By Julio A. Montes
Bravo Company became operational on May 11, 2000. The unit was attached to the 31st Battalion, and started operations as part of the Joint Task Force South operating around Putumayo. This was the first of a new breed of elite outfits trained by US Special Forces for the Colombian Army. The company was part of the First Counter Narcotics Battalion under the Colombian 24th Brigade, and part of the special brigades being organized to fight drugs. The US has committed considerable resources to the Colombian military and police forces, and they have continued to expand and improve since.
In 2004, the Colombian military activated the Caribbean Command, as part of the 1st Division, for operations along the regions of Guajira, Atlantico, Magdalena, Cesar, Bolivar, Sucre, Cordoba, Antioquia and Chocó. That same year, the Army also added the 12th Mobile Brigade to the 4th Division. In February 2005, the 29th Brigade entered the scene, and by 2006 it is hoped to have 15 Mobile Brigades in operations. While the counter-guerrilla battalions chase insurgents in the mountains, the counter narcotics battalions hunt for drug plantations and the private armies that protect them. Due to the unique Colombian landscape, the enemy can be one of the same since the revolutionaries now control and protect the coca fields and the drug distribution routes. This has given them huge profits to equip their forces. Thus, it is this kind of conflict affecting Colombia that requires the government to be prepared to respond with a number of specialized military units. The US has played a very important role by investing over $1.5 billion in training and equipping Colombian security forces. The fight is taken to the enemies of the State under a single military command and control by military and police. The Colombian forces - Army, Air Force, Navy and National Police - operate under the umbrella of the Ministry of Defense.
Of these, the National Police in particular became a preferred target of the Narco-guerrillas in years past. Several isolated small police posts, usually housing as few as 40 agents, were overwhelmed and overrun by thousands of insurgents. It was a desperate situation. The military command has responded by developing rapid reaction units in charge of encircling, isolating and destroying the attacking units. During my visit, the FARC launched an attack against Toribio, a small town in northern Cauca, and kept it under siege for two weeks.
For that, the National Police is equipped with basically the same weapons and equipment as the Infantry. As with the Army, the police forces were until recently equipped mainly with the German G-3 rifle. With the flood of American assistance came M14 and M16 rifles. However, the G-3 remained the overall favorite, along with the HK-21 machine gun. When the time came to replace it, the military looked for another sturdy model in 7.62mm NATO.
Israel supplied the first examples of the Galil in 7.62mm, and eventually production under license was undertaken in Colombia. The Galil uses the Kalashnikov’s rotating bolt gas operating system. This rifle comes with a folding stock and is fed by a 20-round magazine, but weighs around 14 pounds. The similar Galil 5.56mm is now becoming the standard issued rifle since the 7.62mm is considered “too lethal” for use. The 7.62mm G3 and Galil rifles have now been retired from service. However, snipers still make use of the SR-99 precision Galil, in both 5.56mm and 7.62mm. The SR-99 has a precision casting base for steady support of a 6x40 telescope sight that fits on the left side of the receiver. The barrel is heavier than the standard model, and there is a bipod attached to the front end of the receiver.
The M16 in all its variants is commonly found in the hands of elite forces along with the M203 grenade launcher. One of the National Police patrols that strolled-in one night at a place I was visiting was completely equipped with M4 Carbines. The agents were dressed OD fatigues, combat vests and jungle hats. Several of those motorized police units patrolling the city carried Uzis and mini-Uzis. Along with the Galils, the Colombians use Israeli and South African light machine guns.
The M249 is used at squad level, and the special operations units prefer it due to its light weight. These weapons have come to Colombia along with the M60 machine gun from US stocks. Infantry units have been observed with both; standard M60 types, and lighter and improved M60E3 and M60E4 types. The MAG-58 is also encountered and it is the preferred automatic support weapon of the Colombian Marines.
