Since General Carlos Eduardo Bueno Vargas assumed command of the Colombian Air Force in July 2015, his goal has been quite specific: modernizing, strengthening, and preparing the Air Force for future challenges. Today, however, his priorities have expanded. In addition to seeking institutional transformation to increase effectiveness, the Air Force is working shoulder-to-shoulder with the country’s other military branches to conclude the Colombian peace process.
That is why, from the day he was appointed to lead the Air Force, Gen. Bueno has engaged with his officers, NCOs, soldiers, cadets, students, and civil service members to work as a team and to look after the common good of the organization. Gen. Bueno spoke with Diálogo about his priorities as commander, international cooperation, and common interests in the region, during the 2017 Central American Air Chiefs Conference held December 12th to 13th in Tucson, Arizona.
Diálogo: What is the importance of Colombia’s presence at the 2017 Central American Air Chiefs Conference? General Carlos Eduardo Bueno Vargas: First, I am very grateful to General Mark D. Kelly, commander of the 12th Air Force, for having invited me to this conference, which is more focused on Central America’s current topics.
However, considering the very important relationships we have with all the Central American and Caribbean countries, it seems important to me that we are able to be here, meeting the representatives who came from each country. Some of these countries are going to have changeovers in their military leadership, and it is supremely important that we have the kind of closeness with people, as Gen. Kelly discussed; once bonds of friendship are built, cooperation will flow much more easily later on. I am very thankful for the opportunity to be the only South American country to come to this conference, to such an important meeting as this.
Diálogo: What is the objective of Colombia’s participation in this conference? Gen. Bueno: First, to establish friendly relations, reviewing the most important issues and interests that each country attending this conference has, and seeing how Colombia can help. We have several specific objectives with Guatemala. For example, we cooperate with them extensively when it comes to training. As for the issue of air defense, radars, and command-and-control system integration, they are very interested in the HORUS information system, which is Colombia’s command-and-control information integration system. Additionally, they want to reinforce their training on the topic of thermal imagers. Every country has certain needs, and to the extent that Colombia is able, the Colombian Air Force will help them.
With the Dominican Republic, we are also focused on the issue of training. The capabilities that the Colombian Air Force has acquired as a result of our experience in a conflict which, thank God, is reaching its end, have made it possible for us to relay this know-how. We also have many accords on air interdiction. It is extremely important for us to participate in the discussion on renewing what we call Current Operation Plans or POVs [per its Spanish acronym], and refreshing training exercises to improve our joint capabilities for air interdiction. And, as we learned in this conference, to analyze what are the emerging threats in transnational crime, and how those threats might impact our countries so that together, using every one of our capabilities, we can look for ways of becoming more effective in the fight against these emerging situations.
Yesterday, for example, we discussed the issue of the maras [gangs], the ways in which they might be destabilizing security in some countries, how this problem might be exporting itself, and what confrontation strategies might there be. These issues are among many that are essential for Colombia in our interrelations with our partners in Central America.
Diálogo: In your opinion, what are the most important security problems faced by Colombia? Gen. Bueno: Colombia, right now, as everyone knows, is beginning to implement the peace process. Among the peace process agreements is one that addresses the concentration of FARC groups, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Keeping that bilateral ceasefire in place has its complications. However, the Colombian Armed Forces are fully committed, in a highly democratic sense, to supporting this situation, which is of national interest.
At this time, we need to reinforce the process so that it ends well. The reintegration of FARC members into society and civilian life must take place so that this complex conflict situation that we have had for five decades comes to an end. That is the main focus. Certain groups with some general capabilities for terrorism, such as the National Liberation Army, or ELN, still exist. The Colombian government fully intends to sit down for discussions, but until now there has not been any restriction on our operations, and we are fully on the offense against that group. Another threat that has emerged with some strength for some years now is from what we call the Organized Armed Groups or GAO. But we already have authorization by way of Directive 1516, as this law is called, to confront them militarily.
When police capacities are exhausted, the military can employ the legitimate use of force against these groups to prevent them from spreading, and to avoid the harm that they might cause to society. In terms of drug trafficking, we also need to be very vigilant. By early December 2016, 330 tons of cocaine had already been seized.
We have worked quite a lot on this issue, with operations conducted by the Colombian Armed Forces itself, and also with other countries. Criminal mining is another difficult emerging situation that is being confronted using all of our capabilities. This [type of] mining is doing a lot of environmental damage in our country, deforesting jungles, polluting rivers, and generating considerably high revenue in those zones where people devote themselves to that activity, revenues that end up supporting illegal activities.
