With and without U.S. aid, Colombia’s training of other security forces increases

Chinese Army participants in a marksmanship course pose with their Colombian instructors last August (source).

In its public statements aboutColombia lately, the Obama administration has praised the South American country as a “security exporter.” As a June 2012 Defense Department release put it, “Colombia now serves as a regional training base to help other nations in their counterdrug efforts.”

Colombia is now not only the Western Hemisphere’s largest recipient of U.S. military and police assistance. Its security forces are also training, advising and otherwise assisting those of third countries. “Colombia, for example, offers capacity-building assistance in 16 countries inside and outside the region, including Africa,” according to an April 2012 Defense Department news release. Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón told the Miami Herald recently that his forces have trained more than 13,000 individuals from 40 countries since 2005.

This trend is accelerating. As part of an ongoing “High Level Strategic Security Dialogue,” in early 2012 the U.S. and Colombian governments developed an “Action Plan on Regional Security Cooperation,” through which they intend to coordinate aid to third countries. According to a joint press release:

“Both countries will develop complementary security assistance programs and operational efforts to support hemispheric and international partner nations afflicted by effects of transnational organized crime.

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Increased coordination of U.S. and Colombia defense and security support activities, which are aligned with efforts by both countries to strengthen civilian law enforcement capacity and capabilities, will support whole-of-government strategies and produce a greater effect throughout the hemisphere and West Africa.”

We don’t know the extent of these “defense and security support activities,” or what portion of them are funded by the United States (probably the majority). However, a combination of primary and secondary sources yields the following examples of what has been happening.

With funding from the State Department-managed Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), Colombia’s National Police participate in a Central America Regional Police Reform Project. “[T]he Colombian National Police provides training and assistance in such topics as community policing, police academy instructor training, and curriculum development in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama,” reads an April 2012 joint press release. “To complement this police training by Colombia, the United States trains prosecutors in these countries.”

“Colombia sends mobile training teams to El Salvador, Panama and Costa Rica,” the commander of U.S. Army South, a component of U.S. Southern Command, noted in June 2012. Colombia trains police in Honduras and Guatemala, a senior U.S. defense official said in April 2012.

That month, members of the Colombian Navy’s new Coast Guard Mobile Training Group traveled to Honduras for its first foreign training mission, with 47 Honduran military students. In July 2012, this unit gave an 11-day course to 37 members of Panama’s National Police, National Border Service, and Institutional Protection Service. According to a July 2012 release from Colombia’s armed forces, the Navy Training Group planned to offer similar courses to the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and again Honduras during the second half of 2012.

In November 2012, 12 enlisted men from Panama’s security forces were receiving training alongside fifty counterparts from Colombia’s army in Tolemaida, Tolima, the Bogotá daily El Tiemporeported. The Panamanian government paid the training costs for some, while others received grants, El Tiempo indicated, without indicating these grants’ origin. “The militaries of Ecuador, Argentina, and Central American nations have requested spaces [in this course],” the director of the Colombian Army’s Non-Commissioned Officers School (Escuela Militar de Suboficiales), Col. Juan Felipe Yepes, said. “We’ve now had more than 100 [students] from other countries, and more requests keep coming.”

In May 2012, the Tolemaida army base graduated 22 members of Panama’s National Border Service who took part in “International 81-Millimeter Mortars Course No. 02.”

Colombia is also offering training to some neighbors in South America. In August 2012, Peru sent two naval officers to Coveñas, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, for an explosives technician course. “The Navy of Colombia has invited the Navy of Peru to send Navy personnel to participate in several courses, among them the Marines course, during the 2012 academic year,” reads a Peruvian government resolution [PDF]. That month, seven Colombian Special Forces and Army helicopter pilots paid a visit to Junín, Peru for a 15-day “exchange of experiences” with about 90 representatives of that country’s security forces. In October 2012, the commander of Peru’s army paid a visit to the Colombian Army’s Tolemaida base, where he “highlighted the training, capacities and skills that his men acquire” there, according to a Colombian Army release.

The U.S. government has encouraged Peru to work more closely with Colombia. “The United States stands ready to work with Peru on joint planning, on information sharing, trilateral cooperation with Colombia to address our shared security concerns,” said outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during an October 2012 visit to Lima.

In January 2013, the director of Ecuador’s military academy paid a visit to the Colombian Army’s Tolemaida base “to learn about the academic procedures the Colombian Military uses to educate and train its own soldiers.” In October 2012, the commanding officers of the Marine Corps of Ecuador visited Colombia’s Marine Training Base, where they viewed a demonstration of some of the training that the facility offers. The release from Colombia’s Navy did not indicate whether Ecuadorian personnel have received, or will receive, training at this base.

Training of forces from the Caribbean has included the Colombian Naval Academy’s December 2012 graduation of two cadets from the Dominican Republic.

Colombia’s training relationship with Mexico is quite extensive. It has included the instruction of “thousands of Mexican policemen,” as the Washington Post reported back in January 2011.

“Early one morning shortly before dawn, Colombian police commandos barked orders like drill sergeants at six Mexican policemen and two Mexican soldiers during a mock attack here outside Cajica, a town on a frigid mountain in central Colombia. The target in the training exercise: a heavily defended rebel camp.

