In 2014, while negotiations between the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas continued, the military forces worked on two fronts. First, they focused on their institutional mission to defend the civilian population and the nation's infrastructure, and second, they focused on the army of the future.
This goal was outlined several years earlier when peace became a certainty given that FARC was in negotiations given it had weakened militarily. It was imperative to work on transforming the military forces to create a different agenda focused on rebuilding a country without internal conflict but with many needs and services that would need to be resolved, especially in the most affected areas. Thus, the Development and Integral Action and Support Battalions (BAAID, per its Spanish acronym) were born, responsible for creating social change, reactivating the economy in areas where illegal armed groups had a presence, and strengthening institutions and governance.
BAAID5, a strategic battalion
Each military branch created its own respective battalions. The Army formed eight battalions under its military divisions. But there is one in particular: the Development and Integral Action and Support Battalion No. 5 (BAAID5), in operation since August 25th in areas where the conflict affected many communities.
BAAID5 is the country's largest battalion. Within the post-conflict framework, it is responsible for six strategic departments: Tolima, Huila, Cundinamarca, Caldas, Risaralda, and Quindío. It comprises 300 service members and civilians tasked with ensuring that peace and stability become a reality.
Their efforts are mainly focused on residents of the places hit hardest by the conflict. “We began with two priority zones, Páramo del Sumapaz and Sur del Tolima, the perfect locations to demonstrate the transformation of our Army, where the soldiers are replacing their guns with tools to serve and support community development,” Brigadier General Raúl Antonio Rodríguez Arévalo, the commander of the Fifth Division of the Colombian Army, told Diálogo. “It is a strategy that is not new but it is being executed now throughout the territory under our jurisdiction.”
Symbolically important zones
Areas of great national importance are located within the jurisdiction of the Army’s Fifth Division. The strategic seat of our political, religious, economic power, etc., is found here [in Bogota]. FARC's place of origin is in southern Tolima, in Marquetalia. Páramo del Sumapaz, in Cundinamarca, was the place from which the armed group sought to surround the capital, and from which it organized “miraculous catches” [mass kidnappings], extortion schemes, and abductions of civilians.
“What we do in these communities is very important. We are working in a highly sensitive area, in places where the government is once again present with its set of services,” Brig. Gen. Rodríguez Arévalo added. “During its recapture, we lost close to 600 men. That is why activating BAAID5 here is a very big challenge for which we have trained extensively.”
Focused and rotating presence
The battalion began its operations at the “Coronel Jaime Rooke” Military Base in the city of Ibagué. But its jurisdiction extends to all the sensitive areas of six departments, which are covered by teams in a focused, rotating manner.
Forty percent of the activities of BAAID5, conducted by the Zeus Stabilization and Consolidation Operational Command, are focused on road maintenance, 20 percent on developing productive projects, 20 percent on healthcare and education programs, and the remaining 20 percent on recreational activities.
To develop the programs, the battalion also has civilian professionals, including sociologists, lawyers, communication specialists, community relations experts, and consultants in productive projects. The soldiers, and the commissioned and non-commissioned officers who are part of the unit, are experts in recreation, the environment, and in developing structural projects.
Recreation, a source of community involvement.
The civilian population participates in some activities and in the process which is underway. That includes road improvement, highway maintenance, healthcare and education days, and productive projects. They appreciate all of it, but the recreation programs have the most traction.
The Colombia Circus particularly generates excitement. Having been around for 24 years, the Army circus has so many emotional stories of smiles and good cheer, and an average of 13,000 people attend their events every month.
“It is moving to see children getting excited about the circus,” said Army Sergeant John Jairo Castillo Rodríguez, who has been director of the circus for the past two years. “Now we are coming to towns where the government and the Army used to not be able to go, and we focus on messages that are strategically designed to be announced during the function.”
Another unifying component is music. BAAID5 has “Nota 13,” a band whose repertoire would be the envy of any famous commercial band. With members that are also professional soldiers, non-commissioned officers, and civilians employed by the Army, the musical ensemble has become a tool to bring together the bulk of the population.
“With the band, we are working in areas where the population was most affected by FARC. We have been able to create bonds of trust and credibility in the community,” said Army Sergeant John Roque Niño, the director of the band. “Now we don't only come with weapons and equipment, we come with our musical instruments and a strong message of reconciliation.”
As a weapon of the Colombian Army, “Integral Action” intensified its mission on February 6th when it activated the Command for Support, Integral Action, and Development (CAAID, per its Spanish acronym), divided between two brigades - one in the north of the country and the other in the south. The command comprises 3,000 men and women trained in various areas by various entities for one year. U.S. Southern Command, for example, trained its members on civil affairs.
“CAAID has its own doctrine, organization, units, and training, with the capability to deploy throughout our territory to advance an unarmed war and to rebuild the social fabric which was fractured in regions where there was violence. It is the contribution of the Army to rebuild the country in the post-accord,” General Alberto José Mejía Ferro, commander of the Colombian Army, said during the activation ceremony for CAAID in the department of Meta. “Now that the battalions are activated, the search for the objective is underway.”