Colombia Strengthens Its Maritime Capacities

Colombia Strengthens Its Maritime Capacities

By Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo
August 02, 2017

On June 8th the Colombian Navy added a specialized diving unit to reinforce its suppression of transnational crime at sea and bolster its search-and-rescue and emergency-response capabilities. The unit will be inaugurated in August. The Coast Guard Dive Station is part of the “Institutional Development Plan 2030,” which the Navy began in 2016. Through this plan, the Navy is looking to create diving groups attached to the 24 Coast Guard stations charged with controlling all activities at sea, in order to reinforce them with nationwide coverage. Each station has a diving team equipped with the latest technology for conducting operations that range from finding camouflaged drugs to providing emergency response and aiding vessels in distress. The new unit will be headquartered at the port of Cartagena, Colombia. It is the nation’s third diving unit to meet high standards of international certification, after Buenaventura in Valle de Cauca, and Turbo in Antioquia. It has the capacity for planning, organizing, supervising, and conducting underwater operations or rescue at sea, on rivers, or lakes. “This dive-and-rescue station allows us to have a greater degree of rapid response in the fight against drug trafficking, and in any type of emergency. In August, we’re going to inaugurate the station at Santa Marta in the department of Magdalena, in October, the one on San Andrés Island, and in the first quarter of 2018, the one at Barranquilla,” Colombian Navy Captain Camilo Mauricio Gutiérrez, the commander of the Caribbean Coast Guard, told Diálogo. In June, the new unit’s specialized diving squadron, together with personnel from the Cartagena Coast Guard Station, performed dives and underwater inspections to counter the drug trafficking scourge that is attempting to operate in Colombian ports, Capt. Gutiérrez reported. In these operations, various large vessels, sailboats, yachts, and port facilities were searched. Autonomy, intelligence, and immediate response According to Navy officials, in recent years one of the methods used by drug traffickers includes metal cylinders full of drugs — also known as “parasites”— that are attached to the hulls of vessels by welding or magnets. The cylinders measure two meters long and 50 centimeters wide, on average. “The person who puts a ‘parasite’ in place is the same one who, 15 to 20 days later, travels to the port as a tourist to retrieve the drugs. This is a method that is very hard to detect. With our divers’ and the Coast Guard stations’ capabilities, we will combat this advance in crime technology and other methods,” Capt. Gutiérrez assured. In 2014, Navy surface-and-diving units, in collaboration with the Colombian National Police, for the first time detected and seized 290 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride that traffickers attempted to send underwater using “parasites” affixed under the hull of a merchant ship that was moored at the Port of Cartagena. “One key aspect of conducting successful operations is our integration of the operational side with intelligence information. We work very judiciously to verify information. In addition, we maintain an information exchange with intelligence and security agencies such as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and U.S. Southern Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force-South. We’re working quite well,” Capt. Gutiérrez said. “Intelligence work is essential but it needs to be intelligence that knows exactly how these kinds of transnational organizations are coordinated, and what their regional dynamics are, to allow us to work more comprehensively,” Ricardo Vargas, an international consultant on Colombian security issues, told Diálogo. According to the Colombian Navy’s 2015-2018 Naval Strategy Plan, “One of the Navy’s most demanding, overwhelming, and permanent duties is the fight against drug trafficking and related crimes, through which the defeat of transnational crime structures is sought in coordination with public law enforcement and other state security agencies.” Joint effort In their effort to protect life at sea, a Navy company of specialist divers, some of them from the Diving School in Turbo, assumed an active role in the search and rescue of 150 people after their ferry capsized and sank in the Guatapé Reservoir in the department of Antioquia, on June 25th. The rescue operations were supported by members of the Colombian Air Force, the National Police and Fire Brigade, and local authorities. The tragedy left six dead and 15 missing. Protecting lives is a priority for the Navy, and through the ongoing efforts of Coast Guard personnel and various naval vessels that carried out 162 operations in 2016, more than 710 people were rescued. The Navy also seized more than 175 tons of cocaine, according to the 2016 Management Report issued by the Colombian Navy. “Before, coordination was done through the Department of Diving and Rescue, and that delayed us. Now, not only do we have the information but also the availability of divers to provide an immediate response,” Capt. Gutiérrez said. Thanks to the Dive Stations, the Coast Guard stations have more autonomy when conducting underwater inspections, and search-and-rescue operations. “Considering the strategic environment domestically and in the region, it is important that the Colombian Armed Forces continue their modernization and upgrade program,” Rubén Sánchez, a security analyst and investigator at the National University of Colombia, told Diálogo. “[That way, they will be able to] respond adequately to any incidents, potential threats, and challenges that may develop at sea, on land, or in the air.”
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