Colombia: A Naval School for the World
By Marian Romero/Diálogo September 15, 2016The fight against drug trafficking in Colombia has allowed the country to perfect techniques and strategies associated with maritime interdiction. For the past 15 years, the country has made a huge effort to capture vessels involved in drug trafficking. As a result, it has strengthened its specialized vigilance along its land, sea, and air borders. Because transnational crimes are commonly carried out by sea, the Colombian Navy has developed a broad range of knowledge about the efficient handling of equipment and personnel engaged in interdicting vessels involved in illegal activities. Thanks to this experience, Colombia has become an international benchmark for these skills. Based on this recognition, the decision was made to share Colombia's knowledge with the rest of the world through the International Coast Guard School and the Marine Corps Training Base. “Drug trafficking is a transnational crime that requires the attention of all countries that can be transited by an illegal vessel. It's a complex situation that has continued over the years due to [drug trafficking's] very high profitability and its capacity to shift and migrate to zones that are less prepared for it. In these circumstances, linking countries directly together to fight against drug trafficking has become an urgent necessity," said Colombian Navy Rear Admiral John Carlos Flores, the Coast Guard commander. To combat the so-called balloon effect, Colombia has set up two training schools that specialize in maritime interdiction for all of the Americas and the world. With support from the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), Colombia is betting it can curb the illegal transit of ocean shipments by promoting joint operations and the unification of doctrine via its training of the world's armed forces. International Coast Guard School The building housing the International Coast Guard School was inaugurated in July 2015 in the city of Cartagena. However, the school has offered international courses on such topics as planning and executing maritime interdiction operations, search and rescue, and the fight against drug and human trafficking since 2009. All of this was framed by the policies of the Colombian Navy's leadership, which were aimed at bolstering the security of the region by unifying doctrine under the strict application of protection laws for life at sea. The school is under the direction of the Coast Guard Command of the Colombian Navy, whose mandate is to guarantee maritime safety by curbing crime at sea, preserving the marine environment, and undertaking search and rescue operations. The school was built with support from the U.S. Southern Command. About 300 commissioned and non-commissioned officers from more than 20 countries in Europe, Africa, and North, Central, and South America have been trained there. The international courses, which are taught in Spanish and English, develop skills and theoretical and practical competence in areas such as leadership, operational procedures, the piloting of small craft, site exploration, and defensive and survival techniques. All courses include the use of cutting-edge technology and ocean operations simulators. “The school is designed to be a space for the exchange of knowledge between participants. Even though Colombia has the most experience, sharing all countries' best practices bolsters everyone's level of understanding. Our doors are always open to learning successful tactics because the school's aim is to generate regional unity, which is achieved through dialogue between the parties," said Rear Adm. Flores. One of the school's unusual aspects is the training it provides in dealing with anti-drug trafficking legislation in the hemisphere. “Each nation's laws against transnational crime are different, and criminals take advantage of the gaps to engage in their illicit activities. The specialized courses that are offered teach this material in order to come up with the best interdiction strategy on a case-by-case basis," said Rear Adm. Flores. Colombia is not relying solely on specialized training to help eradicate the problem of drug running on the high seas; it also is wagering that the officials from different countries who come together will earn each other’s trust and establish friendly ties, allowing for more fluid and effective communication in the field. “I believe the bonds of friendship that form between the students are one of the school's greatest benefits. Meeting in person generates closeness and allows officials to set aside protocols that previously delayed the conducting of operations. In the school, we promote teamwork and the removal of borders, while respecting each country's sovereignty, so that we all can take care of our oceans together," said Rear Adm. Flores. Marine Corps Training Base The Marine Corps Command undertakes operations in the territorial jurisdiction assigned to the Colombian Navy along Colombia’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts, insular territory, and navigable rivers. The Marine Corps has a powerful amphibious force that allows it to exercise control over waterways and land and to efficiently support naval forces when required. Currently, drug trafficking is primarily undertaken in jungle zones with difficult access, forcing the authorities to do intense intelligence-gathering work in order to discover the location of crops and cocaine labs. This is why the Marine Corps Training Base plays a very important role in the hemispheric training project. “Taking into account the transient nature of drug trafficking and Colombia's vast experience in the fight against this problem, the base began giving courses to neighboring countries in the Pacific Basin to provide them with the same training and skills. Expert officers from the Colombian Navy visit the countries that need to resolve a situation; come up with a viable solution that takes into account the nation's capabilities and resources; and design an effective strategy that can be implemented in situ,” said Brigadier General Oscar Eduardo Hernández, commander of the Marine Corps. To date, the Marine Corps has trained 800 officers from Costa Rica, Panama Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and El Salvador in their own territories on topics and strategies tailored to their specific needs. The courses cover topics ranging from the handling of reinforced polyester and fiberglass (for boat repair), to water combat survival techniques. The Marine Corps also manages the International Amphibious Training Center, which offers courses in: canine infirmary, substance detection canines (narcotics, explosives, and currency), basic explosives and mine deactivation, swimming safety, basic marksmanship, combat, sniper training, non-commissioned Marine Corps officer basic training, martial arts, non-lethal weapons, and the administration of flammable substances and lubricants. The Marine Corps also runs a waterway operations school, which offers courses in waterway operations, river piloting, and river artillery. “During the whole time we've given training around the world, we've received very good feedback. Speaking the same language and having experience on the same type of territory as the other countries generates closer ties with the Latin American countries that take the courses. Learning is acquired efficiently, and subsequent communication during operations is easier," said Brig. Gen. Hernández. Since Colombia began training other countries in 2001, it has trained 1,737 students from 14 countries to date in different methods and techniques. The financial backing of the U.S. government, which has the most interest in eradicating drug trafficking activity in the region, has made the training courses possible. The United States began providing all types of training to Colombia in the 1990s, when the drug-trafficking phenomenon reached its highest peaks.