SOUTHCOM and the Colombian Army Step up their Activity in the Fight for Humanitarian Demining
By Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo October 11, 2016As part of the Global Demining Initiative, the United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) is offering the Colombian Army's First Brigade of Humanitarian Demining Engineers support to improve their strategies and methodologies for the removal and detection processes of the anti-personnel mines strewn throughout the country. Between July 7th and 24th, a total of 15 military members from SOUTHCOM, headed by Lieutenant General Michael H. Shields, director of the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, and Rear Admiral Scott B. Jerabek, director of theater engagement at SOUTHCOM, saw the strengths and capabilities of the Humanitarian Demining Brigade and their tactical units positioned throughout Colombia. The military unit was activated on August 8th at the Tolemaida Military Fort, in Tolima department. Under the command of Colonel Raúl Ortiz Pulido, the Brigade will comprise 5,000 men and women from five Demining Engineer Battalions, which will be based in the departments of Santander, Antioquia, Cesar, and Caldas and will carry out tasks in almost 400 municipalities in the country where there are mines. According to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, this unit will be the largest brigade in the world dedicated to demining. "No other army, no other country will have a brigade like the one we have just activated," said President Santos at the 197th anniversary celebration of the Colombian Army. The new military unit will begin its mission in 2017. The work of the Humanitarian Demining Brigade will be coordinated with the Directorate for Comprehensive Action Against Anti-Personnel Mines (DAICMA, per its Spanish acronym), who will make sure the removal of these explosive devices takes place. "SOUTHCOM wanted to see how it would work for doctrinal matters to be applied to operational matters with respect to this new capacity, which will increase to 10,000 personnel in 2018," said Colonel Rodrigo Cepeda Asencio, commander of the National Center against Mines and Explosive Devices of the Colombian National Army in an interview with Diálogo. Currently, the 60th "Colonel Gabino Gutiérrez" Demining Battalion and the Naval Infantry Explosives and Demining Group are conducting public information dissemination and search operations for explosive devices and unexploded ordnance in 14 Colombian municipalities given priority by the Presidential Program for Comprehensive Action Against Anti-Personnel Mines and accredited Civilian Humanitarian Demining Organizations. Colombia and SOUTHCOM agreed to a work plan and a two-year strategy with short-, medium-, and long-term goals. "The equipment and training donated by SOUTHCOM comes with a projected economic aid package, initially $3 million as an endowment for humanitarian demining platoons," said Col. Cepeda. The team designed a strategy to improve the academic curriculum of the courses. As a joint strategy for a mine-free country, the U.S. team analyzed different factors in the training to achieve programs that can internationally certify the demining processes. For his part, Rear Adm. Jerabek told Diálogo, "The entire team from SOUTHCOM has been very impressed with the progress Colombia has made in all areas of planning, training, and executing the demining mission. We understand the complexities of the history and use of mines. The rapid adaptation and implementation by the Colombian military is an example not just for demining but as a template for all types of new capabilities. I am very proud to have been a small part of this effort, and I anxiously watch for continued great results." The United States is not the only country supporting this brigade so it can become an example in the Latin American region. "This demining unit will be able to offer the training we have acquired with respect to humanitarian demining, taking advantage of U.S. strategic partners, Brazil, and Spain, with the goal of increasing the level of effectiveness," indicated Col. Cepeda. In October of this year, a team of 90 Colombian instructors will be trained by U.S., Brazilian, and Spanish demining experts with the goal of being certified by these three countries. This group will take charge of preparing the 10,000 men and women of the Humanitarian Demining Brigade. Women's tasks The Brigade will incorporate 1,000 women in its ranks. Currently, it is training 16 female officers to become a part of this unit. The women's tasks in this brigade will be geared towards non-technical studies and outreach to the communities. Their goal will be to gather all the information necessary to perform the humanitarian demining. "What we are seeking is accreditation of our men and women at the international level, so they can continue our transformation of doctrine, using all NATO's methodologies, as well as improving and standardizing all the processes from a doctrinal perspective and making sure that doctrine is joint for the Colombian Army, Air Force, and Navy. We are going to have an international demining center that will be located in the Tolemaida region," said Col. Cepeda. With this center, Colombia will be able to participate in peacekeeping operations in countries such as in Africa and Asia where there is a huge mine problem and where they have been creating a demining training program. The trajectory towards peacekeeping missions is something gradual. "Colombia is thinking about mobilizing its first personnel to work in countries where the National Government will send people for peace missions in 2018 or 2019. We could start to directly support these operations with instructors, to initiate this humanitarian demining process which Colombia began 10 years ago," said Col. Cepeda. Global initiative All of these actions are part of the Global Demining Initiative, which is led by the governments of the United States and Norway. The Initiative seeks to mobilize resources of cooperation and support from the international community to complement the Colombian government's efforts to free the country of unexploded anti-personnel mines by 2021. Currently, the United States supports Colombia with over $60 million through the Global Demining Initiative; Norway supports Colombia with close to $25 million Since 2011, the European Union has contributed 10 million Euros and has committed to 4 million more for this year, according to a press release from the Colombian president dated May 10, 2016. The Colombian experience To terrorize the population, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) installed thousands of land mines in Colombia during five decades of conflict. Since 2010, authorities have detected and destroyed over 130,000 explosive devices. Of the anti-personnel mines' 11,000 victims, 60 percent were members of the Security Forces. Colombia's success in humanitarian demining is based on the effectiveness of its personnel with respect to procedures not only in manual demining but also in mechanical and canine demining. These personnel have the training and techniques that allow them to perfect their work and be more efficient in the field. At the conclusion of the meeting, the SOUTHCOM delegation "left with a very good impression of our capacity and our strategy, which has improved a lot," according to Col. Cepeda. "Our relationship with SOUTHCOM is excellent and enriching."