War College Aims to Build the Colombia of the Future

In an interview with Diálogo, the director of the Colombian War College (ESDEGUE), Major General Juan Carlos Salazar Salazar, discusses his organization's significance as a standard bearer for the region.
Claudia Sánchez-Bustamante/Diálogo | 7 April 2016

In addition to training the future Military leaders of Colombia and other friendly nations, the Colombian War College, under the leadership of Army Major General Juan Carlos Salazar Salazar, focuses on planning the role of the Colombian Armed Forces in the Colombia of the future. [Photo: Claudia Sánchez-Bustamante/Diálogo]

Diálogo recently visited the Colombian Army War College (ESDEGUE) in Bogotá, where it had the opportunity to talk with its director, Major General Juan Carlos Salazar Salazar. Among many topics, he discussed ESDEGUE's significance as a standard bearer for the region, its unique curriculum, its Center for Strategic Security Studies, and the process of change for which the country is preparing its Armed Forces based on an ambitious project launched from the school itself.

DIÁLOGO: What is the role and focus of the Colombian Army War College?

Major General Juan Carlos Salazar Salazar, director of the ESDEGUE: The War College's mission is to build comprehensive leaders that are prepared to face national security and defense challenges, both at the strategic and operational levels. Here at the War College, we train future generals, admirals and lieutenant colonels.

DIÁLOGO: What is its significance today, 107 years after its foundation? What are your plans for the future of the War College?

Maj. Gen. Salazar Salazar: The War College has several facets. First, it is the Armed Forces’ highest center of education. Second, it is a school for advanced training; it is a think tank, a research center, and an advisor to the Ministry of Defense, the General Command and, on some occasions, the federal government. It is a school that is open to all branches of service. There are students here from the Army, Navy, and Air Force, all in the same room, sharing the same curriculum and the same goals. In addition, it is an international school. We have teachers and international students from many countries throughout the Americas and some from Europe and Asia.

All of these factors make it a very special school because of its capabilities, its organization, its academic level, and the mission that it fulfills for the Armed Forces. Here, we offer academic programs for the Military and academic programs that are open to [the civil] society.

Our Military academic programs include the Military Studies Course to train future generals and admirals, the Staff Course to train future lieutenant colonels and commanders, the CAMIN course for Military attachés, who will serve as defense attachés and Military attachés abroad...

We also offer other extensive courses for the Military based on their needs, and our continuing education courses open to the civil society feature four master's degrees: a Master of Security and Defense, a Master of Strategy and Geopolitics, a Master of Cyber Security and Cyber Defense, and a Master of Human Rights and International Law in Armed Conflicts. These four programs are very distinctive and quite unique both within the country, as well as throughout South America.

DIÁLOGO: What is the profile of the students who attend ESDEGUE? What percentage of students are Colombian Military officers, members of the Armed Forces of friendly nations, and civilians?

Maj. Gen. Salazar Salazar: Students who come to the War College have been selected by the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Each force conducts a selection process to identify individuals for enrollment, and what we do here, through very special lines of education, is strengthen their skills and expertise. The most important area of expertise is leadership. Other areas of expertise that we strengthen here are administration, management, strategic planning, conducting operations, and interinstitutional advisory services, so that when they leave, they can participate in recommendations at the local and regional level with civilian leaders.

Right now we have 28 foreign students. It may not seem like a very significant number, but it is significant with regard to the countries with whom we have agreements. For example, we currently have students from the United States, Korea, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Honduras, and Mexico, and we have had students from Guatemala. These countries are important in the international arena and are friends of ours in our global efforts, such as Korea and other countries that are here regularly.

DIÁLOGO: What is the importance of the ESDEGUE subsidiaries, such as the Regional Center for Strategic Security Studies (CREES)? Why was there a need to create it as a separate entity from the educational program offered at the ESDEGUE?

Maj. Gen. Salazar Salazar: We are nearing the end of an armed conflict, after more than 50 years of war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The FARC are in Military negotiations with the government because we achieved victory and [the FARC] became convinced that they could not reach their aims by force of arms.

The CREES is a vehicle to show the world all the lessons learned and our experiences. These successes that we have had and that are very distinctive worldwide, such as our intelligence operations capabilities, which have been conducted in a clean, transparent manner, with a lot of initiative and dedication. One example is Operation Jaque, which allowed for the rescue [of 15 hostages kidnapped by the FARC in July 2008]. We have conducted many such operations. And there is significant interest from the international community, because we export such lessons. We have accumulated significant capabilities in the operation of nocturnal aerial equipment. After the United States, we are the country that most engages in assault operations, rescues, and casualty evacuation at night.