The Menchen MGL-6 grenade launcher was developed in South Africa in the 1980s and is distributed in large quantities and it is a favored weapon. It works on the revolver principle, providing for 6 ready-to-launch grenades. The weapon consists of a light rifled barrel, matched to a frame and firing mechanism, with a revolving chamber. The stock folds over the weapon making it very compact for travel. The sight is a designated Occluded Eye Gunsight, allowing the 40x46mm low velocity grenades to be fired to a range of some 350 meters. An experienced gunner can fire at a rate of some 18 rounds per minute.
The Narco-guerrillas have access to large amounts of money and are able to acquire almost anything available in the market. Not long ago, up to 5,000 AKMs made their way from Nicaraguan police warehouses to the Colombian guerrillas. The abundance of the Kalashnikov in the black market is so large that it has basically become the standard issue weapon of the illegal groups in Colombia. Along with the AKMs came the RPD and PKM machine guns. The PKM uses the same rotating bolt mechanism found in the AKM and the Galil, and uses a 7.62x54mm round.
In addition to the preoccupation of the drug traffic, guerrillas and terrorism, the National Police has to deal with a number of criminal gangs. In April 2005, El Tiempo newspaper reported that there are 12,000 gang-bangers in 800 gangs in Bogotá alone. Therefore, President Uribe ordered an intensification of Army and police patrols.
To respond to the guerrillas and terrorists, the government counters with the AFEAUs (Agrupación de Fuerzas Especiales Antiterroristas Urbanas), which are units of specialists in urban and antiterrorist warfare. The AFEAUs remains under military command but is reported to have operators from all the services and police. Actually, the AFEAU have their origins as a result of the violence and bloodshed generated by the M19 terrorists in the mid-1980s.
The M19 (Movimiento 19) initiated operations in 1972 with bank robberies and other violent acts. By 1977, M19 carried a war of sabotage against economic targets, followed by a series of acts of terror against government buildings and police stations. On February 27, 1980, 12 members of the group assaulted the Dominican Republic embassy. Then, on November 6, 1985, members of the group fought their way into the Government Palace, taking as hostages the magistrates of the Colombian Supreme Court. The Administration of then President Belisario Betancourt ordered the military to retake the facility.
The first AFEAU had become operational before the assault to the Supreme Court, but the magnitude of the terrorist action was well beyond its capacity. Therefore, a mechanized unit led the assault of the Palace. The whole incident was televised, showing dramatically an EE9 armored car ramming the doors of the building, and a fierce close quarter combat between soldiers and terrorists. In the end, 11 magistrates were dead, along with 39 other civilians, 11 soldiers, and 20 of the 30 terrorists. Over 400 hostages were rescued. This event motivated the government to expand the AFEAU.
The forces have continued to evolve. The most recent re-organization of the Colombian National Police is cemented in Resolution of the National Ministry No. 03032, II Chapter, Article 1, passed on August 15, 2001. The Police Operative Direction (Dirección Operativa) controls three Metropolitan Police Commands (Medellín, Cali and Bogotá). The Bogotá Metropolitan Commands comprises the Tisquesusa, Bacatá and Tequendama Police Departments. There are another 32 Police Departments providing for security along the various Provinces (“Departmentos” in Colombian political division), cities and towns.
The Special Operations Command (Comando de Operaciones Especiales) is also under the Operative Direction, established with an Administrative Group (Grupo Administrativo), and three Operative Areas (Areas Operativas). The Urban Area is divided in a Raiding Group (Grupo de Allanamiento), a Penetration Group (Grupo de Penetración), and a VIP Protection Group (Grupo de Protección a Dignatarios). The Rural Area counts with an Assault Group (Grupo de Asalto), a Support Group (Grupo de Apoyo), and a Reconnaissance Group (Grupo de Reconocimiento). There is a Sniper Group (Grupo Francotirador) that provides support to both areas. Finally, the Training Area (Area de Instruccion) is divided into a Base Group (Grupo Base) and a Mobile Group (Grupo Movil).
