“Welcome, make yourself at home,” such is how Guatemalan Army Colonel Julio César Ponce Monterroso, commandant of the Regional Peacekeeping Operations Training Command (CREOMPAZ, in Spanish), welcomed us. “The projection of the State’s national power in the international arena is at the heart of our primary mission here,” he said. And the first impression was exactly as Col. Ponce said: The professionalism and conduct of the service members who serve in CREOMPAZ make you feel as if you’ve already known them for years, perhaps due to their experiences in United Nations (U.N.) peacekeeping missions.
A brief look around shows well-kept facilities and ready to welcome a new group of soldiers for training at any moment. To understand what CREOMPAZ is about, it is best to quote from the introductory video that our hosts showed us at the beginning of our visit. “CREOMPAZ was created to provide instruction and training to military units, military and civil personnel, both national and foreign. By exploiting the human potential of its national and foreign instructors, as well as its extensive facilities and equipment, the institution seeks to be a regional command specializing in the United Nations’ general system of operations and in civil-military relations, capable of developing training activities for national and foreign military and civilian personnel, to maintain leadership in peacekeeping operations and civil-military coordination operations and humanitarian assistance.”Center of excellence
Guatemala is one of the Latin American countries that provides personnel and means to U.N. peacekeeping operations, as in the case of Haiti, following the devastating earthquake of 2010. As a member of the Latin American Association of Peacekeeping Training Centers and the International Association of Peacekeeping Training Centres, CREOMPAZ must ensure that the training it provides is standardized, since those it supervises interact with blue helmets from around the world. “CREOMPAZ also upholds an agreement with the Peace Operations Training Institute, which certifies personnel on current issues related to peacekeeping support, humanitarian assistance, and security operations worldwide,” Col. Ponce said.
CREOMPAZ has students from the five armed forces that make up the Central American Armed Forces Conference (CFAC, in Spanish); in addition to Guatemala, these are El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. To achieve its mission, the command has two schools. The School of Peacekeeping Operations teaches the following courses: Basic United Nations Soldier, Military Observer, General Staff Officer, Advanced Logistics, United Nations Instructor, and United Nations Correspondent on Mission.
Meanwhile, the School of Civil-Military Coordination for Humanitarian Assistance teaches courses in Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations, Military-Civil Relations and Humanitarian Assistance, Tactical Humanitarian Assistance Team Training, and Basic Civil-Military Operations.
CREOMPAZ also conducts various training programs and activities outside the classroom, such as La Voz del Soldado Embajador de la Paz (The Voice of the Soldier Ambassador of Peace), a radio show that broadcasts information from the Guatemalan Army to the population of Cobán, where the center is located. Despite being an instructional command, it provides continuous support to the population, responding within its capabilities to different natural and man-made threats that arise during the year, as in the case of hurricanes Eta and Iota in late 2020. “Likewise, it fosters culture through marimba [a percussion instrument] concerts and civil events that young people and children also attend. Through students of the different courses at the School of Civil-Military Coordination and Humanitarian Assistance, it conducts social projection activities and easy-access projects that benefit nearby communities,” said Colonel Gylmar Duban Castellanos Luna, CREOMPAZ deputy commandant.
According to Col. Ponce, CREOMPAZ is currently the only regional training center for peacekeeping forces that has the two certifications the U.N. requires for teaching the Military Observer course and the United Nations General Staff Officer course. As complementary courses, CREOMPAZ offers English and French standardization, the International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law seminar, and the Peacekeeping Operations Induction Course for future officers. “There are open courses that this administration has focused on throughout this year, namely seminars on Women, Peace, and Security, in the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325,” Col. Ponce said.
