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Colombian General Shares Military Experiences about Demobilization with U.S. Southern Command

Colombian General Shares Military Experiences about Demobilization with U.S. Southern Command

By Dialogo
June 17, 2013

Interview with Colombian Army Brigadier General Germán Saavedra Prado, coordinator of the team of Humanitarian Attention to Demobilized People

In recent years, conducting demobilization campaigns in order to reinsert former Colombian guerrillas to society has been a permanent quest in the life of Brigadier General Germán Saavedra Prado. During his recent visit to U.S. Southern Command to strengthen relationships with the United States, Colombia’s main partner in the fight against the FARC and ELN, the Colombian Army general granted Diálogo an interview to share his experiences.

Diálogo: What activities are the Colombian Armed Forces developing to avoid recruitment of children and adolescents by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army, among others?

Brigadier General Germán Saavedra Prado: Our Armed Forces have an enormous responsibility in preventing illicit recruitment. With that goal, they work jointly with different state institutions, such as the presidency’s inter-sectorial commission, the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare and the Police for Children and Adolescents. There is an integrated effort to prevent illicit recruitment. In different jurisdictions throughout the country, division commanders have identified which municipalities, which areas are vulnerable to this problem, where terrorist groups recruit minors by force in order to integrate them in combat.

Diálogo: Illegal mining has become a very important source of profit for groups such as the FARC. What are the Armed Forces doing to confront this issue?

Brig. Gen. Saavedra: We have organized that activity with the guidance and direction of Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón. The responsibility to tackle this scourge is more directly involved with the National Police. We know that all the efforts against these terrorist groups are designed to disrupt funding, and we know that they use illegal mining as a source of revenue, as they have done with drug trafficking. In view that we have reduced the financial support they had with drug trafficking, they have tried to keep themselves in the shadows throughout this illegal mining process.

Diálogo: Was your work as 10th Armored Brigade commander at Cacique Upar Valley and Guajira Peninsula related to this issue?

Brig. Gen. Saavedra: The experiences I had as 10th Armored Brigade commander at Cesar and Guajira departments was of crucial importance, because we have the largest open-pit coal mining companies there. We accomplished this by integrating indigenous communities, especially the Wayús, to society.

Diálogo: In terms of Information Operations, what are the Colombian Armed Forces doing to motivate guerrillas to surrender their weapons?

Brig. Gen. Saavedra: The mission of the group Humanitarian Attention to Demobilized People is to generate aggressive and dynamic campaigns to reach those demobilized guerrillas in different regions of the country, in areas where the joint task forces are working, so that we can tell people who leave the armed struggle – by means of that coordinated and integrated work – to demobilize, because the government and the Ministry of Defense will offer them benefits so that they can start a new life and return to their families.

Last year we developed operation “Ríos de Luz,” (Rivers of Light) where plastic capsules with battery-operated lights inside that lasted eight days were created to send messages inviting them to demobilize. We put the capsules in different rivers in the south of the country, using the rivers as the avenues through which everything circulated. Luckily, we have done very important work with our Armed Forces and our Marines in order to control those rivers, and we chose those rivers to send them a demobilization message.

Diálogo: Part of the Armed Forces does not agree with demobilization because it considers that demobilized guerrillas might be FARC informers. What it is your opinion?

Brig. Gen. Saavedra: This disarmament, demobilization and reintegration process that the team of Humanitarian Attention to Demobilized People is developing has four filters that allow us to determine if the person really belongs or not. We have specialized analysts.

Initially, the tactical unit does the initial interrogation in the area of operations where the disarmament takes place. Later, intelligence specialists lead a second round of interrogations to evaluate whether the individual belongs to that armed group. I carry out a third interrogation with my analysts already in the program. The interview is conducted by retired sergeant majors that have worked at the institution and know the enemy because they belong to intelligence. We trust them to determine if these demobilized people are FARC or ELN members. All this is integrated with a process involving psychologists and pedagogues that we have in different shelters, where we keep these people during the demobilization process. The goal is for them to become sound citizens and become part of our society as good people.

Diálogo: If peace talks in Havana ended successfully, what would happen with military service men and women that are now combating the FARC and the ELN? What is going to happen with the 8,000 guerrillas that belong to those organizations?

Brig. Gen. Saavedra: Our military and police forces would continue to embrace the Constitution and maintain the country’s sovereignty. We would continue to protect and guarantee life to civil population. We would also work fulfill our regular military roles, which include improving regular war, participating in humanitarian aid events, and specializing in disaster assistance, which is a very important challenge in our country nowadays. We would also receive environmental training. There are so many responsibilities that we have to improve and make perfect once we achieve peace in our country.

Diálogo: Are guerrillas being integrated as regular citizens in society?

Brig. Gen. Saavedra: Guerrillas will become members of society with the help of the national government, so they can become sound citizens.

Diálogo: How important is it for the Colombian Military Forces to work jointly with U.S. Southern Command and other Western Hemisphere countries?

Brig. Gen. Saavedra: Our experience in the 50-year Colombian internal conflict this year, has been helpful for us to become an example, to teach other countries, to demonstrate how we have maintained a democracy and to generate trust and fuel that union of friendship and exchange with our partners and neighboring countries. Our efforts with the United States have involved a lot of friendship, a lot of integration, support and information exchange.