The police has its own aviation support element equipped with UH-60, Bell 212, and Huey II helicopters and turbo-converted C-47 gunships (denominated AC-67T Fantasmas) for operations.
There are a number of Special Groups complementing the police tasks. The COPES (Comandos de Operaciones Especiales) has been established to deal with high risk situations. Its origins are traced to 1984, when the government dispatched several lieutenants and captains to train in Europe and the United States with the purpose of establishing a basis for a national hostage rescue unit. The first elements were ready by 1986. The unit had a very prominent performance chasing members of the Medellin Cartel between 1989 and 1994, and then against the Cali cartel between 1996 and 1999. The COPE totals some 140 police agents, and has prepared 87 foreign officers as well.
Another branch of specialized police is provided by the Highway Police (Policia de Carreteras), established under Resolution 00144 passed on January 19, 1999, while the EMCAR refers to the Carabineer Mobile Squadrons (Escuadrones Moviles de Carabineros). The National Police expects to have 62 company-size EMCARs between 2002 and 2006. These are charged with rapid intervention in rural areas. The Crowd Control Squadrons, or ESMARD (Escuadrones Moviles Antidisturbios) have the task of supporting the various police departments, not only in fighting riots, but also in having a heavy preventive presence in many of the public events. Police Officers attend the National Police Academy (Escuela Nacional de Policia “General Santander”).
Due to the constant kidnappings, the military established the GAULAs or Grupos de Acción Unificada por la Libertad Personal. These are taskforces in charge of investigating, pursuing and crushing kidnapping rings. They were established under Law decree 282 in 1996, and are formed with Army Navy, and National Police officers. There are sixteen GAULAs under Army Command, and two under Naval Command.
OTHER COMBAT FORCES
The Naval Infantry also plays an important role fighting the guerrillas and drug traffickers. In early 2005, operations from the 4th Marine Battalion (Batallón de Fusileros de Infantería de Marina No 4) netted five members of the Front 35 - FARC around the Sucre region. Meanwhile, operations by the 2nd Naval Infantry COIN Battalion (Batallón de Contraguerrilla de Infantería de Marina No 2) seized and destroyed a warehouse full of explosives in the region of Carmen de Bolívar and Zambrano. The Colombian Marines took to the offensive after the FARC launched a furious mortar attack against an isolated Marine outpost, and the guerrillas had ambushed a military convoy between Puerto Leguízamo and La Tagua, Putumayo Province. The Marines listed two officers, three NCOs, and five marines KIA in the ambush, and 10 Marines in the bombardment.
The Colombian Naval Infantry bears considerable responsibilities for patrol, drug interdiction and counterinsurgency operations along coastal areas and the interior waterways. The Corps is a dependency of the Colombian Armada, and until recently it was organized in three brigades. The First Naval Infantry Brigade had its HQ at Sincelejo, and comprised the 3rd (Malaga), 21st Military Police (Cartagena de Indias), and the 5th (Corozal) Naval Infantry Battalions. The Marine Base at Coveñas was home for the 41st and 43rd Marine Training Battalions and the 23rd Military Police Battalion. The 2nd Naval Infantry Brigade from Buenaventura controlled the 2nd (Tumaco), the 4th (Puerto Leguizamo) and 6th (Bahia Solano) Naval Infantry Battalions, plus the 40th Training Battalion from Tumaco. The Riverine Brigade, with HQ in Bogotá, handled five battalions at Turbo, Yati, Puerto Carreno, Puerto Languizamo and Puerto Inirida. In addition the 31st and 33rd Naval Infantry Battalions operated from Sincelejo, and the Marine Special Forces Battalion from Cartagena de Indias.
