The Prodigious Reach of Ideas

The Prodigious Reach of Ideas

By Dialogo
April 12, 2012

Information operations officers from Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Panama, and the United States exchange lessons learned in order to counteract transnational organized crime.

Transnational organized crime brings mourning to Latin American families, disguises itself as a government in places where state presence is weak, tramples on moral values, and creates a climate of insecurity in which economic and social development do not find fertile ground.

In order to outline strategies and unite efforts against that adversary, lacking in scruples and rich in resources with which to finance its misdeeds, information operations officers from Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, Panama, and the United States met at U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) headquarters in Miami, Florida, in early March 2012.

Organized by SOUTHCOM’s Information Operations Division, the event promoted the exchange of ideas and lessons learned among countries that share similar challenges, despite experiencing distinct political, economic, cultural, and social situations.

“It’s very important that some of us unite and make use of our resources, our material assets, and our budgets focused on specific objectives, and your presence here, the fact that you’re meeting here and talking about these issues, is essential in order to move forward in our region,” Brigadier General Steve Arthur, deputy director of SOUTHCOM’s operations division, stated in his welcoming address.

Over two days of presentations and debates, the participants insisted that information operations are a high-caliber weapon for regional military and security forces.

And in that field, Colombia is ready to preach. Colonel Javier Molina Calero, director of Information Operations Planning (DIPOI) of the Joint Integrated Action Bureau of the South American country’s Armed Forces General Command, spoke about the success of the Integrated Action program in the battle to win Colombians’ hearts and minds.

Based on the idea that today’s wars are won with intelligence, more than with force, the program offers a combination of security and the presence of the state and its institutions in areas that have been at the mercy of guerrillas and drug traffickers for decades. The aim? To permanently uproot irregular groups and contribute to promoting social development with a holistic approach.

However, pamphlets, radio stations, and other traditional tools are not sufficient to counteract decades of influence by guerrillas and criminal gangs, Col. Molina said. The department under his lead develops information operations campaigns that are intertwined with civic support activities to benefit the affected populations and serve to reinforce the Integrated Action program. Among those efforts, he mentioned the Faith in the Cause campaign, which highlights the morale and prestige of Colombian Military personnel, as well as others aimed at promoting demobilization, restoring trust in the legal system and the state, and preventing the recruitment of children, adolescents, and women.

Say It Yourself

As in the case of Colombia, it became clear to the remaining countries represented at the event that the challenge of getting people to trust military personnel is as important or more important now than ever.

According to Colonel Rony Urízar, a spokesperson for the Guatemalan Defense Ministry, his country’s Army currently enjoys a positive credibility rating among 81 percent of the population. This achievement, he said, is due to synchronization between words and deeds, and transparency in the handling of information by military institutions.

Urízar assured that telling the story first, before others shape it as they see fit, is part of the mission of his work team. “Say it all, say it in time, say it yourself,” he stressed, repeating the words of Eduardo Ramírez, who spoke on behalf of SOUTHCOM’s Office of Strategic Communications.

For their part, the representatives of Ecuador explained that their country’s Armed Forces organize courses for journalists working for the domestic press. In that way, they commented, they offer them a revealing look into the life of Ecuadorean Military personnel.

In the case of Ecuador, information operations serve as direct support to the military objectives of the Armed Forces Joint Command (COMACO) and the five operational commands distributed in different areas of the nation.

In the northern operational command, the mission of which is to protect 700 kilometers of border with Colombia, information operations are essential in order to counteract the messages of Voz de la Resistencia [Voice of the Resistance], the broadcaster operated by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Along those lines, Lieutenant Colonel Jorge Villalba, COMACO’s information operations director, highlighted the aid they have received, in the form of equipment and training, from the U.S. embassy’s Military Support Group.

The Ecuadorean Army War College, in addition, already has an information operations course from which several Ecuadorean officers and a Brazilian Army major have just graduated, Villalba added.

Beyond the Borders

Protecting the borders is also on the agenda of the Panamanian security forces. Since Panama is the port of entry to Central America from the south, preventing the nation from being used by organized crime and drug traffickers is the task of the National Border Service (SENAFRONT). Major Eduardo Araúz, an information operations officer with that organization, explained that his work concentrates on neutralizing the illegal activity of criminal organizations and working with the population to protect it from the influence of those groups.

Part of this task concentrates on remote towns where the Colombian flag flew until recently. “We’re beginning to bring our tactical, humanitarian aid, and civil operations there, and information operations so that they feel Panamanian,” Araúz commented. “It’s important that they see for themselves that the state is present in each community, in each hamlet, and that we’re bringing them security,” he added.

Borders, nonetheless, turn out to be a wall that needs to be pulled down in order to allow passage to the free flow of experiences among regional military personnel and security forces. Following two days of dialogue, the information officers who participated in the event committed themselves to maintaining an active exchange of knowledge and lessons learned. Visits, regional workshops, and joint training were some of the options mentioned by the attendees.

Colombia, for example, said that the doors of the International Missions and Integrated Action School are open to students from other nations, while Ecuador offered help in planning, implementation, and the training of officers from Latin American countries that do not have information operations programs, as in the case of Mexico.

Finally, Colonel Miguel Hobbs, chief of SOUTHCOM’s Information Operations Division, suggested using the All Partners Access Network (APAN), a social-networking tool, to solidify the ties created during the event and learn from one another.

I am familiar with the area mentioned by Mr. President Pérez Molina. I think it is appropriate to clarify that Guatemala shares with the neighboring country 962 kilometers and not 900 as stated in the note. Also, there are not 4 departments (States) but 5 with which Guatemala shares a border with Mexico. The departments are San Marcos, Huehuetenango, Quiché, Alta Verapáz and Petén, this latter with an area of 35,000 square kilometers.-