The U.S. Embassy and the Colombian National Navy sponsor educational initiatives for low-income ethnic minorities.
The Colombian National Navy and the Colombian National Police count on support from the U.S. Embassy in Colombia through a grant program of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). The program, endowed with more than $15 million since 2013, supported nearly 4,000 low-income youth from Colombian ethnic minorities who want to pursue a military career.
“The goal of this program is to help the Navy—its Navy and Marine Corps components—bring in applicants who cannot cover training academy costs [tuition, gear, and other costs] to comply with their recruitment procedures,” Chris Landberg, director of INL in Colombia, told Diálogo. “The grants are intended for Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and at-risk populations who reside in areas where opportunities to secure professional employment are scarce.”
The scholarship covers tuition plus a monthly stipend for living expenses, uniforms, and materials required to complete the full training course. INL contributes 75 percent, while the Colombian National Navy provides the remaining 25 percent. “However, it is the responsibility of the selected students to seize the opportunity, maintain their academic performance, and comply with all rules at the naval academy,” Landberg said.
The grants are part of INL’s work in Colombia to counter international crime and narcotrafficking, and to strengthen public security forces, courts, and penal system. The operations are coordinated with various ministries of the Colombian government. “[The] institutions that represent Colombian diversity not only benefit themselves, but also benefit the populations they serve,” Landberg said.
“The program for the Navy is focused primarily on the San Andrés Islands, areas around Cartagena, and parts of the Pacific region. It’s gradually expanding to young people in [the departments of] Amazonas, Bolívar, Choco, and Urabá,” he added.
“It is important to acknowledge the support INL has given Colombia, not only in helping us find ways to gain greater capacities at the operational level, but also from the standpoint of cooperation and development,” Rear Admiral Juan Francisco Herrera Leal, commander of the 73rd Anti-Narcotrafficking Task Force Neptune told Diálogo. “That is we not only seek solutions by force, but preventive solutions as well.”
Helmsmen for Peace
To increase the chances of success in training Navy and Marine Corps noncommissioned officers, the Colombian government also pushes regional initiatives that foster an interest in young people to join the Colombian Military Forces or continue their university studies. The Helmsmen for Peace program was born of such initiative in Urabá, in the northwestern department of Antioquia.
“Helmsmen for Peace is a program we ran in 2017 with 10th and 11th grade students at a high school, and with the University of Antioquia,” Rear Adm. Herrera said. “A helmsman is the person who steers the ship, and he has to know where he’s going to avoid running aground. This means that these young people will know where they want to go, as peacekeepers, because one of the problems in Urabá is youth [gang activity].”
Through the program, the Navy brought Urabá high school students together with Marine Science students from the University of Antioquia to participate in meetings, conferences, and recreational activities. The goal was to spark their interest and make plans for a future with the military or the public university. “Through the [Colombian] National Navy, whenever a ship arrived, we invited them aboard, and they sailed on the ship around the Gulf [of Urabá, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast]. That left them with a different attitude,” Rear Adm. Herrera said.
Some exercises included their parents. Others consisted of research campaigns in which the youth learned about equipment used at sea and even visited the Cantón de la Armada Nature Reserve in Urabá to observe its biodiversity.
Students at the University of Antioquia analyzed the results of the process and concluded that participants’ fear of youth gangs and lack of motivation gave way to their interest in working on a lifelong plan. “[Having had] the opportunity to participate in the Marine Science Program, some of them are interested in entering this profession, while others have said that they want to join the Navy,” Rear Adm. Herrera concluded. “This gave the youth a different view of the opportunities they have to grow and flourish.”