The SOUTHCOM commander commended the progress of the Atlas Campaign and the efforts between Colombia and the United States to step up the war on narcotrafficking.
U.S. Navy Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), reaffirmed U.S. support to Colombia in the fight against organized crime and in peace building. During his visit to Colombia on February 9th and 10th, Adm. Tidd held several meetings with the top leadership of the Colombian Armed Forces, headed by the General Command of the Military Forces, the National Police, and the Ministry of Defense.
“Our Armed Forces have stood alongside each other for decades,” Adm. Tidd said in a press briefing. “We continue to play a role in U.S. assistance to the Colombian people as they embrace the opportunities of the post-accord era.”
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Minister of Defense Luis Carlos Villegas also held meetings with the SOUTHCOM delegation in Bogotá. Colombian Vice President Oscar Naranjo, a retired general with the Colombian National Police, and Colombian National Army General Alberto José Mejía, commander of the Colombian Military Forces, traveled with the delegation to the town of Tumaco, where they held cooperation conferences.
The Atlas Campaign
During his visit, Adm. Tidd renewed his confidence in the Atlas Campaign, an operation initiated in October 2017 in and around Tumaco, in the southern Colombian department of Nariño. The operation seeks to counter the increasing threats of organized crime and block drugs from leaving the country from its Pacific coast.
The military campaign was named after Atlas the titan from Greek mythology who bore the weight of the world on his shoulders. Quite like its eponym, the Atlas Campaign holds the weight of Nariño on its shoulders to help rid the department of all threats from organized crime. Responsibility for the operation falls on Joint Task Force Hercules.
In all, 9,800 members of the Colombian Armed Forces make up the Atlas Campaign. Among their other responsibilities: provide government services to all prioritized populations, conduct military operations to fight narcotrafficking, stabilize the border with Ecuador, combat dissident guerrillas and criminal organizations such as the Gulf Clan, fight corruption and small-scale trafficking, and protect energy infrastructure.
Various threats afflict Tumaco. Criminals use the port city to ship tons of drugs out. In 2016, authorities seized close to 420tons of cocaine at the port. Adm. Tidd and Vice President Naranjo agreed that the fight to stabilize the zone must involve a comprehensive intervention in the territory that includes security and a social component.
“We need to maintain this level of cooperation, move forward with a comprehensive vision for Tumaco and for Colombia’s southern coast on the Pacific, where we need to strengthen security and criminal justice capacities and operations,” Vice President Naranjo stated in a press briefing. “The government is committed to a comprehensive military, police, judicial, and social development effort so that our fellow citizens in the region can have access to goods and services and fully exercise their rights.”
Operations with Mexico
“I want to highlight the efforts of the Armed Forces of Colombia working together with the Naval Force of Mexico because they have been able to coordinate their activities and their operations,” Adm. Tidd said. “We hope to work with them, because this is not an effort of a single country, but of all.”
Combined operations between U.S., Colombian, and Mexican forces are conducted in and around Tumaco and in the waters of the Pacific. Colombian authorities, working closely with Mexico, detected the presence of Mexican criminal organizations in the area, which boosted operations among the three partner nations.
“A coordinated effort to counter organized crime is underway in this region, and we have goals set for the forced eradication of coca-growing hot spots and for crop replacement,” Vice President Naranjo said. “But there is also a need to keep up our interdiction duties, because despite the record high of 2016, greater efforts are needed.”
Tumaco, a nerve center
With close to 200,000 inhabitants, Tumaco is considered the sanctuary for Colombia’s coca growers. The area, one of the hardest hit by Colombia’s internal conflict, served as the venue for the bilateral cease-fire accord signed between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in November 2017. According to the report Survey of Territories Affected by Illicit Crops 2016 of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Tumaco produces the largest amount of coca in the country with 16,900 hectares of illegal plantations—equivalent to 18 percent of all drug crops nationwide, estimated at 146,000 hectares.
Authorities work on a crop replacement program. According to figures from the Office of the Vice President, 25,520 families already signed up for collective crop replacement agreements. Of those, 5,600 are through voluntary agreement. These families have already received the first payment from the government as part of the program. In February 2018, 6,000 families were in the pre-registration process to fill up some of the 12,000 additional allocations authorities opened up.
However, the process faces difficulties as crops in officially protected areas belonging to ancestral communities cannot be replaced. Residents put pressure on the government to speed up the program, resolve land ownership issues, meet deadlines, and assign a sufficient number of specialized personnel to replace illicit crops with cacao, banana, and coconut—the produce the people of Nariño chose.
“I want to underscore our commitment to deepening our longstanding partnership with the Colombian Armed Forces and National Police,” Adm. Tidd said at the end of his visit. “We support security and stability across our hemisphere and around the globe.”