It is 37 degrees Celsius under a cloudless sky in Los Pijaos; the sun’s rays beat down as sweat trickles down the faces of a group of policemen that are training in a fast-rope descent exercise. Fully armed, dressed in combat uniforms and wearing thick, black gloves they hurry up a 60-foot tower to then bring themselves down as fast as they can, keeping in check all the security measures and proper procedures their U.S. Army Special Forces counterparts have been teaching them for the last hour.
Among mountains, plains and ravines bordering the Coello River, they are practicing some of the tactics used during the stealthy interdiction operations that this elite Colombian police force is known for.
The Counter-narcotics Jungla Company is a select Special Operations force known for flying over Colombia’s thick jungles in the middle of the night, in search of clandestine cocaine processing laboratories owned and operated by illegal armed groups of narco-terrorists, such as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia.
As what can be best described as a militarized police unit, the Junglas airmobile narcotics interdiction commando is the operational arm of the Colombian National Police (CNP), and falls under its Antinarcotics Directorate (DIRAN).
Home base is the 17,001-hectare finca Los Pijaos, a natural fort-like structure located deep in the heart of Colombia, where the CNP’s National Training and Police Operations School headquarters –CENOP, was established in 2008.
“Our country’s unique circumstances force us to respond to the need for having a militarized police force”, said Police Colonel Jorge Luis Ramírez Aragón, CENOP base commander, during a visit by Diálogo to what’s known as the “fort.”
CNP launched the first national Jungla course in 1989, with support from the United States and the United Kingdom’s Special Air Service, part of the British Special Forces. The course lasted six months, and taught the group of specially selected Police members the skills needed to survive for a week alone in the jungle, among other tactics.
Nowadays, the training focuses on dismounted patrolling, night operations, medical trauma management, designated marksmanship, close-quarters combat, airmobile missions, counter-Improvised Explosive Device operations, and capturing High-Value Targets (HVTs) –all of them skills that are put to the test during their signature interdiction missions.
The basic Jungla Commando course lasts 18 weeks and a typical day’s activities may include conducting raids to capture HVTs, or destroying or seizing processing labs, narcotics caches, and stockpiles of precursor chemicals. Reaching these remote locations involves surreptitious and carefully planned operations for which each member of the unit carries a heavy load of weapons and tools across various kilometers through water, marshes and the Colombian jungle’s extreme heat.
Recruits must be active policemen with at least two years in the force before they can be selected to train as a Jungla, a professional opportunity for which police members volunteer and which many view as a calling.
The Jungla Training Company First Sergeant, an instructor for the past 20 years, explained to Diálogo, that as instructors, they seek out Jungla trainees that “will not challenge their mission, but look for a solution instead”. As a veteran instructor, the First Sergeant also helps develop the medic course for advanced Junglas, including rural tactical operations in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada, the Amazon and the Cauca region.
Following the intense training of the basic course, Junglas then move on to more specialized and advanced courses in a field of their choice.
The Junglas table of organization and equipment calls for over 600 policemen in three companies: Facatativá, on the outskirts of Bogotá; Santa Marta, on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia, and Tuluá, in the east, in addition to 65 instructors based at the CNP training center in Pijaos.
Within each Jungla company there are three platoon-sized elements, each comprised of squad-sized elements of 10 members, each of whom carries a 35-to-45-lb. load of equipment on each of their heliported missions, and has a very specific role. Working off intelligence packets provided by the DIRAN intelligence directorate, they are positioned strategically to work as a mobile assault assembly line of sorts, where each member is of vital importance to the rest of the team, but has independent responsibilities from the rest.
Throughout the years, the skills and strengths developed by this group has resulted in a decreased availability of drugs and the capture of numerous narco-terrorists wanted in Colombia.
In April 2009, for example, special reconnaissance teams of Junglas and members of the CNP’s intelligence directorate captured Daniel “Don Mario” Rendón Herrera, one of Colombia’s most wanted narco-trafficker at the time.
And in 2011, DIRAN destroyed 813 coca base production facilities, as well as 100 cocaine hydrochloride labs, in which cocaine paste or cocaine base is manufactured into the crystal form of cocaine that is most commonly sold illicitly.
Beyond Colombia’s Jungle
Since 1994, there have been 23 national courses, 10 international courses and 10 courses for instructors only, all of which have included the participation of the security forces of 19 countries. Since 2009 alone, over 1,500 international students have been trained by the CNP, many at the CENOP base, and over 8,000 by mobile instructor teams outside of Colombia. Each class begins with anywhere from 70 to 110 students, and has an average graduation rate of about 70 percent, according to Mayor Carlos Reyes, commander of the Jungla Instructor Company.
Maj. Reyes told Diálogo that because of its unique history and experience, the CNP has collaborated to improve Latin American counter-narcotics operations and other law enforcement actions against crime throughout the hemisphere.
“CNP is the world’s Jungla [soldiers] factory…” said Col. Ramírez Aragón.