The Reach of Ideas
By Dialogo April 01, 2012
Transnational organized crime disguises itself as a government in places where
state presence is weak, tramples on moral values and brings mourning to Latin American
families. The resulting climate of insecurity poisons the ground for economic and social
development to take root. To outline strategies and unite efforts against this adversary,
which lacks scruples and is rich in resources to finance misdeeds, information operations
officers from Colombia, Ecuador, 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.
Brigadier General Steve Arthur, deputy director of SOUTHCOM’s operations division,
emphasized the need to work together. “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,” he said in his welcoming address.
During two days of presentations and debates, participants insisted that
information operations are a high-caliber weapon for regional military and security forces.
Colombia’s expertise in the area stood out. Colonel Javier Molina Calero, director of
Information Operations Planning 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 in areas that have been at the mercy of guerrillas
and drug traffickers for decades. The aim is to permanently uproot irregular groups and
contribute to promoting social development with a holistic approach.
Pamphlets, radio stations and other traditional tools are not sufficient to
counteract decades of influence by guerrillas and criminal gangs, Col. Molina said. His
department 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 said, is the campaign Fe en la Causa (Faith in the Cause),
which highlights the morale and prestige of Colombian Military personnel, as well as other
campaigns that are 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 other 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 spokesman for the
Guatemalan Defense Ministry, his country’s Army enjoys a positive credibility rating among
81 percent of the population. This achievement, he said, is due to synchronizing words and
deeds and by using transparency in handling information. Col. Urízar said 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.
Representatives of Ecuador said that their country’s Armed Forces organize courses
for journalists working for the domestic press. This provides the journalists with a
revealing look into the life of Ecuadorean Military personnel, they explained. In Ecuador,
information operations directly support the military objectives of the Armed Forces Joint
Command (COMACO) and the five operational commands distributed in different areas of the
In Ecuador’s northern operational command, which protects 700 kilometers of border
with Colombia, information operations are essential to counteract the messages of Voz de la
Resistencia (Voice of the Resistance), the broadcast operated by the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia. Lieutenant Colonel Jorge Villalba, COMACO’s information operations
director, highlighted the equipment and training they have received from the U.S. Embassy’s
Military Support Group. In addition, the Ecuadorean Army War College already has an
information operations course from which several Ecuadorean officers and a Brazilian Army
major have just graduated, Lt. Col. Villalba added.
Beyond the Borders
Protecting the borders is also on the agenda of the Panamanian security forces.
Since Panama is an entry point to Central America from the south, the task of the National
Border Service (SENAFRONT) is to prevent the nation from being used by organized crime and
drug traffickers. Major Eduardo Araúz, a SENAFRONT information operations officer, 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, on the other hand, sometimes inhibit 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