It was the tail end of four months of training that included lessons on how to carry out operations in the jungle, jump from helicopters, defuse bombs and conduct raids on urban strongholds.”

“Colombian service members have trained more than two dozen Mexican helicopter pilots” as of April 2012, a U.S. Defense official said in a Pentagon news release.

Sixteen Mexican students — 15 federal police and one army soldier — participated in the grueling 19-week course given by the Colombian National Police’s (CNP) elite Jungla commando unit between July and December 2011. Also taking part in the course, at the Jungla base in Tolima department, were about 58 students from ten other Latin American countries: Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, and Paraguay. (Not all of them graduated.) “This Colombian initiative is supported by the U.S. Embassy through its Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS) and the DEA,” reads a U.S. embassy press release. “Since 2007, the NAS-financed CNP National Training Center in Pijaos has trained nearly 300 international students. NAS has allotted nearly 8 million dollars in the construction of the training center’s initial phase, inaugurated in 2008.”

Sources reveal several other multi-country training events. The Colombian Army’s Lancero Special Forces unit, similar to the U.S. Army’s Rangers, now offers an international course at the Tolemaida base. Colombia’s armed forces report that 581 trainees from 18 countries have taken the Lancerocourse including, in December 2012, 15 graduates from Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, El Salvador, France, and Peru.

The Colombian Armed Forces’ Superior War College hosted the April 2012 Inter-American Naval War Games, in which representatives from Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, the United States, Mexico, Peru, and the Dominican Republic participated in threat simulations to coordinate joint action.

In June 2012, Colombia hosted Fuerzas Comando, an annual competition between Latin America’s Special Forces sponsored by U.S. Southern Command. Those competing at the Colombian National Training Center in Tolemaida included the Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States, and Uruguay.

Another multi-nation event took place in Cartagena in June-August 2012, where Colombia’s Navy trained officers from Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panamá, Paraguay, Peru, and the United States. They received coast guard instruction, according to a Notimex article: “maritime interdiction procedures, maneuvers, exercises with interceptor craft, defense and survival techniques.” Since this course’s inauguration in 2012, Notimex notes, Colombia has given it to 114 students from 24 Western Hemisphere countries. A new session of this two-month Coast Guard course began in September 2012 with the participation of 14 trainees from Belize, Canada, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, and Peru.

In October 2012, Colombia’s Army hosted a “First International Doctrine Symposium” in Bogotá, with the presence of representatives from Brazil, Chile, China, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Colombia is also training some personnel from outside Latin America. “People’s Republic of China Colonel Deng Yubo said that [Chinese personnel] have been in Tolemaida for a month receiving marksmanship training,” reported Colombia’s Colprensa wire service in August 2012. The ten-week course took place at the Colombian Army’s Lancero School.

Police from ten African countries were in Santa Marta, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, in January 2013 to take part in a Colombian National Police-hosted port and airport security seminar. According to an April 2012 Pentagon news release, “[T]he Defense Department is looking to Colombia and Brazil, both of which already have deep ties to Africa and now provide assistance there, to help U.S. Africa Command with peacekeeping and other efforts there.”

Even as they face their country’s own unresolved armed conflict and organized crime challenges, Colombia’s security forces will be increasing their training of other countries’ militaries and police. This will often happen with U.S. support. This was a chief topic when top officials from both countries met in Bogotá last November to continue the U.S.-Colombia “High Level Strategic Security Dialogue.” An unnamed Defense Department official said in October, “we’re building a detailed action plan where we and the Colombians will coordinate who does what … so we leverage … the resources and capabilities we have to effectively do capacity building and training and other things in Central America and in other places.”

While Colombia has a lot of experience with the type of operations that police around Latin America must carry out today — organized crime investigations, drug interdiction, efforts to arrest kingpins — the expansion of its training raises concerns, especially when the U.S. government is paying the bill.

  • What human rights messages are Colombian trainers conveying, both inside and outside the classroom? Colombia’s armed forces continue to confront allegations, including judicial cases, of thousands of abuses in the past 10-20 years. Some of the most prominent are a wave of extrajudicial executions during the mid-2000s and widespread collaboration with murderous paramilitary groups in the 1990s and early 2000s. Colombian military officials frequently express disdain for, or outright anger at, the country’s judicial system and non-governmental human rights defenders, and their institution recently pressed successfully to reduce civilian courts’ jurisdiction over them in human rights cases.
  • Especially when the U.S. government is paying, what assurances do we have about the quality and rigor of the training and education being provided? Colombian officers have long experience in combat and fighting organized crime, but their ability as trainers and the quality of their instructor courses is unknown.
  • When the U.S. government is paying, how can citizens and congressional oversight personnel get information about courses given, recipient countries and units, the identities of trainers, the number of trainees, and the overall cost? Training by U.S. officials generally shows up in the State Department’s annual Foreign Military Training Reports, but the work of U.S.-funded Colombian trainers rarely, if ever, appears in these reports. This raises a critical transparency issue.
  • When the U.S. government is paying, and information about training events is unavailable or difficult to obtain, how can we verify that human rights conditions in foreign aid law are being respected? How can we be sure that the units and individuals giving and receiving the training are clear of credible allegations of past abuse?