Here in Colombia, there is a confluence of threats that are common to many countries in the region and the world. They have now become transnational threats. Crime is transnational, drug trafficking is transnational, and operating under a system of cooperative security, we can all help each other. So, the CREES also aims to integrate all of these regional efforts to understand the behavior of these threats and build strategies to address them. If we consider the measures to promote mutual trust at the moment, a mechanism that exists within the OAS [Organization of American States] and worldwide a mechanism for promoting mutual trust they include allowing two or three countries that have a common problem to unite, regardless of their politics or other interests, to deal with it. Therefore, the CREES also constitutes a good way to combine these efforts against these threats. The CREES is also a think tank. We have researchers here. We are establishing agreements for research networks with other institutes. However, the CREES belongs to the War College; the War College has some agreements in place with other institutions and national universities and internationally, thus becoming part of this research network as a think tank. In addition, the CREES is also becoming an advisory and consulting body to the Ministry of Defense, which originally had the idea of creating the Center and finally achieved it with the support of the United States.

DIÁLOGO: What programs are offered together with other partner nations in the region, such as the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and its components?

Maj. Gen. Salazar Salazar: CREES's main partner is the Special Operations Command South, aligned with the Joint Special Operations University (JSOU), and in its short period of time in existence, other partners have emerged, with whom we are now building partnerships. One example is the Security and Defense Network of Latin America (RESDAL) in the south of the country; in Chile we have some important strategic studies centers; and right now we are building some agreements in Mexico and Brazil that we hope to consolidate by the end of the year. But right now, our biggest partner is the United States.

Meanwhile, the War College has several agreements/exchange programs with the European Union and the European Security and Defense College. We have one with the NATO Defense College... For two years we have been NATO security allies and in that process, we have strengthened ties in the field of educational doctrine, which is my area, with that institution. Last year we participated in activities in Austria. This year, in May, we will go to the [War] College in Warsaw to give a presentation. We are also close with the Defense College of South Korea and almost all other similar colleges, with our counterparts. We also have strong ties with the Air Force, Army, and Navy War Colleges in the United States. In Washington, we have agreements with the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies... in short, almost all of our counterpart schools.

DIÁLOGO: What is the importance of working together with partner countries such as the United States and others?

Maj. Gen. Salazar Salazar: Nowadays this importance is measured on a bilateral basis. Agreements are expected to be beneficial for both parties, so that through these agreements and close working relationships we can work together on the current issue of joint threats to the region. From the War College, we contribute good strategies, good initiatives, and a good understanding of threats to national security and defense as the main issue. From the War College, this rigor, this research, and this methodology will always be solid elements to contribute to the security and defense of all states. All states look to the War College to understand and jointly consider strategies to combat threats.

DIÁLOGO: How does ESDEGUE compare with other similar institutions in the region?

Maj. Gen. Salazar Salazar: There are several factors that make ESDEGUE unique in the region. In terms of our history, we were founded almost 107 years ago, so we have a certain status compared to other schools that are relatively new. In terms of the quality of the teaching programs, we compete with almost every other institution that has master's degree programs. So we are very observant of how they operate, as a benchmark to make adjustments. Our international teachers also bring us great ideas from their schools. From the academic standpoint, we are updated through them and through the Military attachés who visit us and our attachés who go to other countries. In addition, our 50 years of experience with war is an issue that attracts a lot of attention and draws many people. There is a lot to teach about that, issues such as Integrated Action, which is very much a characteristic of ours, and how to contribute to the stability and consolidation of regions through Military leadership in critical regions. All of these Integrated Action issues receive a lot of attention.

Yesterday, for example, we received the War College of the U.S. Air Force, which came not just to visit, but to learn about some of the issues of interest to them. Foremost among these issues was fighting terrorism. Colombia was a different country 10 or 12 years ago, a country under siege that was seen from the outside as possibly an unviable country. After so many years of conflict, we were able to turn the tide, and the balance of power has changed. They wanted to know how it was accomplished. On the issue of drug trafficking, we have gotten together with advisers from countries such as Mexico, under a United States-Mexico-Colombia triangulation, to advise Mexico. We have young people from our Police, Army, and Navy serving as advisers on drug trafficking issues. This issue has lately taken a turn for the worse. We are once again the top cocaine producing country, which is a major concern after having done so well.

A few years ago we had almost 250,000 hectares and the year before last we reduced the area almost 49,000 hectares. However, due to some internal issues, the spraying of glyphosate was banned as of October 1st. Using the spray was a good strategy. It was not the only strategy, but it had the greatest impact. This has caused crops to be reintroduced. So now there is concern over the issue of drug trafficking, and we have a lot of experience on how to fight it with the Police and the [U.S.] Embassy. So this is an issue that draws the attention of other schools.

There are also new issues, such as illegal mining, which is being used as a source of funding to support terrorist groups. That has also drawn the attention of foreign schools because we also have significant experience in this area. Our experience in combating extortion and kidnapping has also been useful for our neighboring countries to the south and Mexico, who suffer from the same problems. Here, we have had a very successful strategy involving the Police, Navy, and Army with the GAULA groups [Unified Action Groups for Personal Liberty], which are the main tool to fight extortion and kidnapping, working closely with prosecutors and intelligence agencies. So, that type of organization, our experiences, also attracts the attention of friendly countries.

DIÁLOGO: How does ESDEGUE cooperate with the general and sectoral commands in developing doctrine to train and use ground forces?

