The most important function of Colombia’s Armed Forces and Police, among the new duties being assumed by the military in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean, is the fight against drug trafficking. But a little over a year ago, the country signed an agreement with the United Nations to expand Colombia’s participation in international peacekeeping missions.
To speak about this and other topics, Diálogo spoke with Major General Juan Bautista Yepes Bedoya, deputy chief of the Joint Operational Staff of Colombia’s Military Forces, during the South American Defense Conference (SOUTHDEC) 2016, held in Montevideo, Uruguay, from August 16th to 19th.
Diálogo: What progress has been made regarding the participation of the Colombian Military Forces in peacekeeping missions since the agreement was signed with the UN in 2015?
Major General Juan Bautista Yepes Bedoya: The Government of Colombia and the Armed Forces are extremely interested in participating in peacekeeping operations. We already have a battalion in the Sinai Peninsula that has been participating in the Middle East for about 25-30 years, and is very interested in participating in other missions throughout the world. The Government said that it would initially contribute 5,000 of our men to assist in Africa. This is important because we are learning from other countries. We are learning from the United States, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay – countries that have participated before and have a vast experience in the area. We are also currently working at the political levels, preparing the troops for peacekeeping operations which should take place in a not-too-distant future. It is very important for the Armed Forces and for Colombia because of all the lessons we have learned during these 50 years of internal conflict. We want our troops and the National Police to begin to look at other places, to different experiences, so they can participate in this wave of tranquility and peace that is so needed in the communities.
Diálogo: That would also help the reorganization of the Armed Forces of Colombia after the peace agreement is finalized, right?
Maj. Gen. Yepes: Yes, it is also important to say that the Armed Forces and the Police will not decrease their numbers; they will remain at their present rate and will continue to carry out their mission. Although a peace agreement will be signed with the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia], there are other criminal groups that must still be pursued with the entire force of the nation. We continue fulfilling our mission to put an end to criminal organizations, get closer to the border – which is the mission of the Armed Forces, but has been left a little to the side due to the internal conflict–, and get ready for other tasks and other obligations, such as peacekeeping operations.
This, of course, requires the Armed Forces, Army, Navy, and Air Force to restructure their commands and staff. For example, the Army has new units, because there are missions that have concluded, and now others are beginning. We are seeing a complete change in what is involved with organization and restructuring in the Armed Forces.
Diálogo: After over 50 years of a domestic armed fight against the drug traffickers, what lessons has Colombia learned that it can teach other countries? Especially Central Americans, who are in a very strong battle against drug trafficking?
Maj. Gen. Yepes: It’s important to clarify some terms and some concepts. The duties of the Military Forces in defending the nation, these goals, and these national interests cannot be lost. But at the same time, Colombia is willing to cooperate, to have dialogue with neighboring countries in the hemisphere and in other continents to discuss, to talk, and to help solve problems. Nevertheless, because of the internal conflict, we have been performing law enforcement activities for some time,, such as military control operations in different areas, providing security for municipalities, and communities. Everything that has to do with that concept of security, which is more law enforcement, such as community living, and in this, we have been providing assistance to the police and coordinating operations with them without letting go of our roles, but working together in a joint and coordinated manner. So we have learned from each other. It is not uncommon to see our generals and force commanders planning operations with the director of the National Police. I believe this interoperability is what we can share most with other countries.
Diálogo: Another area in which the Military Forces of Colombia have vast experience is in humanitarian aid for disaster relief, which can also be shared with other countries.
Maj. Gen. Yepes: Yes, what you have just said is very important, we are also prepared for that. We have been preparing both military and police forces to assist in natural disasters, floods, earthquakes, and we have done it in a combined and coordinated manner with the four services. We have a large accumulation of experience that has been used in our country and that we have provided to other countries. All this knowledge is available to other countries that may need it.
Diálogo: How will the relationship with the United States be from now on?
Maj. Gen. Yepes: Another great question. We have maintained this alliance with the United States, but we have also opened up to other places, other continents, and other countries that also consider Colombia is able to offer assistance and cooperation. Among them, Brazil and the countries in South America. They have been very alert in providing us their support and willing to share their knowledge, teachings, and lessons learned from their own people. How will the relationship be with the country to the north? It will be a relationship that will not center so much on the military area anymore, but towards developing territories in Colombia. We will provide support and social and economic development to isolated and abandoned areas in the country where there was a marked influence, domination, and control by criminal organizations such as the FARC and the ELN [National Liberation Army]. The U.S. assistance will be channeled in a unified action to develop those territories, those communities, and help them develop their infrastructure, their legal crop substitution projects so they can develop socially and economically.
Diálogo: The Fe en Colombia program has a lot to do with that, right?
Maj. Gen. Yepes: Yes, the Fe en Colombia is the Army’s pilot program. It began in the Eastern Joint Command located in the Pacific coast of Colombia. More specifically, it was General [Mario Augusto] Valencia, the commander of the Army, who commanded a task force there and developed rapprochement strategies with the community to help develop rural Afro-Colombian communities. He also mediated to put an end to the social issues they were having. They would see the Armed Forces and the government as something that was untouchable, or that did not help them where they lived with their families. That is where the Fe en Colombia program has been very important. The Military Forces have worked with them from a support standpoint: helping them understand they are Colombians, that they need help, that we are the same, and that we have to move forward.