Diálogo: What is Colombia’s participation in the regional cooperation efforts to support the fight against organized transnational crime? Gen. Bueno: We are fully integrated in different programs. For example, we work very closely with the United States through the Joint Interagency Task Force South.
We have Navy and Air Force representatives there so we can be more effective in the fight against drug trafficking along the entire chain of detection, identification, and capture. We also have the Air Bridge Denial plan, a very successful Colombian Air Force program that meets all legal requirements and keeps Colombian air space free of illegal trafficking flights. In 2016, we did not record a single illegal trafficking flight, which is an impressive decline if we compare that to 2012, when there were more than 300 illegal trafficking flights crossing over Colombian territory. Today, our skies are free from that kind of illegal activity, thanks also to the integrated information system we have with the United States, with our own radars and interceptor aircraft.
These lawbreakers know that they are being detected and intercepted, so they avoid that pathway. But now the criminals are trying to take drugs out by sea. Nevertheless, we have been quite effective using our national Navy in the Asting program, which uses our intelligence platforms to share information with the Navy. We also have the U.S.-Colombia Action Plan USCAP program in place. The capabilities that national armed forces acquire also contribute to their effectiveness when acting against transnational threats. Colombia fully intends to continue participating and being more effective in the joint efforts with various countries.
All of the international exercises we participate in enable us to acquire more experience. We are fully committed to participating in joint exercises with the United States, which is our great strategic ally. For example, the 12th Air Force has been essential for developing many initiatives in Colombia, and we will always be very grateful for that. The same goes for U.S. Southern Command, which has always been willing to offer us its support in the fight against all of these threats.
Diálogo: Why is this kind of international cooperation between air forces, especially between Colombia and the United States, so important? Gen. Bueno: The capabilities that our air forces have, when added together, create synergies. This operational synergy cuts off criminals and keeps them from operating calmly and freely. The common denominator to these international threats is their ability to interact with each other in different countries and to activate their networks.
We need to get ahead of them, to close those spaces off to them, and to make use of the cooperation and integrated capabilities that we have in order to be more effective and reduce or neutralize those threats. Diálogo: As commander of the Colombian Air Force, what is your most pressing challenge? Gen. Bueno: Today, the Colombian Armed Forces have become a model for the region, the result of the development we had to undergo during our national conflict. Presently, our focus is on confronting this institutional transformation for the challenges of the future, which we call the post-conflict stage.
The Air Force is adapting itself to this systemic organizational change so that we will be more effective against the threats that are coming, and so that we can ensure a stable and enduring peace process. With Colombia at peace, we will be able to dedicate ourselves to working with our neighbors on the threats we face together. Our priority is institutional transformation.
To be more effective, and together with the other armed services, to guarantee that the peace process can be implemented and will reach a happy conclusion, and to continue acting with complete forcefulness against the threats that still exist in Colombia, for the security of our countrymen and for the common interests of the region. Diálogo: As a member country, what is the importance of the System of Cooperation Among the American Air Forces for Colombia? Gen. Bueno: In addition to being a years-old tradition, belonging to SICOFAA has helped us a lot in the areas of mutual support, joint training, joint exercises, natural disaster response, and responding to special situations, such as the earthquake in Ecuador, or what we have been through in Haiti, where SICOFAA has been supremely important.
Similarly, all of these strategic meetings are also being organized, such as the Conference of the American Air Chiefs. I think the importance of SICOFAA is that, in its essence, it is about continuing cooperation, unity, and mutual support, respecting the national interests of each country while adding their capabilities together. It is a synergy that has been essential over the years, and that has been put to the test in complex, real-world situations where this organization has functioned quite well.
This regional cooperation system is supremely important because it maintains unity and friendship, and the principal of cooperation is always based on having friendship ties between commanders who represent their air forces. And this is what goes on in SICOFAA. It is a group of friends with individual capabilities — each in their own way and in their own measure — that when added together are very significant. That is why I feel that SICOFAA is a vital organization for properly employing our air power capabilities around the continent. Diálogo: Gen. Bueno, would you like to add anything else? Gen. Bueno: As I stated in yesterday’s meeting, the Colombian Air Force is fully ready to collaborate with our allies in the Central American and Caribbean region. Obviously, we need to have an interrelationship with the air forces of South America. We need to prepare ourselves well for these common threats.
All the knowledge we acquired as a result of the complex and intense conflict we had over several years has given us capabilities and a level of development that we can share today.
I reiterate the Air Force’s high regard towards, and spirit of collaboration with, our Central American and Caribbean colleagues. I reiterate the Colombian Air Force’s commitment to international cooperation and support.