Colombia and the United States have had a mutually supportive relationship for decades, with strong ties of teamwork, operations, exercises, and combined efforts. This relationship has been further consolidated with Colombian Army Brigadier General Erik Rodríguez, who leads the Exercises and Coalition Affairs Directorate (J7/9) at U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM).
A native of Bucaramanga, Colombia, with 32 years of service to his country, Brig. Gen. Rodríguez leads the office responsible for strengthening partnerships, exercises, civil affairs operations, and humanitarian assistance activities.
Diálogo spoke with the high-ranking officer about the challenges he encounters, the J7/9 response to COVID-19, and the importance of international cooperation as a pillar to confront international organized crime.
Diálogo: What has been the main challenge to fulfilling the J7/9 mission during COVID-19?
Brigadier General Erik Rodríguez, director of Exercises and Coalition Affairs (J7/9) at SOUTHCOM: The main challenge has been maintaining commitments, presence, and international cooperation activities. This has presented two challenges to overcome. One concerns force protection, since SOUTHCOM must ensure that the agenda and commitments made with partner nations are met, but also guarantee the safety of its own members of the military and security forces and of those of partner nations, during exercises, conferences, or humanitarian assistance activities, so that a large part of the effort is aimed at mitigating the risk of COVID infection among participants. And the second challenge has been that this pandemic came as a factor that creates greater stress on regional security and stability. Some criminal activities have increased. Like narcotrafficking, other events affecting the population have also increased, such as migration, mainly in Central America.
Diálogo: What is the critical role of multinational efforts in regional security, especially in the efforts against transnational organized crime?
Brig. Gen. Rodríguez: When a criminal organization spills over the borders of our nations, sometimes exceeding the capacities of our security organizations and military forces, international cooperation is essential to combat them. To explain this, I want to refer to the vicious circle concept, which Admiral [Craig S.] Faller mentioned on several occasions. A large number of threats converge in our region, and one of them is actors such as transnational criminal organizations, violent extremist groups, and external state actors in the region, who come together to protect activities [narcotrafficking, trafficking of weapons and/or people, and terrorist acts], or to promote their interests. But there are also other events, which if they become part of this vicious circle, as they are natural events, affect security conditions, like what happened in 2020 with hurricanes Eta and Iota, the volcanic eruptions, or COVID-19 itself. This is why international cooperation is essential to be able to generate joint, coordinated, and effective responses, in order to confront crime and natural and humanitarian emergencies.
Diálogo: SOUTHCOM is the first combat command to have a foreign general officer as the organization’s director. What does this represent for Colombia? Why is it important to include a partner nation’s perspective at the J7/9?
Brig. Gen. Rodríguez: For my country, it is a step forward in strengthening the Colombian-U.S. security relationship. It’s a matter of reciprocity. We have been partners in security matters for many years now, and it’s a manifestation of the Colombian State’s wish to not only be a recipient of support for the security of our country, but also a security exporter, to contribute to security. On the one hand, it’s giving back to the United States for its support, but on the other hand, it’s also participating in building a safer environment for our partner nations.
Having a foreign officer at the J7/9 brings a Latin American perspective to the planning and execution of SOUTHCOM programs. And I take this opportunity to mention that it isn’t just me at SOUTHCOM, since we have Brazilian Air Force Major General David as deputy director of Strategy, Policy, and Plans, [as well as] liaison officers from Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, and Colombia, among others, so that we all contribute to have a more homogeneous knowledge of the region.
Having a foreign officer at the J7/9 brings a Latin American perspective to the planning and execution of SOUTHCOM programs.
Diálogo: SOUTHCOM carries out about eight joint/combined exercises annually and several deployments. How do these exercises and deployments help strengthen ties and foster collaboration between the United States and partner nations in the region?
Brig. Gen. Rodríguez: The answer to transnational threats is international cooperation, and these exercises are the vehicle to generate that cooperation. We must use a common language, similar procedures common to all the organizations involved, and have easy and fluid communication, in addition to a knowledge of the context, which generates interoperability. This enables a response capability, not only to crises but also to the task of neutralizing transnational threats. The exercises create readiness and the ability to integrate efforts easily. In the same way, the exercises facilitate mutual knowledge among leaders of military and security forces of the region, which is essential to build fluid relations and interagency coordination capabilities.
Diálogo: One of the J7/9 programs is humanitarian assistance. How has this program contributed to supporting the region’s efforts against COVID-19?
Brig. Gen. Rodríguez: Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Humanitarian Assistance Office has acted as SOUTHCOM’s response team, set out to identifying spaces where it can collaborate and coordinate with partner nations. In the pandemic context, it has executed 513 projects in 28 countries, providing support or strengthening the capacities of each partner nation to respond to the pandemic. These projects have cost more than $72.4 million, materialized in equipment such as field hospitals. [The office] has donated oxygen generators, ventilators, [and] protective equipment, and humanitarian assistance during the pandemic has become one of the Command’s priorities.
For the full interview with Colombian Army Brigadier General Erik Rodriguez, director of J7/9 Exercises and Coalition Affairs, U.S. Southern Command, follow this link: