Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón recently visited military officials in seven countries across Central America and the Caribbean to discuss how officials can strengthen cooperation on security issues.
In late September 2013, Pinzón met with military officials in Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago.
Pinzón and officials from the other countries discussed the possibility of increasing opportunities for the Colombian military and National Police to provide training in fighting international drug trafficking and battling organized crime. Cooperation between the countries of the region is crucial in the fight against transnational criminal organizations, Pinzón said.
“We need to show solidarity with these countries that are tackling problems similar to the ones we face,” said Pinzón. “To the extent that this interrupts trafficking, it interrupts criminality and reduces the flow of resources that come to finance violence and terrorism in Colombia, so we all win.”
Kidnapping and extortion
In recent years, the number of kidnapping and extortion cases have increased in Colombia and other Central American and Caribbean countries. Many of those offenses are committed by organized crime groups, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) in Colombia.
In El Salvador, the street gangs Mara Salvatrucha, which is also known as MS-13, and Barrio 18 are responsible for many kidnappings and extortions. Those two gangs also operate in Guatemala. The Lorenzana drug trafficking organization and the Mexican organized crime groups Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel also operate in Guatemala.
International cooperation is crucial in the fight against kidnapping and extortion, according to Colombian Gen. Humberto Guatibonza, director of the GAULA, Colombia’s anti-kidnapping and anti-extortion unit. Colombia’s Unified Action Groups for Personal Liberty (GAULA) is the country’s elite anti-extortion and anti-kidnapping unit. The GAULA is respected around the world for its professionalism and effectiveness in combatting organized crime.
“In countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, kidnapping has become a major transnational scourge to the point where we simply have to join forces,” Guatibonza said.
Extortion of small businesses, street vendors, and taxi drivers is also a major problem throughout Latin America, he said.
“The micro-extortion phenomenon has shot up across the Latin American region,” Guatibonza said. “We are working with our partners to start hitting the entire structures behind this crime and to build support networks for the victims.”
Training security forces o
The GAULA’s efforts are a key reason that kidnapping in Colombia dropped by close to 90 percent during a recent eight-year span. In 2004, 1,607 kidnappings were reported in Colombia. In 2012, 305 kidnappings were reported, according to the Colombian Ministry of Defense website.
GAULA officers instruct security forces from other countries at the Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada training school, located 25 kilometers south of Bogota in Sibaté. The training facility opened in 2004.
In recent years, officers with the GAULA have trained with security forces from eight Central and South American countries in anti-kidnapping tactics and anti-extortion tactics, including more than 400 police officers from El Salvador, Panama, Guatemala and Honduras.
Some GAULA officers also travel to other countries to participate in training programs, Guatibonza said.
“This year alone, we have sent specialists from Colombia to a range of countries in the Central American region to help them improve their intelligence and judicial investigations into kidnapping and extortion crimes,” Guatibonza said.
Cooperating with Honduras
GAULA officers have spent more than five years training Honduran security forces in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. GAULA officers are helping Honduras develop a professional anti-kidnapping unit and an anti-extortion team, according to Guatibonza. The Colombian military has plans to engage in anti-extortion training programs in 2014 with Guatemala and Mexico.
In early September 2013, Colombian Marines trained members of the Honduray Navy in maritime interdiction of drug traffickers. The training took place on board the ARC Caldas, a Colombian missile frigate, in Puerto Cortes on the Northwest coast of Honduras.
In addition to those training efforts, the Colombian Air Force and the Honduran Air Force have an agreement to exchange intelligence and participate in joint training programs, said Gen. René Osorio Canales, the leader of the Honduran Armed Forces. The Colombian Air Force has agreements with Mexico, Brazil Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Peru to cooperate in the fight against drug trafficking.
“We welcome the recent visit of Colombian Defense Minister Pinzón as part of his Central American tour,” Osorio said. “"The idea is that Honduras can join its friends in the region against the common enemy and we appreciate Colombia´s help in this.”
The increase in recent years of extortion schemes by transnational criminal organizations means Colombia and other Latin American countries should strengthen their ties and share information and resources in the fight against organized crime, said Jorge Restrepo, director of Cerac, a conflict analysis think tank based in Bogota.
“Colombia has a strategic interest in getting closer to the intelligence and security services in Central America and the Pacific basin,” Restrepo said. “The recent rise of extortion and money-laundering groups in Colombia goes through international criminal networks that originate in South America and move through Central America to the U.S.”
During his recent trip, Pinzón was also promoting Indumil and Cotecmar, two Colombian businesses which sell military- and police-grade weapons, such as the Cordoba pistol, the Galil ACE rifle, and river and ocean patrol boats.
These efforts were secondary to the defense minister’s primary mission, which was to strengthen ties and cooperation between Colombian security forces and those of other Latin American countries, Restrepo said.
“Boosting [Colombian] arms sales is important but still is of marginal interest compared to the strategic diplomatic goals of our country,” Restrepo explained. “It makes perfect sense to invest in strengthening relationships with the security services and the military in these regions,” he said.
In recent years, some Colombian businesses have increased their sales of surveillance equipment to the militaries of other countries in Central America, according to Restrepo.
But the joint training efforts between Colombia and other security forces is more important , he said.