When a leaf falls in the jungle, the eagle sees it, the serpent senses it, and the tiger smells it. The Iwia soldier sees, senses, and smells it…
IWIA Soldier creed
“Welcome to the jungle!” shout two indigenous soldiers who stand guard dressed in their traditional garb, before one goes through the main entrance of the school yard. Complete with spears, war paint, and screaming out a war chant in their native tongue, it’s an intimidating sight to say the least.
Located in the eastern Amazon region of Ecuador’s Pastaza province, the Iwias Jungle and Counterinsurgency School was founded in 1997 to train indigenous Ecuadorean soldiers in the art of jungle warfare. Iwia means “jungle demons” in the local Shuar language of one of the seven indigenous tribes of the region, and the term is attributed to one of the jungle gods of this tradition. The school bearing this name seeks to recruit soldiers that are native to the country’s Amazon because of their inherent expertise and familiarity of jungle survival. Applicants must also be fluent in their native tongue and be familiar with their home environment.
“Our mission here is to train the indigenous soldier in jungle special operations and hone their knowledge of their natural habitat,” says Lieutenant Colonel Marcelo Pozo, director of the school. “Who better to fight alongside you in the jungle than one who is native to this area?”
The Shuar warriors date back to the pre-Columbian era, when they became known for being bloody fighters who hunted down their enemies to behead them. Today, the Shuars share the Ecuadorean Amazon with other natives, including the Achuar, Huaorani, Kichwa, Sápara, Andoa and Shiwiar.
In 1981, Ecuador and neighboring Peru brought a long-standing border dispute between them to war during the Conflict of Paquisha. Indigenous soldiers participated in the conflict, showing the Ecuadorean military their aptitude for jungle warfare. After witnessing this first-hand, and with a vision to the future, Ecuadorean Joint Staff Colonel (Ret.) Gonzalo Barragán proposed the creation of a special group of indigenous soldiers from the country’s Amazon.
Col. Barragán then created the first military specialty courses in the native Shuar tongue, paving the way for what would become the IWIAS School as it stands today, headquartered in a military base of varied and rough terrain near the city of Puyo.
Then, in 1995, the Ecuador-Peru conflict took a heightened turn and the two nations again took arms during the Cenepa Conflict, over an unmarked line of demarcation between the two, along the Cenepa river. Again, the indigenous jungle soldiers joined their Ecuadorean military brethren and proved that they were a force to be reckoned with because of their ancestral customs and their domain of the jungle environment during operations to defend their national sovereignty.
The Iwias’s performance during the Cenepa Conflict led the Ecuadorean government to officially recognize them with the War Merit Cross for defending territorial integrity.
With the aim of training indigenous aspiring soldiers to become professional elite combatants of the Ecuadorean Army’s jungle units, the school currently offers a two-year curriculum with five different officer and troop level specialty courses:
Iwias Course: Is the initial and most important course in the program, and lasts close to three months. It trains natives in jungle warfare using conventional weapons (rifles, pistols, machine guns) and indigenous weapons (spears, knives, poisonous blow darts). This course also tests each native’s physical and mental fitness and their ability and capacity to survive in the jungle. Upon completing this initial phase, soldiers then have the opportunity to specialize in a variety of disciplines native to the region.
Wañuchic Course: The name means “jungle killer” in the Kychwa language. It is designed to sharpen the soldiers’ hunting skills and train them as snipers. The soldiers that complete this course go on to form part of a special operations battalion in which their specific mission is to hunt to survive in the jungle using any readily-available or easy to build weapon.
Tayuwa Course: The name comes from the Shuar language meaning “explorer”, and is also the name of a local bird – the tayo – which lives inside caves. This course trains soldiers to support operations by exploring the jungle, caves, caverns, and rivers through the use of special equipment and material to take advantage of the terrain.
Ñaupak Course: The name also originates in the Kychwa tongue, and means “preceding”, a precursor, something that leads a way, and trains soldiers to carry out infiltrations by fluvial, aerial and land means in order to select heliports, claim beach heads and carry out helicopter rescues by maximizing special jungle operations.
Arutam Course: The name means “ecologist” in the Shuar language and represents the god of nature and master of waterfalls. The course trains soldiers to apply their ancestral knowledge in everything relating to natural medicine, including the production and application of poisons as well as conserving the flora and fauna of the eastern region.
Soldiers enrolled in this specialty course learn how to use nature’s pharmacy to build first aid kits to cure anything from cuts, wounds, and insect bites, to blood hemorrhaging, recipes to obtain an energy boost, and use tranquilizers. These soldiers also learn what plants are poisonous and how they can be used to fabricate lethal weapons such as the blow dart.
Currently there are approximately 5,000 Iwias soldiers in the Ecuadorean Army, with the school graduating an average of 300 in each class.
Once an Iwia graduate concludes his specialized training, he is deployed into the eastern region for 12 years, unless special circumstances warrant otherwise.
Recently, Iwias soldiers have been deployed to the northern border with Colombia to combat incursions from illegal armed groups in that country.
In the past, the school has received visits from Brazilian military, which has a similar school in their Amazon basin. Though Ecuador’s Iwias School has traditionally focused on recruiting Ecuadorean male indigenous tribal members, its doors do not remain closed to applicants from other countries.
“I invite all our partner nations to be a part of our school,” said Lt. Col. Pozo. “We are the Iwias, the demons of the jungle, the demons of the Ecuadorean Army…and as our motto emblazoned on our patch proclaims – Never Defeated!”