombian military personnel receive training in the United States or from U.S. instructors in Colombia. The United States provides equipment to the Colombian military and police through the military assistance program, foreign military sales and the international narcotics control program, according to the State Department.
U.S. troops are prohibited by law from participating in actual combat operations here. They use an indirect approach to help the Colombian forces rid the country of narco-terrorists, Saderup said.
“If we are successful here in the defense of our nation’s interest in working with our Colombian partners, no U.S. soldier, sailor airman or Marine will have to give up his life in defense of U.S. interests here in Colombia,” Saderup said.
The JCOC group started the day flying to Tolemaida Air Base, the training site for the Colombian’s special forces – the Lanceros – and its air assault and airborne troops. Located west of Bogota, the base trains about 22,000 troops at a time, and is the largest training installation south of Fort Hood, Texas. The JCOC participants watched as the Lanceros showed off their capabilities, rappelling down towers and firing their weapons, swooping along ropes and demonstrating extractions of hostages and troops from simulated enemy territory.
Afterward, participants were given the chance to try their hand at rappelling.
Lee, who had never rappelled before and who said he is so afraid of heights he wouldn’t even change the security lights on the outside second story of his house using a ladder, decided to give it a try.
“I’ve been scared of heights forever. I just said ‘I’m going to do this,’” he said afterward.
The first step, he said, was the scariest.
“You take that first step and there’s no turning back,” Lee said. “It was a heck of a lot of fun. I was thrilled to get to do that.”
After a flight back to Bogota, a brief lunch and briefings at the U.S. Embassy, the group got to see up close what a cocaine lab that’s typically hidden in remote parts of the country looks like. The Colombian police force unit that flies eradication missions spraying coca fields with weed killer briefed the JCOC group, and the participants talked with the troops who provide security for the missions.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that more than 80 percent of the worldwide cocaine supply and as much as 90 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States is produced in Colombia.
But, between 2004 and 2007, Colombian security forces interdicted almost 700 metric tons of cocaine, coca base and heroin, according to U.S. State Department records. Coca cultivation decreased by 10 percent from 2001 to 2007, while opium poppy cultivation decreased by 67 percent from 2001 to 2007.
The finale for the day was a stop at the Colombian urban counterterrorist special forces headquarters. After a briefing by the troops on the tactics, gear and weapons they use, the JCOC group donned helmets and flak vests for an up-close look at the team’s commando-style house-clearing and hostage-rescue procedures.
The group gathered on a catwalk above the four-room mock house for a bird’s eye view of the action. The scenario was a hostage situation with about 20 “bad guys.” Once the order was given, a sniper “took out” the guard and an explosion breached the entrance of the house.
With precision and speed, the four-man group went room to room, shooting targets that represented terrorists. Real ammunition was used – no blanks. More explosions rattled the helmets nearly off the heads of some JCOC participants. The hostage was recovered, and afterward the participants were able to go into the rooms and see where the rounds hit the targets.
“Those 10 minutes were worth the entire trip,” said Dirk Beveridge, president of 4th Generation Systems in Barrington, Ill. “You see it in the movies, you read about in the papers, but to experience it like that, hearing that, feeling that -- it was awesome.”
Beveridge, like Lee, said that before yesterday’s events he never thought a lot about Colombia. Now, he said, he sees a direct tie between what the U.S. forces are doing here and security in the United States for his children.
“Having a 19-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter, I am so very much appreciative of what they’re doing to help us in the United States to curb drug trafficking,” Beveridge said. “You don’t think of Colombia. You don’t know about the presence that the United States has here in Colombia. Thank God that we’ve got individuals that we met out here today to put themselves on the line to protect my 19-year-old and 17-year-old.”
Beveridge said he was most impressed by the commitment of the Colombian forces and their willingness to risk their lives to stop narco-terrorism and make their country a better place.
“These guys said they want to make Colombia a better place to live, and they are wiling to give their life for that. They are special people,” he said. “What these Colombian forces are doing [is that] they’re making the United States a better place.”
Roslyn Brock, vice chairman of the Baltomore-based National Association for the Advancement of Colored Poeple’s national board of directors, said most of her previous impressions of Colombia were based on movies.
“You see the movies about Colombia and the drug trade, and you think it’s just a country full of a bunch of drug dealers,” she said. “But … there are people who are citizens who just every day want to go to work, who are concerned about their security, concerned about quality of life and they want to do the right thing.”
Brock said that before the JCOC visit she thought mainly of the U.S. military in terms of security and defense. But now she sees that building partnerships with other agencies to help other countries and providing a variety of aid is more of a comprehensive strategy for U.S. military forces.
“Colombians are always looked at as the bad guys. But to see that we’re working together to secure our borders, to eradicate narcotics, it’s just awesome, and I think we need to do more of this,” Brock said.
JCOC is the oldest existing Pentagon outreach program, and the current tour is the 75th in the series.