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Colombian Special Forces: Operational Success through Joint Work

The Colombian Military Forces’ Joint Special Operations Command focuses on high strategic value targets with the best operational and intelligence capabilities in the country.
Geraldine Cook/Diálogo | 8 April 2019

Colombian Army Major General Jorge Arturo Salgado Restrepo, former commander of CCOES, said that neutralizing FARC’s secretariat has been the institution’s biggest achievement. (Photo: CCOES)

The Colombian Military Forces’ Joint Special Operations Command (CCOES, in Spanish) conducts operations under the motto, “Special people to complete special missions.” Army Major General Jorge Arturo Salgado Restrepo, CCOES's commander until December 2018, praised the work of its specialized personnel. CCOES was consolidated as a joint command in April 2009. Since then, its operational achievements to neutralize the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish) made the Military Forces renowened internationally.

As commander, Maj. Gen. Salgado was committed to making his personnel increasingly professional. He spoke with Diálogo during a visit to CCOES's headquarters in Bogotá, in October 2018, where he talked about the personnel's capabilities, their training, interagency work, and other topics.    

Diálogo: What’s CCOES’s mission? What does CCOES consist of?

Major General Jorge Arturo Salgado Restrepo, former commander of the Colombian Military Forces’ Joint Special Operations Command: Our mission is to conduct operations against high strategic value targets. To do so, we joined our intelligence and operational capabilities with the Military Forces and the National Police. In Colombia, the National Police is under the umbrella of the defense sector, and we work with them very closely.

CCOES consists of three components: the land component, grouping together the Colombian Army’s Special Forces Division with its three regiments and three battalions of about 4,000 elements. We have the air component with the Special Air Operations group and the Navy component, which consists of the Marine Corps Special Forces Battalion, both with their own capabilities. When a mission is assigned to us, we conduct a thorough analysis of the operational environment and then decide on the ideal capability to use, based on several factors: enemy, time, terrain, and troops available, among others. In addition to these components, we have the Special Operations Urban Counter-terrorism Group.

Diálogo: What are the short and long-term objectives of CCOES?

Maj. Gen. Salgado: Our main objective is to defeat the persistent threat system, as defined by the Victoria Plus war plan. This persistent threat system has six subsystems: first, the armed one; second, support networks; third, resources; fourth, territory; fifth, political; and sixth, command and control. CCOES’s mission is to attack the command and control subsystem. Under the direction of the minister of Defense, we meet with intelligence agency participation to identify the country’s high strategic value targets. We also have security and border plans with neighboring countries, where we conduct missions to attack high strategic value targets.

CCOES evolved. Signing the peace process with FARC compelled a full transformation of the military, and we were not exempt from this. In the past, it was easier to determine all high strategic value targets because of the structural organization of the threat. Today, the threat is different; there are organized armed groups with a lot of involvement in narcotrafficking, so identifying leaders and high strategic value targets became more complex. This is a major challenge we assumed very well. 

Diálogo: What are CCOES’s achievements since its creation?

Maj. Gen. Salgado: There is no question that CCOES was a fundamental part in defeating FARC. We neutralized 90 percent of their command and control subsystem, which forced them to negotiate from a weaker position than when we started in 2009. Neutralizing the FARC’s secretariat was CCOES’s greatest achievement.

Diálogo: The Colombian special forces have remarkable international prestige with operations such as Jaque, Armageddon (Armagedón), Chameleon (Camaleón), and Odysseus (Odiseo). To what do you attribute the success of these operations?

Maj. Gen. Salgado: Without a doubt, very rigorous training, especially instruction, revision, doctrine modernization, and knowledge exchange with other countries, with the United States topping the list, of course. CCOES is an organization that arose with help from the United States; this is an is an army whose creation received the strong support of the U.S. Army, the U.S. military, and the nation itself. Taking those first steps with them helped us reach these high standards.

Diálogo: CCOES is considered to be an interagency component. How did you develop that interoperability coordination?

Maj. Gen. Salgado: We work with strategic operational think tanks (TPOE, in Spanish), which are working groups comprising CCOES and intelligence from the National Police, the Technical Investigation Corps, and other Colombian and U.S. agencies. Through the ministerial directive that defines high strategic value targets, each TPOE is assigned targets to monitor around the clock. TPOE build that target with information and intelligence obtained at the national level. This system creates a mathematical model that gives us the green light to make it operational.

Diálogo: The press characterized the special forces as narcotrafficking's and guerrillas’ worst nightmare. Could you tell us why? What are their greatest achievements in the Colombian peace process?

Maj. Gen. Salgado: For years, the Colombian Army and the Military Forces in general have been the most appreciated institutions in our country, because we are trusted. We receive these comments with great pride and affection, because we live and exist for Colombia. The media are part of all these systems. In the 1990s, there were high-profile narcotraffickers who were very cruel and bloodthirsty and hurt our country enormously. Many FARC leaders—and somehow the country—felt at the time that we wouldn’t be able to defeat FARC, as they were invincible. However, with these kinds of capabilities, such as those of CCOES, we proved them wrong. There’s nothing like the nation seeing the neutralization of those terrorists’ and narcotraffickers’ command and control structures.

Diálogo: What’s the relationship between the Colombian Special Operations Forces and the United States and other partner nations in the region?

Maj. Gen. Salgado: We have a personal, daily relationship with the United States. With the U.S. Army Special Forces, we have an ongoing and constant relationship in all aspects of capability, since their personnel help in our organization and support us in all our processes, such as doctrine, organization, training, personnel, sustainability, and logistics issues. We have exchanges with other countries; we train service members of several countries here; and we attend seminars and participate in the Fuerzas Comando competition.

Diálogo: The Special Forces Academy has a great track record in personnel instruction. What kind of training do they get? Could you tell us about the reputation of the school at the international level? Do they conduct international training, particularly with the United States?

Maj. Gen. Salgado: The Special Forces Academy is an essential component in our system, so we are part of the training and instruction processes. Our officers, noncommissioned officers (NCOs), and personnel carry out special forces courses to fight in land, air, and water environments. We provide constant feedback on what happens in the battlefield, since these asymmetrical wars are very dynamic and changing. The enemy already learned what we did two years ago, so it’s no longer effective. It’s a constant learning process, and our school spearheads all the processes of lessons learned.

The school has an international reputation because officers and NCOs of Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Panama, and Mexico, among others, train in free fall, diving, combat, and other courses for different capabilities. We have a very special international outreach in close cooperation with the United States, which we would like to expand to improve shared training capabilities.

Many of our personnel participate in a wide variety of courses within the U.S. special operations system, on either individual or group topics, while we have U.S. staff who train our members in certain skills, such as high-altitude infiltrations, parachuting, paragliding, and high-precision snipers. We go to the United States to get training, from basic training, such as the ranger course, to technical courses such as system management, radio, and the whole range of capabilities and materials used in special operations.

Diálogo: What’s your message to Special Operations Forces of the hemisphere?

Maj. Gen. Salgado: I’d like to congratulate all the special operations personnel, because we are the hope of the people. Here in Colombia you’ll always find friendly special forces willing and ready to learn.

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