Colombia’s elite GAULA units dismantle kidnapping gangs

The Colombian military’s elite anti-kidnapping unit, the Unified Action Group for Personal Liberty (GAULA) is using intelligence and superior training to make dramatic strides against abductions and dismantle organized crime groups.
Elda Gonzalez | 28 April 2014

Transnational Threats

Elite officers: Soldiers with the Colombian Army’s Unified Action Group for Personal Liberty (GAULA), which combats kidnapping and extortion, trains on a beach. The GAULA is succeeding in reducing kidnappings by the FARC and other organized crime groups. (Photo: GAULA]

The Colombian military’s elite anti-kidnapping unit, the Unified Action Group for Personal Liberty (GAULA) is using intelligence and superior training to make dramatic strides against abductions and dismantle organized crime groups, authorities said.

GAULA members have also rescued dozens of kidnapping victims in recent years.

The dramatic reduction in the number of kidnappings since authorities established an anti-kidnapping unit in 1990. The unit was initially known as the UNASE (Anti Extortion and Kidnapping Units).

Then President César Gaviria Trujillo ordered the creation of the UNASE when kidnappings in Colombia surged from 789 in 1989 to 1,274 in 1990.

There were 1,038 kidnapping reported during the first year UNASE was in operation.

Gaviria left office in 1994. In 1996, one of his brothers was kidnapped, and released for ransom.

The same year, UNASE evolved into GAULA.

Kidnappings rise, then drop

Kidnappings, many of which were committed by organized crime groups which demanded ransom, continued to climb for several years. In 2000, there were 3,572 kidnappings reported in Colombia, according to the military. In 2006, kidnappers abducted Liliana Gaviria Trujillo, the sister of the former president, and killed her.

Over time, GAULA officers became more effective as they gained experience investigating abductions and improved their training and intelligence-gathering. In the 2000s, the number of kidnappings dropped steadily, then more rapidly.

In 2013, there were 299 kidnappings reported in Colombia, according to military statistics. Between Jan. 1, 2014 and early April, there were 38 kidnappings reported throughout the country. If that rate continues, there would be fewer than 160 kidnappings nationwide by the end of the year.

Effective investigations by the GAULA, followed up by strong prosecutions to convict and incarcerate organized crime operatives who commit kidnappings are key reasons why abductions have gone down significantly, said to the press Col. José Ángel Pirela, commander of the GAULA.

“The number of kidnappings has dropped dramatically. Through the efforts of prosecution and prevention we have managed to discourage this criminal practice, making it dangerous, expensive and unattractive for the criminals,” Pirela said.

Elite officers

The GAULA is one of the most elite units in the Colombian Armed Forces. Its members receive the highest level of training to prevent and investigate kidnappings and to rescue people who have been abducted.

There are 21 GAULA squads, which are commanded by 86 military officers. The squads include 253 non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and 944 Army soldiers and Marines. GAULA officers are equipped with state of the art technology and training

GAULA officers are trained for urban and rural combat. They are also trained in gathering intelligence, conducting raids to rescue victims of kidnappings, and crisis management.

“Training is vital for success,” Pirela said. “This leads to improved work performance.”

GAULA officers often conduct perilous rescue missions. Since 2005, 28 GAULA officers have fought and died in rescue operations.

Such missions are often dangerous and complicated, Pirela said.

“Rescuing a person in the jungle is more complex due to the topographical conditions and the difficulty to collect tracks. Hostages are generally taken to areas influenced by the terrorist organizations, complicating its location and rescue,” Pirela said. “Calls to the families are made through communications sent from different geographical locations, which requires that military and judiciary intelligence take the initiative to establish the place of captivity. Despite all of the complexities military GAULA has made several rescues.”

“Our mission is to contribute to the eradication of behaviors that threaten and violate personal liberty, especially extortion and kidnapping by prevention efforts, intelligence, and operations research, leading to the rescue of the victims and arrest of the perpetrators,” Pirela said.

Training of Military GAULA officers is provided for urban and rural combat, crisis management, weapons training, specialized instruction for snipers and breachers, raids, detention, enclosure combat, intelligence, skills and abilities of the GAULA specialty.

“Training is vital for success. This leads to improved work performance. In charge of training and retraining is a specialized committee in anti-kidnapping and anti-extortion which throughout the year performs incursions and expeditions nationwide with each GAULA unit, training on different rescue scenarios and certifies each member to participate in rescue missions,” Pirela said.

Cooperation in hostage rescues

GAULA officers have become adept at rescuing hostages. Cooperation with the United States, a partner nation in the fight against organized crime, has helped GAULA’s efforts.

In 2003, GAULA and U.S. security forces began training together under the Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program. The program focuses on hostage rescue operations.

Such cooperation is crucial, Pirela said.

“A GAULA unit is very special for its training, equipment and human values, in this regard the support received by the ATA mission is of vital importance for the fulfillment of our goals as we are nurtured by American experience and leadership in the global fight against terrorism,” the colonel said.

GAULA officers work closely with the Prosecutor General's Office and the Administrative Department of Security (DAS). Colombia is divided by departments, and there is a GAULA unit for every department. The GAULA unit in each department works closely with prosecutors from that department.

The training and cooperation have paid off. Since 2007, GAULA units have dismantled 47 kidnapping gangs, according to the military.

In addition to dismantling kidnapping gangs and rescuing hostages, GAULA officers also educate the civilian population on how to avoid becoming kidnapping victims, Pirela said.

In each department, GAULA officers provide specific advice “that aims to educate our population to prevent being a target of this scourge,” the colonel said.

Kidnappings by the FARC, the ELN and local gangs

Most kidnappings are committed by large organized crime groups, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), as well as smaller street gangs, Pirela said.

Kidnapping gangs “are mostly nationals and are characterized by their ongoing criminal intelligence that allows them to locate the victim anywhere,” Pirela said. “ In the case of the FARC or the ELN when they do not perform the kidnappings directly, they do it through common criminals who (kidnap) the victims,” and bring them to the FARC or the ELN to exchange for ransom.

Kidnappers often follow their victims for days and weeks to learn their habits and determine the best time to abduct them, Pirela said. Some kidnappers use social media, such as Facebook, to learn where victims live, what properties they own, and the names of their relatives, so they will know who to contact with ransom demands, the colonel said.

The value of intelligence

GAULA officers rely heavily on intelligence to learn the whereabouts of kidnapped hostages and rescue them, Pirela said. GAULA units spend much of their time gathering intelligence on kidnapping gangs and victims, the colonel said.

“The GAULA are practically intelligence units, and they spend 95 percent of their efforts to these tasks as a precondition for achieving successful anti-kidnapping and anti-extortion operations,” Pirela said. “These units are retrained every year with specialized instructors and practical exercises to better combat criminals and terrorist groups constantly mutating their modus operandi.”

In July 2008, GAULA officers used intelligence to rescue 15 people, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, 11 Colombian soldiers and police officers, and three U.S. military contractors from the FARC. The initiative was known as Operation Jaque.

While the military has made much progress in reducing kidnappings, security forces must remain vigilant, Pirela said.

“Any kidnapping creates indignation and renovates our commitment to eradicate this practice which affects both members of the security forces and civilians,” Pirela said. “Military activity involves taking risks and sacrifices but freedom and dignity are inviolable, a situation that should be understood by the kidnappers. Thanks to the decisive and victorious action of GAULA it has been possible to deter terrorists and shown Colombians that they can count on highly trained military forces to combat this scourge”

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