Colombian Army Multi-Mission Heroes
By General Francisco Javier Cruz Ricci, commander of the Colombian Army’s 6th Division* July 25, 2017Trained on how to confront and stop criminal activities which have impacted Colombia’s general welfare, social progress, and economic interests for more than 50 years, the soldiers of the Colombian National Army set their combat equipment aside to plunge into turbulent waters, which on March 31st carried away houses, cars, electric poles, and entire families who lost the battle against the mud and giant rocks. The first to arrive in the area devastated by the mudslide that night were soldiers from the 27th Combat Services Battalion, “Simona de la Luz Duque de Alzate.” From their base of operations in Mocoa, Putumayo, they saw from a distance how the Sangoyaco and Mulato rivers and the Taruca, Taruquita and San Antonio tributaries burst their banks and added to the floodwaters. It was then that the soldiers, stirred by the bravery of their unit commander, Lieutenant Colonel José Alexander Pedraza, left their lodgings in the middle of the night to rescue children, elders, and whole families who, hanging from trees and clinging to sticks and rocks, cried out to be saved by the men in uniform, who that day faced off against the scariest battle that they could ever have imagined. Amid the rocks, mud, collapsed buildings, and fallen trees, the soldiers rescued 116 people who had survived nature’s fury. The avalanche destroyed 17 neighborhoods in the capital of the Putumayo department between 11:00, on the night of March 31st, and 2:00 on the morning of April 1st. At that hour, endless rain began to fall, and later, in the dead of night, the magnitude of what was happening could be seen when the force of the floodwaters subsided and a sense of desolation, sadness, and impotence began to take hold of the humble residents of Mocoa, who, unclothed and bruised, some unconscious and others in panic, suddenly found themselves without anything. That was a moment of absolute crisis experienced in a southern department of Colombia, which for many years had suffered from a lack of public investment, as well as the degradation of its patrimony. The grave situation, caused by torrential rains, became known around the world. The emergency At around 5:00 in the morning, nationwide alerts were activated and the National Risk Management System and disaster response entities, as well as the Colombian Red Cross, Colombian fire brigades, and civil protection agencies, deployed from Bogotá to the department of Putumayo. In record time, with the support of Colombian Armed Forces aircraft, which also made health professionals and their team of humanitarian assistance and disaster prevention available, they continued the evacuation, rescue, and debris-removal efforts to rescue the missing and recover the dead. It was a heroic first-response action performed over two days by the 1,200 soldiers who were strategically located in the area to aid, protect, and care for the victims of the mudslide. Their professional training focused on protecting the lives of citizens, allowed these soldiers to successfully calculate the risks of the mudslide. To care for the victims of the tragedy, temporary shelters were set up, controlled by military units in the region. Some 2,000 people were cared for in the shelters made up of tents which were quickly set up. They received immediate medical, psychological, spiritual, and specialized care. That action allowed them to control the chaos and reduce the victims’ level of stress, who, in spite of their suffering, found a ray of hope in the shelters. The disaster destroyed a large part of Mocoa, affecting 300 families, leaving 329 dead (120 of whom were minors), another 70 missing, and 32 unidentified bodies. Heroes in reconstruction The environmental disaster was an unexpected tragedy which, in addition to taking lives, cut off the departments of central Colombia from the south of the country for the first five days. The torrential rains swept away a bridge which connected the capital of Putumayo with the municipality of Pitalito Huila, another Colombian department. During the stabilization phase, the bridge was replaced with an ACROW modular military bridge. In less than 10 hours, with support from the National Highway Institute, the National Infrastructure Agency, and the Colombian National Army engineers, the flow of water and vehicular access were restored. In a joint effort, they re-established traffic along the main road in record time so that cargo vehicles, public transportation, and personal vehicles could travel to Ecuador and Peru without any problem. These multi-mission heroes from the recently created Comprehensive Action Command of the Colombian Army also led the logistics strategy to receive and distribute equitably and in a controlled manner the 2,093 tons of non-perishable food, water, milk, personal hygiene supplies, mattresses, pillows, clothing, and kitchen supplies that were put together by the Mocoa Mayor’s Office, the Colombian Red Cross, and the National Police in order for victims to receive the aid in time. One of the shelters that received the largest number of affected individuals was the Technology Institute of Putumayo. Military engineers had to rebuild an access road so that personnel could reach the victims. The Colombian National Army also removed debris and detonated 15 boulders in the Sangoyaco and Mulato rivers and the Taruca and Taruquita tributaries. That operation was conducted with support from military geotechnical engineers who traced and verified the flow of the rivers in the area around Mocoa to identify and prevent any hazards. With support from Colombian Army Aviation and approximately 120 soldiers, pipes were transferred from Bogotá to build the new aqueduct in Mocoa. In that operation, 38 helicopter trips were made to deliver 480 tubes to carry out the large project. A multi-mission army ready for new challenges All of these actions were made possible thanks to the professional training of a large group of Colombian National Army officers, non-commissioned officers, and soldiers attached to the Disaster Prevention and Response Battalion. Years prior, before arriving in Mocoa, these Colombian Army heroes were present in countries like Haiti and Honduras, providing humanitarian aid during various international emergencies as well as in Puerto Salgar, Cundinamarca, another region of Colombia where months before, a tragedy similar to the one in Mocoa had happened and where the brave soldiers of that institution also participated in the relief effort. During the total reconstruction of the 17 neighborhoods in Mocoa, Putumayo, which bore the brunt of nature’s fury, the Colombian National Army will also have the mission of inspecting and paving six kilometers of roadway in order to restore the highways. Rigid pavement will be used, to leave Mocoa better off than before, and to reinforce the region as an Amazon territory that is safe, visible, and interesting to the world at large. New challenges As part of the transformation process, the Colombian Army’s 6th Division, which has jurisdiction over the departments of Caquetá, Putumayo, and Amazonas, is meeting new challenges in the area of national defense and security. It has top-level technology and the capacities needed to deal with organized crime and illegal armed groups in general, which attempt to violate public safety through drug trafficking, illegal mining and deforestation, and other criminal activities that impact the general welfare of Colombians. With the support and capabilities of our military engineers, the Colombian Army is improving roads and completing water management and drainage projects, as well as drilling and compaction on some stretches of secondary and tertiary roadways within its jurisdiction. In this transformation phase, the recently created Humanitarian Demining Battalions has been charged with conducting non-technical studies to find and destroy explosive devices and anti-personnel mines, with the purpose of protecting the civilian population and ensuring socio-economic development in communities torn apart by violence from narco-terrorist groups. The heroes of the Colombian Army have been efficient; their results, exceptional. They have shown leadership in critical situations caused by natural disasters, and they have provided differential recovery and stabilization responses involving their military units specialized in search, rescue, and recovery under the direction of other units specialized in open-air demolition and the installation of structures, such as military bridges. Thanks to our service members’ effectiveness, today we are able to speak of peace reigning far and wide over the 6th Division’s jurisdiction, where our service members’ efforts, commitment, and courage have clearly been demonstrated. As a result of their hard work, the homicide rate has dropped to its lowest level in 40 years – something that would not have been possible without the courage and drive of our heroic service members, with whom we are creating a better nation. *Brigadier General Francisco Javier Cruz Ricci, of the Colombian Army Engineers, is the commanding officer of the Army 6th Division with jurisdiction over the departments of Caquetá, Putumayo, and Amazonas. *Brigadier General Francisco Javier Cruz Ricci, of the Colombian Army Engineers, is the commanding officer of the Army 6th Division with jurisdiction over the departments of Caquetá, Putumayo, and Amazonas.