The constant presence of women stands out for visitors of CREOMPAZ. So far, 467 military women have graduated from the institution. Gender integration policy in the Guatemalan Army continues to move full steam ahead and comes from the country’s highest military ranks. “The participation of women in the representation, prevention, and resolution of conflicts and peacebuilding has been more prevalent in the different stabilization and peace enforcement missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, serving as section commanders in the operational area, military police in the ranks of officers and troops, staff officers, [and] military observers in countries such as Sudan, Congo, and Colombia,” Lieutenant General Juan Carlos Alemán Soto, Guatemalan minister of Defense, told Diálogo in a recent interview. “Through the National Defense General Staff, guidelines have been issued for brigades, commands, services, and military units to program workshops, seminars, and conferences with the aim of promoting gender equality [and] eradicating discrimination and abuse against women. In all calls for application, we encourage women and men’s participation under equal conditions, based on specific role requirements. According to the profiles of the positions, there are no distinctions between men or women for filling them, as long as they meet the position requirements,” he added.
According to Col. Ponce, CREOMPAZ has the first and only female head of a peacekeeping operations school in Latin America, Guatemalan Army Lieutenant Colonel Gladys Morales. “One of the main challenges of leading this school is having the expertise it requires, [in terms] of theoretical and practical knowledge; the experience that one must have when deployed on different peacekeeping missions; [in addition to] pedagogical knowledge, so that the courses take place in a comprehensive manner, in adherence with the United Nations doctrine,” Lt. Col. Morales said. “I think that just by deploying on peacekeeping missions when women’s participation in this area was taboo, and now being in charge of a regional school that has always been run by men, it makes you see that even though the road has been long, there is still more to discover. Above all, not to lose the vision of thinking institutionally, always trying to ensure that women’s participation in peacekeeping operations is greater every day, that women need to be qualified and trained in this regard, so that our opinion is valid,” she said.
International students and instructors
Since the creation of CREOMPAZ in 1997, 6,552 Guatemalans have graduated from the center, in addition to 1,757 students from countries such as Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, and Chile, among many others, which also provide instructors. “The presence of foreign instructors is important to enrich relations between countries and increase students’ knowledge; it also serves to help consolidate universal knowledge in the framework of peacekeeping operations that the United Nations carries out,” said Honduran Army Lieutenant Christian Mejía Raudales, an English instructor at CREOMPAZ.
Importance of the environment
CREOMPAZ also cares about the environment. In addition to teaching awareness courses, the center supports the work of other state institutions and private entities. Service members collect avocado seeds because it is the fruit that the national bird, the quetzal, eats. Classified as an endangered species, the bird survives despite not only its natural predators but especially humans, who sell the birds as pets, unaware that they won’t survive in captivity. “Caring for the environment also includes the threats we face due to forest fires and deforestation, which cause great harm to us. These days, we’ve also taught the forest firefighters training course, and we’re working on that,” Col. Ponce said.
Among the response actions for natural disasters, CREOMPAZ members specialize in evacuation operations, food distribution, hospital construction, shelter management, and emergency management through the Emergency Operations Center at the department level. “Based on lessons learned, we conduct drills in order to be prepared to respond to any natural disaster when it occurs,” Col. Ponce said.
In this respect, CREOMPAZ played a decisive role in responding to hurricanes Eta and Iota, which devastated the region where the center is located. “The total [number] of these operations exceeded 1,500, [including] evacuation of the injured, aerial reconnaissance, [and] search and rescue in terms of security and administration of shelters, among others,” Lt. Col. Morales said. “We had great support from Joint Task Force Bravo and other U.S. military personnel for food transport and humanitarian aid distribution.”
A recent change in CREOMPAZ was the support for the national vaccination plan against COVID-19. “We had an office here, inside our facilities. All the military personnel who are now working on the front line and in direct contact with the civilian population have already been vaccinated,” Col. Ponce said. “We are contributing to organizing the four vaccination posts in the Cobán, Alta Verapaz region, in the administrative operation for data collection, in security, and in the administration of doses; in their application through our nursing staff,” he said.
After a succulent lunch where we had the traditional kaq’ik cobanero, a typical dish of the Cobán municipality that consists of turkey stew with white tamales wrapped in banana leaves and white rice, the staff bid us farewell with a marimba concert (one of the requirements for people studying and working there is knowing how to play this instrument), and we left with two certainties: One day is too short to get to know everything that service members do at the Regional Peacekeeping Operations Training Command, and CREOMPAZ is not only a source of pride and honor for Guatemala, but also a great model for other countries.