In a special session held on March 24, 2018, in Tulcán, home base of the Ecuadorean Army’s 31st Andes Brigade, authorities from Colombia and Ecuador agreed to intensify military coordination along their shared border. The agreement includes closer cooperation on intelligence operations to thwart attacks from illegal armed groups in the area.
Aníbal Fernández, Colombia’s Vice Minister of Defense for International Policies and Affairs; Felipe Vega, Ecuador’s Vice Minister of Defense, and top military members from both nations resolved to implement new mechanisms to exchange information. Authorities also opted to heighten the combined presence of military units at critical points along the border.
“Through this exercise, we reaffirm the excellent relationship between Colombia and Ecuador on security and defense matters, building on cooperation, instruments, and mechanisms we’ve strengthened over the years,” said Vice Minister Fernández at the end of the session. “Our analysis of the situation along the border allowed us to decide to establish more combined operations and exercises, resulting in greater security for the region.”
Terrorism in the borderlands
The Binational Border Commission (COMBIFRON, in Spanish) convened following a terrorist attack on March 20th, in the Ecuadorean province of Esmeralda, just across the border from the Colombian department of Nariño. Narcotraffickers and dissidents from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) carried out the attack that left four service members dead and seven wounded.
A patrol of marines implementing surveillance and control operations was attacked with an explosive device near a naval detachment in the Mataje River area of the San Lorenzo district, along the northern border with Colombia. “The Ecuadorean service members responded to the attack, which led to a confrontation,” reported the office of Ecuador’s Secretary of Communication.
Terrorist attacks have been on the rise in this area since the start of 2018. On January 27th, a car bomb exploded in San Lorenzo, wounding 28 people. Since then, there have been six other incidents of armed aggression against Ecuadorean security forces and civilians.
“We established a series of agreements to deploy more security troops to the border area,” said Vice Minister Vega. “Today's work will result in coordinated actions from the armed forces to redouble security in the areas most impacted by conflict.”
Authorities prioritized COMBIFRON's decisions in line with the analysis of the region’s security situation. Police forces from both countries agreed to send Ecuadorean officers to Tumaco to be briefed on Colombia's operations. An Ecuadorean intelligence officer will also be part of the combined information center's staff to be set up in Ipiales, in the Colombian department of Nariño, for ongoing communication exchanges on matters like illegal mining, human trafficking, fuel smuggling, and money laundering.
In a combined press conference, Army General Alberto José Mejía, general commander of the Colombian Military Forces, and Air Force General César Merizalde, head of the Ecuadorean Armed Forces Joint Command, committed to implement new mechanisms to exchange information and ramp up military presence in Nariño, Esmeraldas, and Carchi. They also laid the groundwork for collaboration between the two armed forces on combined civic operations to work with the communities and create a secure environment with government presence.
“The recent violent events along the northern border generated unease among our fellow citizens,” said Gen. Merizalde. “Especially for those living in provinces that border Colombia.”
The Colombian Military Forces increased operations in the area with the Hercules Task Force, a unit consisting of 9,000 personnel from the Army, Navy, and Police to bolster security and law and order in border municipalities. The mission is to protect 16,000 square kilometers in the border area, 116 km of oil pipelines, 640 power line pylons, and the Espriella-Río Mataje road project, which connects the ports of Tumaco and Esmeraldas.
“This became a high-risk area because of the presence of armed criminal and narcotrafficking groups from Colombia that use Ecuadorean territory to carry out part of their illegal activities,” said Gen. Mejía. “We are aware of our nation's problems, like illegal crops and narcotrafficking. It’s the inherent responsibility of our country and the Military Forces, and that’s why we deployed a force like Hercules”.
Criminal groups in the border between Colombia and Ecuador strive to control coca growing lands and drug trafficking routes. A particular nemesis to locals is a FARC splinter group under Guacho’s command, a former guerrilla fighter whose criminal activities pose a threat to the security of both countries.