MEDELLÍN, Colombia — Few security forces have faced the variety of threats that Colombia’s military and police have seen over the past 50 years: left-wing guerillas, narco-traffickers, urban gangs and right-wing paramilitaries.
As a result, Colombia’s security forces are battle-hardened and skilled in fighting insurgences, and they know all too well the challenges of dismantling violent networks.
Now, with Colombia and the country’s largest guerilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in peace talks — and with domestic security having vastly improved —Colombia’s armed forces are cashing in on their expertise by training security forces abroad.
Between 2010 and 2012, Colombia’s military and police trained 9,200 security personnel from 45 countries in Latin America, Europe, West Africa and the Caribbean, said Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón, who continues to push for more training relationships.
Colombia’s National Police, which comprise the majority of trainers, have taught counter-narcotics techniques to police in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — all of which have seen escalating drug violence resembling what Colombia faced in recent decades. Colombia’s Navy has traveled to several Central and South American countries to work on maritime interdiction.
And commando training from Colombia’s elite Jungla anti-narcotics force is always in demand.
Colombia doubles annual defense spending since 2000
“The security forces of Colombia suddenly find themselves with the most experience on the continent, said John Marulanda, a Bogotá-based consultant who advises international companies on security matters. “With this experience, several countries have asked Colombia to share its knowledge, and it has done so enthusiastically.”
Colombia’s armed forces have undergone a transformation while growing to 450,000 troops. Air power has increased and has became more sophisticated, allowing for night helicopter raids and targeted bombings that have killed FARC leaders and pushed the guerrilla group further into remote jungles.
Among the police, small groups of highly vetted and trained units, such as the Jungla force, were created as intelligence-gathering specialists to take down drug trafficking organizations.
To do this, Colombia’s defense spending nearly doubled, from $5.7 billion in 2000 to $10.4 billion in 2010. Last year, Colombia spent about $12 billion on defense — an untenable situation in the event its government reaches a peace deal with the FARC.
Colombian troops in the UAE?
Talks between the Colombian government and the FARC are moving forward, albeit slowly. The negotiators just finished their 12th session since the talks began in Havana last November. But Colombia’s armed forces are already planning for new roles in the event that there is peace.
Some will be put on infrastructure projects, such as road-building, Marulanda said. Others will look to join private security forces, which have better salaries than the Colombian military. In the past year, the United Arab Emirates has recruited more than 800 Colombian soldiers for its own special forces, according to the newsweekly Semana.
“Various world leaders and multinational security firms are looking for Colombian military personnel,” Marulanda said. “There will be an expansion of troops and components, giving instruction and sharing with other countries.”
Colombia’s advancements in security were partly made possible by Plan Colombia, a multibillion-dollar U.S. aid program that provided training, equipment and security assistance to support Colombia’s counter narcotics and internal security efforts.
Colombian troops: A cheaper, more effective alternative
U.S. officials see Colombian military trainers as a cost-effective way to continue training missions in Central American and Caribbean countries at a time of congressionally mandated budget cuts to the military. At a Congressional hearing in June on U.S. security initiatives in the Caribbean and Central America, William R. Brownfield, assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, said that Colombian police are training more officers in Central America than U.S. law enforcement personnel.
“It is cheaper for us to have Colombia do the training than us do it ourselves,” Brownfield told Congress, later adding that “it’s a dividend that we get for investing over $9 billion in support for Plan Colombia.”
Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security at the Washington Office on Latin America, said Colombian trainers can be hired for one-seventh the price of U.S. trainers. The U.S.-backed effort to clean up the Honduran police force through an elaborate vetting process that includes polygraph, drug and background checks has been largely administered by Colombians.
The United States, he said, is betting on the Colombian security forces in “a big way.”
Learning from Colombia’s struggles
Isacson pointed out some advantages to having Colombian forces as trainers: a common language and similar security structures, including national police forces. Also, he said, “they have a better sense of what works and doesn’t when taking down an organized crime network.”
Isacson said he’s been told that the State Department is scrutinizing all forces trained by Colombians with U.S. funds. He said it’s still unclear, however, who exactly Colombian forces are training with U.S. aid, and what courses they are teaching.
Colombia’s armed conflict, he noted, is not the same type of security threat faced by El Salvador or Honduras, which have large, powerful armed gangs that earn money through small drug sales and extortions. Nor is it exactly like that of Mexico, with its bloodthirsty, decentralized drug cartels.
“It’s not really an analogous problem,” Isacson said. “I think Colombia in a post-conflict [scenario] might have to learn from what the Mexicans and Central Americans have been doing.”