Maj. Gen. Salazar Salazar: Right now, the Armed Forces are making progress on a system of joint operations (between all forces), coordinated operations (with the Police) and interagency operations (with other state agencies), as well as joint operations with neighboring countries. So our relationships are conducted through agreements with state agencies and jointly coordinated plans. We provide Military assistance in some areas to the Police. For example, the main function of the Police is to combat drug trafficking, illegal mining, extortion, kidnapping, smuggling, arms trafficking, land dispossession... And we in the Armed Forces have been helping the Police with these issues for two years, by order of the President. Here in the Americas and in various forums that we have participated in, we are making progress on the issue of how the Armed Forces and the Army are assuming functions in support of the Police. It is an area of concern, but if it is not done, these problems will increase. And if we do not support the Police, these problems will overflow. So we do it out of necessity, but under defined roles and with the legal protections key to the conduct of Military actions, because the work of the Police is covered under Human Rights law, while the Armed Forces operate under the IHL [International Humanitarian Law] for armed conflict . These are two different types of the laws of war. So if we are going to support the Police under Human Rights law, it makes it difficult for us to use weapons.

For example, under Human Rights law, you cannot conduct a bombing campaign, since this falls under IHL. Therefore, you need to update all the legal legislation and that is not easy. It is a process that goes all the way to Congress, and we are in the process of adapting our legislation to enable us to combat these criminal phenomena.

Right now the BACRIM criminal gangs, also known as maras in Central America are on the rise. But at the international level, according to the Palermo Convention on the one hand, these are called Organized Criminal Groups. Under the Geneva Convention, on the other hand, they are defined as Organized Armed Groups (OAG). The BACRIM vacillate between these two definitions. If they do not have significant organizational skills, unified control or control over a territory, they are considered Organized Criminal Groups and fought under Human Rights law. But if the BACRIM have a centralized command and control over territories, they are considered OAG and fought under IHL. We must be very careful with that distinction in our doctrine and our operations, because otherwise it can cause problems. These are examples of the kinds of complexities we face in our support of the Police. However, it is necessary, it was an order of the President and it is something that is also happening around the world.

DIÁLOGO: But do you believe that supporting the Police is the new standard, the new role of the Armed Forces, or do you believe that it is a temporary role?

Maj. Gen. Salazar Salazar: Here, we rely a lot on scholars, academics, specialists in doctrine, and international experts studying these conflicts, according to whom this role should ideally be limited. First, we must demilitarize the Police, which is militarized in Colombia. Someday, when we get back to normalcy as a country, our Police should be demilitarized and the Armed Forces should focus on their specific responsibilities, which are to protect the borders and national defense. It will take time to reach that desired state here in Colombia. We have created a scale, a spectrum, with the aim of achieving a return to normalcy by 2030. We have 14 years to continue ascending towards normalcy and to achieve this we must achieve stability. Currently, there are still sources of instability social, political, economic and security factors. So our future plans in the post-conflict era, which is expected to begin in a few months, are focused on efforts oriented towards the stabilization of unstable areas.

We have identified 17 areas of instability, five at sea and 12 on land, where if we apply all of the stability interventions, we will make significant progress towards normalization. These sources of instability include criminal gangs, drug trafficking, the lack of infrastructure, the lack of secondary and tertiary roads... If no attention is paid to the basic needs of health, water, and education these are also factors of instability. There are many factors of instability, not just economic and security-related, that must be solved. To do so, at the War College we have made maps based on nearly 40 factors with the very large undertaking of developing the post-conflict plan. This plan has been under implementation for three months with the help of nearly 400 people from all of the forces involved in the strategic, operational, and tactical areas. We believe that within three months we will complete that plan to fight the factors of instability and get back to normalcy by 2030. It is an ambitious plan that is being achieved with the tools that each force has and it is contributing to a unified action by the state. And the War College, as an academic center, has initiated this great crusade and we are convinced that we are making significant progress in the Military area of operations. We are now taking the model that we have for the Armed Forces of the post-conflict era to other government authorities and the political parties of the country, the council of ministers, as well as other partners, such as the Ambassador of the United States [Kevin Whitaker] and [Lieutenant] General [Joseph] Di Salvo [the Military Deputy Commander of SOUTHCOM], to whom this will be explained on March 15th. It is a model of cooperative Armed Forces. We want to be seen as partners, as Armed Forces sharing in cooperative leadership that is integrated and not solely Military, but that is in sync with our leaders. Our style had been different up to this point in the war, but now there has been a shift to another stage and our contribution to the post-conflict era will be very different and integrated.

The War College is building the Colombia of the future, and we are bringing together the country’s political forces. The strategic concept of what we are doing is basically divided into three areas: first, cooperation and development for stabilization; second, to ensure territorial control in order to protect institutions; and third, institutional strengthening of the Armed Forces, transparency, preserving comprehensive judicial integrity and many other things... So when we say we want to participate in cooperation and development, we have a whole portfolio of issues in service of the community. That is what we want to offer and that is also what has attracted foreign attention. But we know that the post-conflict era will involve conflict and we have several international advisers from the United States and other countries helping us work through this, and none of them is foreseeing a simple scenario... because the aftermath of war is harder than war itself. We are preparing for the worst so that we are ready, and we are doing all of this work at the War College.

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