The New Face of the Chilean Army: At The Vanguard Of Civilian Protection
The magnitude 8.8 earthquake on February 27, 2010, was a big tragedy for Chileans and their Armed Forces. Support in rescue relief operations changed the military’s relationship with civilians forever.
Two weeks after the quake, on March 10, Army General Juan Miguel Fuente-Alba Poblete was named to the post of commander-in-chief of the Chilean Army. Gen. Fuente-Alba visited the U.S. Southern Command and granted an interview to Diálogo to discuss his experience and the challenges that the Army faces.
DIÁLOGO: Could you speak a bit about the lessons learned from the earthquake in Chile and about the international aid that Chile provides to other countries?
General Juan Miguel Fuente-Alba: After the earthquake on February 27, 2010, I would say — and i’m referring exclusively to the Army — that there were three periods tha characterized the use of the military for aid and collaboration in the situation resulting from the earthquake. At first, it was basically humanitarian — an immediate, localized collaboration involving the various garrisons or military installations in the affected area. That lasted approximately 48 hours. After the first 48 hours, a constitutional state of emergency restricting individual liberties was declared, in this case what is called a “disaster” state of emergency, giving the military a set of authorities and powers enabling it to act with greater legitimacy and legal backing.
That constitutional state of emergency lasted 30 days, during which the military was in command of the jurisdictional area within which it was given authority to act. In that period, the Army basically had to use its resources to be able to provide order and security in the different areas where the earthquake struck, because the population’s behavior was between nervousness and, in a certain way, disturbance in matters relating to security at different commercial installations, fuel sales, etc. For that reason, it was necessary for our forces to deploy and approach the situation in a specific way. In that regard, you have to understand that given Chile’s political history, the act of sending the military into the streets in a difficult situation like the one that some regions were going through — vandalism, theft, looting of supermarkets, etc. — and using the military to prevent that, we had to be very careful how we went about it so as not to have an unwanted death as a result of providing the security that was needed. As a consequence, it was necessary to issue very explicit regulations on this subject, [which] specified the rules of engagement very clearly for our forces, to prevent excesses.
Merely as a side note, within 48 hours the Army needed to move 16,000 men to the affected area, and in the case of a disaster like this one, moving and posting 16,000 Army personnel to an area and not causing additional problems in that area, in terms of logistical supply — i’m referring to fuel, water, food, all the relevant sanitation matters, etc. — meant equipping those people with all the logistics to enable them to support themselves for a period that might last a month or two.
DIÁLOGO: Was the second period to which you are referring the one decreed by then-President Michelle Bachelet through a constitutional state of emergency?
Gen. Fuente-Alba: Yes. Afterward, once the constitutional state of emergency had ended, came the period of humanitarian aid — strictly speaking — and being able to collaborate in rebuilding the most affected areas. That was the last of the three periods, which was going to last four months but actually lasted around six. in this period, the Army found itself obliged to take on two large tasks: continuing military training in the units that were not going to be used in this process, and on the other hand, building a structure to function and carry out our work during the length of time that the rebuilding and humanitarian aid lasted.
I emphasize this last idea since we’re talking about the earthquake; I’m not talking about those who continued to carry out their normal military activity and continued normally with the projects under way. I’m referring solely to the emergency.
For that purpose, it was necessary to stop — I would say — the military activity of two divisions, the divisions located in the center of the country, and shape a force capable of reaching the different communes and places most affected by the earthquake, a total of 117 communes, which are territorial jurisdictions administered by a mayor, to use a more international term. That meant maintaining an average of 10,000 men in the disaster area, focused on health care, repairing roads, demolishing buildings, constructing emergency housing, etc. independent of the Army personnel, a program was implemented between the administration and the Labor Ministry, in which an organization that is part of the Chilean Army, the Military Work Corps, which basically carries out road engineering projects and is governed by a special law, could contract individuals to collaborate in clearing roadways, in clearing rainwater drainage systems, etc.
DIÁLOGO: In some respects, did this end up being a good experience for the Chilean Army?
Gen. Fuente-Alba: In several senses. First, the realization that the Army as a structure, as a military organization, is capable of doubling its capacity with a degree of flexibility and dedicating itself to two completely different tasks, rapidly organizing structures capable of managing an activity different from its usual one, without interrupting it. That’s something very important. The second is that — I don’t want this to sound arrogant — this situation, as painful as it was, generated a very interesting opportunity for the Army from a sociological perspective. The individuals who make up the Army forged very close ties with the population. For every one of those people, there was someone from the Army who came to be with them, to help solve their problem at the moment, to have a squad of people who built their emergency housing, to collaborate with the health sector, set up hospitals that provided care for the sick and the elderly. This degree of closeness enabled us to make a leap forward in recovering a harmonious dialogue with the people.
Probably, that would have come in time, but this painful situation accelerated it. That was a tremendous experience for our people. I visited the affected areas, inspecting the work that people were doing, and one of the things that struck me was hearing from young officers — a captain, a major, a lieutenant — that one of the most marvelous things that had happened to them since joining the Army was the gratefulness of the people for the support the Army was providing in those localities, without it being a strictly military activity.
The other thing that was an experience for us was being able to rely on a force of engineers located in the most densely populated disaster-prone areas, a capacity that we lost in abandoning our territorial presence and becoming an orga nized and deployed force. We should have a force with the capacity to split itself up and be able to rapidly reach any area where aid and humanitarian support are needed in favor of the civilian population.
The other interesting thing was that in one of the regions of the country, another disaster took place, a very intense major snowstorm that lasted three days without stopping — in southern Chile — in which roofs caved in, etc., a series of problems due to the intense cold.
A significant part of the resources of our forces in that area had gone to contribute to the earthquake response in the center of the country, and it was necessary to send them back to help in another disaster response. Our experience, as a consequence, taught us that it is necessary to have a certain degree of flexibility in different locations in the country where disasters commonly occur, such as flooding from rivers or lakes, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, seaquakes, winter at high elevations with large avalanches, landslides in the mountains, etc.
DIÁLOGO: Do you have a special, different project for the Chilean Army under your command?
Gen. Fuente-Alba: In general, the Army’s projects take quite a long time to be executed, and our plan to modernize and transform the force effectively began in 2001-2002, in order for us to have the Army profile that we have today. For this reason, what’s being done today is the final part, the part in which projects are implemented. Now, with the experience obtained as a result of the 2010 earthquake in Chile, we are going to develop a line of units with a higher degree of flexibility to be able to assist in civil-protection plans like those in which the government is engaged.
In the short term, we’re going to develop an operational area that we’re lacking in our armored brigades, and we’ll work on the general idea of units of that kind, which is to have helicopters that accompany the armored brigades. Those aircraft will have a simultaneous double purpose for peacetime operations — that is, one fundamental task and one subsidiary task, to explain it one way. however, at the base level, the Army today is following a set path. It has to consolidate its definitive infrastructure. The Army changed its structure between 2002 and 2005; it changed from being a basically territorial army deployed throughout the territory to an army better described as functional, with more complete and more flexible structures. That demanded and still demands a different kind of structure, infrastructure, installations, such as housing for officers and career Soldiers and their recreation facilities. All that is considered a work in progress. Command of the Army is a four-year post, so you can’t assume that in these four years this is going to be done, and then in the next four years, something else is going to be done. These are works in progress, in which the authority in command of the Army takes on those same projects and continues implementing them.