For the past 10 years, U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), through U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command, has sponsored civil-military aid operations in different partner nations with the goal of strengthening cooperation in the Western Hemisphere. In 2017, Continuing Promise (CP17) arrived in Guatemala, Honduras, and Colombia to provide assistance in the form of medical and veterinary services as well as expert exchanges on topics of specific interest to the communities of Puerto Barrios, Guatemala; Trujillo, Honduras; and Mayapo, Colombia.
“Our visit allows us to continue building on the foundation of previous successful missions while working with our partner nations to have a positive impact on local communities,” stated Captain Errin Armstrong, CP17 mission commander. “The relationships formed during operations like Continuing Promise help build trust and cooperation among the region’s countries.”
CP17 in Colombia
In Colombia, the mission focused on Mayapo, a rural area home to the Wayúu indigenous group. Mayapo is located 40 kilometers from Rihoacha, the capital of the department of La Guajira. Over a 10-day period, the mission provided health care to more than 10,000 people, most of whom were members of the Wayúu tribe. U.S. Navy personnel and 35 Colombian volunteer doctors offered free medical care to patients at the local Laachon Ethnic Education School. The services provided included optometry, ophthalmology, dental care, gynecological services, pediatric medicine, preventive medicine, and general medicine. In addition to the medical care, the mission featured around 50 subject matter expert exchanges (SMEE) between U.S. and Colombian medical specialists, which were attended by approximately 900 people.
The SMEEs have a major impact on local communities because they give Colombian medical personnel the opportunity to exchange best practices and learn new techniques and procedures used in specific areas of medicine, leaving them better equipped to provide people with medical care. With an investment of nearly $5 million over the course of seven years, the mission has benefitted significant segments of the population, in this case the Wayúu community. “This has been a successful brigade for our community, with very good medical care. I hope they continue to bring more help like this,” said Maryori Cuellar, a Mayapo resident.
In addition to providing medical care to Mayapo residents, the mission partnered with the non-governmental organization (NGO) World Vets to spay and neuter dogs and cats and vaccinate them against rabies free of charge. During the 10 days of the mission, 530 animals were treated at the facilities of the Colombian Agricultural Institute, Riohacha branch.
Additionally, the Integral Action Company (COPAI, per its Spanish acronym) of the Colombian Army and Integral Action personnel from the Colombian Navy built a nursing unit at the Laachon Ethnic Education School, giving students the opportunity to receive direct medical care. This building, which was donated to the school, is part of three SOUTHCOM Humanitarian Assistance Program (HAP) projects through which Colombia and the United States partner to support local communities.
The construction and maintenance battalion of Continuing Promise also built a community kitchen at Playa Popoya, Mayapo. The wooden structure has two brick ovens that will give residents better conditions for preparing food, especially for local schoolchildren.
Historically, the department of La Guajira has been plagued by corruption and the presence of guerrillas and criminal groups, which for decades has hampered government efforts to intervene. Today, the Colombian government and Armed Forces have made this region a priority, and consequently the United States government supported the domestic agenda through Continuing Promise 2017, with the message “Together for La Guajira.”
“This joint effort by the United States and Colombia is a tangible symbol of our enduring partnership and shows the current and future strength of our cooperation,” stated U.S. Army Colonel Robert Wagner, military attaché in Colombia, during the official opening ceremony of the Continuing Promise 2017 mission in Mayapo, La Guajira.
The Colombian Navy expressed in a press release that “through combined, joint and interagency work, the security forces, in alliance with partner nations, government authorities, trade unions, and other associations, [they] will continue contributing by providing health care to the neediest communities, and by ensuring the stability and security of the region and country.”
The joint mission of the Colombian and U.S. navies also received support from the Colombian National Police; the international NGOs Children’s Vision International, Young Men’s Christian Association Colombia, and Peace Corps Colombia; 46 interpreters from six Colombian universities; and various leaders from the Wayúu indigenous communities.