Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory recorded 16,862 victims of kidnapping, murder, massacre, and damage to civilian property during the internal conflict between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in Spanish) from 1978 to 2015. The number rises to more than 50,000 with crimes of other paramilitary groups and the National Liberation Army. The peace agreement Colombia and the FARC signed on November 24, 2016, marked a big step forward for the country, but the road to lasting peace is still a long one. To find out how Colombia’s Army, Navy, and Air Force take part in this process, Diálogo spoke with Army General Alberto José Mejía Ferrero, commander of the Colombian Military Forces.
Diálogo: You assumed your current position in December 2017. What are your priorities?
Army General Alberto José Mejía Ferrero, commander of the Colombian Military Forces: In reality, our plans are institutional. In other words, when a new commander takes charge, he can’t reset everything and start from scratch. We have to respect those institutional plans. Everyone built upon them as a group effort. But it’s possible to place greater emphasis on certain aspects and introduce new initiatives, and this is what we are doing, because plans need to be dynamic, not frozen in time. They have to evolve because we still face threats that continue to harm the Colombian people. One can’t stick to plans drafted years ago that haven’t been modernized and updated.
Diálogo: Part of this modernization is greater interoperability between the branches of the military. You term this the multi-domain military forces. Could you expand on this concept?
Gen. Mejía: During the last two and a half years, my job was to lead the Army in a process we call transformation 1.0. This process concludes August 7, 2018, and we immediately move into the four-year transformation 2.0 process. The actual process has to close gaps, strengthen certain capabilities, maintain strategic capabilities we acquired during the conflict, enhance education and training, and reinforce the whole ethics and values component through our I Am Dante policy of integrity and transparency, among many other initiatives. Now that I serve as general commander of the Military Forces, the Joint Command defines coordination between the Colombian Army, Navy, and Air Force. Within that command, we have certain constitutional responsibilities, according to which, I am the leader of the military forces in the event of an internal or external threat.
Diálogo: And how will you lead three different branches of the military with their own cultures and capabilities?
Gen. Mejía: The answer of course lies in a joint organization underpinning the integration of the Armed Forces, and in the establishment of joint processes through structural directives, all while creating a joint doctrine that allows us greater coordination. The restructuring process is currently underway and will conclude, as I mentioned, on August 7th, which allows us to strengthen what we have been building: forces that learned to interoperate, forces that today operate jointly with the National Police, which is part of our Ministry of Defense, as well as joint operations guaranteeing, each time more, operational synergy.
Diálogo: Is the participation of the Colombian Military Forces in United Nations peacekeeping missions also among your objectives?
Gen. Mejía: This issue requires a thorough explanation. The top priority continues to be the two main missions, which I call the right fist and the left fist: the defense of sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the fight against internal threats that continue to harm the Colombian people after the peace agreement. Let there be no mistake: Those two missions take priority. But there are also four smaller, secondary missions that aren’t the military’s main focus and don’t use all our capabilities. These missions, which we term Country Development, include environmental protection, disaster response, and security export. So, exporting security and participating in peacekeeping missions are part of the non-core, secondary activities. Colombia suffered greatly, and many partner nations helped us, which gave us a vision and culture of shared responsibility, meaning that we too need to help other democracies to keep them from enduring what Colombia did. Against that backdrop, we will see battalion-sized units from Colombia deployed on peacekeeping missions in the next few years. As of now, only one Colombian battalion serves in this capacity—a light infantry battalion on the Sinai Peninsula. We also have military observers on peacekeeping missions in the Central African Republic and Lebanon, but we have yet to choose where Colombia’s 4th Battalion will deploy.
Diálogo: You mentioned the military protecting the environment. Illegal mining is a more serious problem than narcotrafficking in some areas. What are the Colombian Military Forces doing to counter this?
