The Imprint of Colombian Soldiers on PANAMAX 2012
By Dialogo August 16, 2012
Major General Pedro León Soto Suárez paced the room with his gaze fixed on the map of the Panama Canal, listening to his advisors firing questions left and right. In recent days, he has eaten in a hurry, slept at times and played the game of war as though it was a real combat of life and death.
Beginning more than a week ago, when military exercise PANAMAX 2012 began, the Colombian General has been leading a multinational army from his headquarters at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. From there, he directs a mock war against a fictional enemy bent on sowing terror and destroying a strategic point of the global economy and one of the most striking jewels in the history of humanity.
Organized annually by the United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), PANAMAX’s objective is to test a joint regional response -to protect the Panama Canal from a natural disaster or terrorist attack. In previous years, the exercise has been carried out with boats and airplanes; this time, however, it is a strenuous virtual exercise, that requires hours of intensive work from the part of 17 partner nations.
Still, amid the roar of “combat”, Maj. Gen. Soto, made a strategic pause to chat with Diálogo. Around him, his army continued to respond to hypothetical threats, designed to test their capacity to react to a real emergency and attempt to prevent it.
Diálogo: General Soto, could you tell us the specific role you play in representing Colombia during PANAMAX 2012?
Major General Pedro León Soto Suarez: Currently, I serve as the commander of the Combined Force Land Component, as part of a coalition with which we work in coordination with the host unit, the United States Army. PANAMAX is an exercise that is carried out with the intention of providing security to our Panama Canal, which is a vital commercial center and critical trade route, and one of the more strategic pieces of infrastructure in the global economy. Basically, we collaborate jointly with a staff consisting of different countries taking part in the exercise at this time. Together, we develop and conduct operations in each of our designated theaters of operation.
These activities are intended to achieve objectives channeled to train all personnel involved in joint and combined operations, first. Then, we also expect to integrate the different armies and infantry units under my command during the exercise. The third objective is the development of an operational concept of everything related to medical assistance and services. In addition, as in all military activity, you work toward producing efficient intelligence for future operational developments. Furthermore, we carry out interagency and coordination programs, with each of the states that participate in this activity, and finally, develop coordinated operations on land and at sea with the Air Force and Navy.
Diálogo: Is this your first time participating in PANAMAX? What does it mean for you and for Colombia to be at the helm of land operations during the multinational exercise?
Maj. Gen. Soto: It is the first time that I’ve been to the United States to participate in PANAMAX, but I have already collaborated in other opportunities in Colombia. With regard to what this participation means… militarily, it is an immense honor, it is a challenge that not every general has the opportunity to experience. It represents a crucial moment in my career, that’s why I took it. As commander of the exercise’s land component, I am very proud to be able to demonstrate our capabilities to face each and every one of today’s threats, and assume these challenges in a joint effort with representatives from other countries. As a representative of my beloved country, Colombia, it is important to show the camaraderie and unity in the pursuit of common regional goals in order to make our American continent accessible to everyone, make it a place where you can breathe peace and freedom.
Diálogo: Colombia brings a very particular experience to the land component of the exercise. What specific contribution does the military of your country bring to PANAMAX 2012?
Maj. Gen.Soto: From the perspective of the Colombian military, we have an opportunity to showcase our experiences -not only in conflict resolution, but in the way we face the threat. It has been a tough road we’ve had to travel for over 50 years; we have suffered the toughest rigors of war, where many of our men have been sacrificed for a very commendable cause, the defense of our country and the protection of our people. The training of Colombian soldiers during the years in conflict has provided us with great knowledge of what a true soldier is, and what it is to fight and to devote oneself not only to a territory and for a nation, but also for the defense of citizens in general. No one but the soldier who bears the deepest scars of war can tell the story of a country. I believe that is our main contribution to PANAMAX. In the end, we will leave behind the imprint of the Colombian soldier.
Diálogo: For the first time, PANAMAX is being carried out as a virtual exercise. Does this make it more difficult, more interesting…?
Maj. Gen.Soto: The fact that the exercise is virtual provides an opportunity to consider the smallest details, taking into account the rules of international law regarding armed conflict, respect for human rights, International Humanitarian Law, and compliance with the rules of war and engagement. Despite the fact that it is virtual, it is as though we were actually driving and moving our units in battle. It is a great learning experience that will prepare us for the possibility of it becoming a reality.
Diálogo: Hopefully it won’t become necessary!
Maj. Gen. Soto: That’s right. That is the ideal condition, that we continue to live and maintain the tranquility that we have at this moment, and that those that are used to living at the edge of the law realize that abiding by it is the best path.
What a nice experience and I am so proud that this soldier, General Soto, is representing Colombia with the experience and knowledge of his long years of service. Hooray for the soldiers of Colombia.