A reorganization of the Colombian Naval Infantry Command has left the Corps with a Command HQ (Estado Mayor de IM), the First Naval Infantry Brigade (Brigada de Infantería de Marina No.1), the First Riverine Naval Infantry Brigade (Brigada Fluvial de Infantería de Marina No.1), the 2nd Riverine Naval Infantry Brigade (Brigada Fluvial de Infantería de Marina No.2), the Naval Infantry Formation and Training Center (Centro de Formacion y Entrenamiento de Infantería de Marina), and the Naval Infantry Logistical Support Command (Comando de Apoyo Logistico de Infantería de Marina). River Combat Forces are organized in Riverine Combat Elements (Elementos Fluviales de Combate), each comprising one mother ship, and four piranhas Boston Whalers, with some 60 Marines in total. The Marines have established a number of floating bases where some of the over 100 Boston Whalers available are stored and operated from. The piranhas are equipped with an M2HB machine gun forward, and two light machine guns at each side of the helm. The Comando de Fuerzas Especiales operates directly from the National Naval Command.
Realizing that the Narco-guerrillas are able to purchase surface-to-air portable missiles (MANPADS), and other anti-aircraft equipment, the Colombian Air Force has started to form a CSAR unit. This outfit is composed of two C212 aircraft, two attack AT-67 (denominated AC-47T) and eight helicopters with the task of rescuing downed crews. They carry Special Forces operators, much similar to the PJs of the USAF.
The Colombians are pleased with the helicopters of Russian origins acquired between 1997 and 2000. However, half of the Mi17 fleet was out of service by 2003. In 2004 the FAC initiated a recovery and modernization operation for nine Kazan Mi17s at the Tolemaida Air Force Base. Additional C212 and AC-47Ts are coming from Spain and the US.
The Air Force (FAC) operates the helicopter gunships while the Army handles transport. The FAC has divided its operational forces in several commands and two groups. The Air Base at Palanguero is designated Combat Command No. 1 B.A. Capitan German Olano Moreno. The base handles T-37, AC-47T Mirages M5, and Kfir C7 aircraft. The Air Base at Villavicensio is designated Combat Command No.2 B.A. Capitan Luis Fernando Gomez Niño, and handling the Pucara IA-58, and Bronco AV-10 models. The Combat Command No.3, B.A. Mayor Gral. Alberto Pauwels Rodrigues, is found in Barranquilla, operating A-37, T-33, T41, U-64, C-47s and Hueys. Combat Command No.4, B.A. Capitan Teniente Cnel. Luis Francisco Parra, forms the Helicopter Base of Melgar-Tolima, operating the UH-60s and also where the FAC training establishment is located. The Air Base at San Nicolas Valley (Antioquia) is home of the Combat Command No. 5 B.A. Capitan Gral. Arturo Lema Posada. The Transport Command rests at B.A. Brigadier Gral. Camilo Daza Alvarez around the City of Bogotá, while the Air Base at Madrid, in the vicinity of Bogotá, is home for the Aviation Maintenance Command B.A. Mayor Justino Mariño Cuesto. Finally, there is a Combat Command No. 6 B.A. Capitan Ernesto Esguerra Cubides in the region of Caquetá. There is a Caribbean Air Group B.A. Tte. Cnel. Benjamín Mendez Reyes operating from San Andres island, while the Eastern Air Group handles 3 G-358 Gavilans, 2 Bell 212, one UH-1P Huey II, and one AC-47T.
The Colombian military strategy is based on attrition to deplete FARC’s ranks, and crushing its will to fight. The strategy calls in placing pressure on FARC’s leadership by killing as many of its members as it can, blocking supply corridors, and destroying drug-producing and processing areas. The US strategy is based in advising, training, and equipping the Colombians, and convincing all Latin American countries to put pressure on drug transit routes.
Under Plan Patriot, the Colombian Military continues to push the rebels from Caquetá while they move further south, threatening other areas. It is hoped that eventually the rebels can be compelled to the negotiating table, and to be able to dedicate more resources to chase the cartels. However, only time will tell if the strategy can be victorious against these elusive, and very rich enemies.
The author acknowledges the assistance of the Army Integral Assistance Office, and thanks Gral. Carlos Alberto Ospina Ovalle, commander of the Colombian Army, allowing us to take a closer look at the military forces of Colombia.
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