Colombia hosted the South American Defense Conference (SOUTHDEC) 2023 in Cartagena, Colombia, September 22-24. SOUTHDEC is a U.S. Southern Command- (SOUTHCOM) organized annual regional security forum aimed at fostering cooperative ties, examining challenges, sharing lessons learned, and enhancing security and defense cooperation.
General Helder Fernán Giraldo Bonilla, commander general of the Colombian Military Forces, spoke with Diálogo about the importance of this event for his country and the progress of the Ayacucho Joint Strategic Campaign Plan, among other topics.
Diálogo: How important is it for the Colombian Military Forces to host SOUTHDEC?
General Helder Fernán Giraldo Bonilla, commander general of the Colombian Military Forces: This year we are hosting the most important defense executive forum in South America. In 2009, the first version of SOUTHDEC was held in this same emblematic city; since then, it has been held annually in the countries of the Southern Cone. Today, 15 years later, SOUTHDEC returns to Colombia to reaffirm our commitment to security cooperation for regional resilience.
As hosts, we are pleased to welcome defense chiefs from the continent and observers from countries such as the United States, Canada, Spain, and France. At SOUTHDEC we address issues related to transnational threats, cyber defense, and the effects of climate change. SOUTHDEC allows us to share and analyze experiences in security and defense, apply the concepts of interoperability of forces, strengthen international cooperation and joint work between institutions that share a common purpose: to safeguard their nations.
I want to express my gratitude to SOUTHCOM, under the leadership of General Laura Richardson, which has become an essential strategic ally to continue building a homeland in defense of life.
Diálogo: Cybersecurity and climate change are part of the SOUTHDEC 2023 agenda. Why are these two issues important?
Gen. Giraldo: They are latent threats. We must join efforts and capabilities to contain cyber vulnerabilities, which number in the billions on a daily basis. Technological advances bring with them many benefits for the progress of a nation, but they also become latent threats. For this reason, we must be at the forefront to combat this threat. SOUTHDEC is the opportunity to join multilateral efforts on this issue.
Climate change is a persistent challenge; our distinctive capabilities have enabled us to respond to emergencies caused by natural disasters. However, we can still be much more effective through equipment and the use of technology, which is why SOUTHDEC is so important for us, because we can strengthen international cooperation in this area.
Diálogo: How have SOUTHDEC conferences strengthened operations among partner nations to counter security threats, especially in the fight against drug trafficking?
Gen. Giraldo: We are increasingly aware that the challenges and threats we face are growing in complexity, variety and depth, and that in a globalized, interdependent, and hyperconnected world, the path we must follow is that of cooperation and interoperability of forces against all those factors that destabilize the region.
Our societies find in a common history, the roots that not only differentiate us culturally and socially, but also account for those structural problems against which we have the responsibility, the duty, and the possibility to act vehemently, demarcating the path to be followed to speak of a resilient South America, vanguard and leader of the solutions demanded by humanity. Undoubtedly, from this conference emanates strength that will drive us to create joint initiatives, which will result in infinite benefits for the citizens who demand security and opportunities.
Diálogo: The Colombian Military Forces and SOUTHCOM have organized a series of joint exercises and training, such as multinational exercise UNITAS. What is the importance of working with SOUTHCOM?
Gen. Giraldo: With exercises like UNITAS we have demonstrated our ability to work together with our allies and we have strengthened our capacity to protect our nation. UNITAS has become a symbol and its meaning is the union of wills and the most exalted demonstration that from interaction, we can face the multiple challenges that are constantly rising against our nations. The interoperability of forces is not an empty word or an abstract objective; it is a reality that we have built day by day, in every exercise and in every effort devoted to the stability of the region. Thus, in UNITAS we were able to fire a missile as a symbol of the raison d’être of the navy, of that which safeguards territorial integrity, which has evolved, and which has masterfully adapted itself to diverse scenarios, demonstrating the bizarreness of its faithful sailors.
Diálogo: What does the Ayacucho Joint Strategic Campaign Plan (2023-2026) consist of?
Gen. Giraldo: The Ayacucho Joint Strategic Campaign Plan is the plan of the Colombian Military Forces that develops the political intention of the national government, by defining objectives and lines of action in the sense of achieving the purposes in matters of national security and defense. The Ayacucho Plan proposes a joint synergy through five Joint Commands, distributed in five regions of the country to address security and defense problems in a differential manner, integrating joint capabilities in a decentralized way.
The assessment of this plan breaks away with the traditional way of showing results by counting; instead, its evaluation is carried out by performance and effectiveness measures, measuring the substantial changes in security in the operational environment of each region, that is, taking as a measurement value the decrease of phenomena affecting security.
The focus of the Military Forces is essentially concentrated on four strategic objectives: 1) to protect the civilian population; 2) to weaken threat capabilities; 3) to protect governance; 4) to protect the Forces and strategic capabilities. Within these objectives, efforts are concentrated on attacking the illicit economies, which have been consolidated as the center of gravity of illegal groups and the main engine of violence in the country.
Diálogo: What progress is being made in the process of modernizing the Colombian Military Forces?
Gen. Giraldo: An important part of my command guidelines and of the Ayacucho Joint Strategic Campaign Plan is the strengthening of our capabilities and their projection; to achieve this, it’s fundamental to be at the forefront in security and defense issues. For this reason, departments dedicated to this task have been set up in the Military Forces; I’m referring to research, development, and innovation. International cooperation is fundamental in our modernization process, especially SOUTHCOM, whom I thank for their permanent support.
Diálogo: What strategies do you use against criminal organizations that affect the environment?
Gen. Giraldo: The Military Forces’ General Command, through the forces and Joint Commands, boosts joint, coordinated, and interinstitutional operations, applying the “Amazonía” operation as part of the unified action of the State, in the land, river, and air areas of the Colombian Amazon region, maintaining the integrity of the territory, contributing to containing the causes of deforestation, supporting the environmental transition from active deforestation to sustainable forest development, respecting at all times human rights and compliance with international humanitarian law. We are applying this model in the areas of greatest impact due to environmental crimes.