Gen. Mejía: Following the peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC, in Spanish], the so-called System of Persistent Threats continues to inflict harm. Criminal economies are the lifeblood of the National Liberation Army, FARC dissident groups, and organized armed groups like the Gulf Clan, the People’s Liberation Army, and other similar groups. Colombia is a country blessed with great riches, especially minerals like gold and platinum. Unfortunately, after the Berlin wall came down, these groups, these guerrillas, initially learned to sustain themselves with narcotrafficking. Their criminal portfolio now expanded to activities beyond narcotrafficking, including illegal mining, cross-border smuggling, and extortion and kidnapping. We have been coming down hard on illegal mining. Two years ago, the government asked us to create the first and only brigade—in Colombia and in the world, I believe —to counter illegal mining. The brigade battles illegal mining in geographically isolated areas with a very powerful interagency component involving many government institutions: the Police, the Office of the Attorney General, the Technical Investigation Corps, Family Welfare to care for children, the Ombudsman’s Office to protect citizens, etc. An operation to combat illegal mining is more difficult than a bombing operation, so we’ve been destroying hundreds of large construction equipment that damage the environment, tear up the valleys’ stream beds, and destroy the tropical rain forest—the illegal mining sites where rivers are filled with mercury and chemicals to produce gold. The results are noteworthy, but there is still much to do, and the most complex part comes afterward: the environmental reclaiming of these illegal extraction sites, which will take more than 100 years.
Diálogo: You spoke of Colombia as an exporter of security strategy to other countries. Could you explain the importance of working with the armed forces of other countries in the region and also with the United States?
Gen. Mejía: First of all, this is our vision. We are already taking steps to make it a reality, but it’s a vision we aspire to with humility. It’s not our aim to go teach anyone or preach about anything, but all wars help strengthen a nation’s military. Wars leave behind great lessons, and the experiences we’ve had during our country’s 52 years of war allowed us to acquire certain national security capabilities that we can now export to other countries. We see the tripartite alliance with the United States and Central America as key because, unfortunately, this is the region that receives the drugs produced in Colombia, causing great suffering to partner nations like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama. The least we can do is to humbly assist them in their training, certification, and operational planning process, and in the design of their strategic concepts, among many other factors, to help strengthen their security forces.
Diálogo: Now that the peace agreement has been signed, what will Colombia-U.S. relations look like?
Gen. Mejía: Colombia has a very long-standing alliance with the United States. It began at the start of the last century and gained momentum from there. The United States allowed us to fight at their side in the Korean War, and we were again side-by-side in conflicts like the Suez Canal and now the Sinai Peninsula. In the fight against narcotrafficking, we managed to create an excellent and visionary strategic plan called Plan Colombia, which allowed us to build capacities to combat internal threats and ultimately save Colombia’s democracy. At the start of the plan, Colombia was on the brink of total disaster, and its democracy was in grave danger. Some considered us a nonviable country. Plan Colombia allowed us to build capacities through a great process of exchange, culture, doctrine, training, capabilities, and interaction with many U.S. citizens who came and made sacrifices to save this Colombian democracy. That is why we—historically and now recently in the past few decades—have taken a true attitude of alliance, of partnership. It is a great pact of brotherhood and friendship that allows us to fight against evil. We are not fighting good. We are fighting crime, evil, the enemies of democracy, the enemies of integration, the enemies of development, and of all the ideals at the core of any democracy.
Diálogo: You built your career in a country at war. Do you truly believe that your children and grandchildren will grow up in a peaceful country?
Gen. Mejía: That’s a very important question. Your readers need to understand that, while there is indeed a peace process and real progress with FARC, we still have to fight the other groups out there. Those other groups, as I mentioned earlier, are what we call the Persistent Threat System. We will continue to fight. We will continue to attack. We have carried out multiple bombing and aerial assault operations in recent days, and, in reality, we are still at war with these criminals. The end goal of all our plans is enduring and stable peace for Colombia, but we still have a long way to go to get there. We still have battles to fight and work to do. We still need allies and partners, and we need support from the United States, and all our allies, now more than ever. I am convinced that cooperation between Colombia’s institutions and the customary courage and bravery of the Colombian Military Forces will allow us to carve out this future of a safe and peaceful Colombia, a Colombia with stable and enduring peace.