Home

About Caucus

Hearings

Documents

Reports

Speeches

Links

 

September 21, 1999

Colombia: Counterinsurgency vs. Counter-narcotics

General Charles Wilhelm
Commander in Chief U.S. SOUTHCOM
Department of Defense

INTRODUCTION

Mr. Chairman and distinguished members of the Caucus, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you to discuss U.S. Southern Command’s role in stemming the cultivation, production, and movement of illicit drugs in our Area of Responsibility (AOR) with special emphasis on our counterdrug (CD) efforts in Colombia. In my last appearance before this Caucus, I stated that we have made continued progress in multi-national CD efforts.

I also emphasized that we must sustain our collective successes and continue to squeeze the narcotraffickers on all fronts. Since then, we have achieved some significant successes and some additional challenges have emerged. Today, I will provide an update on the drug threat to U.S. interests in the region, my assessment of the situation in Colombia, a summary of U.S. military support to CD efforts in Colombia, a brief discussion of CD resource requirements, the status of our regional approach, and an overview of our post Panama Theater Architecture.

THE DRUG THREAT

The entrenched and increasingly diverse illegal drug business continues to demonstrate an ability to meet the world demand, and poses increasingly complex challenges to CD efforts throughout our AOR. Cocaine and heroin continue to be a formidable industry in the Source Zone. Coca is grown almost exclusively in the three Andean countries of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. It is refined into finished Cocaine Hydrochloride (HCl), primarily in Colombia, then transported to world markets, primarily the U.S. In 1998, an estimated 541 metric tons left the Source Zone destined for the U.S. via air, maritime and overland routes. Multinational interdiction efforts seized approximately 147 metric tons. Despite these strong efforts, as much as 394 metric tons arrived at distribution sites in the U.S., largely through our Southwest Border, and Florida.

Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs)

The nature and modus operandi of DTOs are well known. Their primary strength is their ability to operate with significant financial backing and freedom of action in the Source and Transit Zones. Nurtured by a constant U.S. demand for their products, these transnational criminal organizations are resilient, dynamic, and agile. They have adapted and prospered despite the dissolution of traditional cartels. They have proven over time that they can rapidly adjust transit routes and modes in response to U.S. and participating nations interdiction efforts.

Motivated by profit, DTOs are adversely impacting Colombia's infrastructure, economy, and security apparatus. In some areas, DTOs operate with near impunity, controlling ports and many of the rural areas east of the Andean Ridge. Cooperation with insurgents is an integral part of DTO “security arrangements”. These insurgent groups, in turn, have become increasingly dependent on drug profits to arm and sustain themselves.

DTOs possess extensive resources, which are heavily invested in legitimate businesses. Their disregard for national sovereignty allows them to cross national frontiers without fear of retribution and to gain unfair advantages over legitimate business enterprises, which further undermines the civil government. Nevertheless, DTOs are vulnerable. An effective CD effort can drive up the price of illegal drugs causing demand to wane with a concomitant reduction in profit to a point where drug trafficking is no longer a lucrative business.

We know DTOs make every effort to maximize profits. They are continuing to expand cocaine production and export to the U.S., Europe, Asia, and new secondary markets in South America. DTOs are planting a higher yield variety of coca in the Putumayo and Caqueta growing areas in Colombia and are expanding cocaine HCl production within Peru and Bolivia.

COLOMBIA
Narcotrafficking and Insurgency

The threat to Colombia is real and immediate. It is a malignant cancer eating away at the underpinnings of Colombia’s economy and governance.

Colombia is the world’s largest producer of cocaine HCl. Lack of effective government control over more than 50 percent of the countryside has allowed coca cultivation in Colombia to increase by 28 percent in 1998 alone and projections indicate additional increases in 1999. Colombia's situation is especially complex because the sophisticated DTOs cooperate with mature insurgencies and illegal paramilitary groups. Colombia’s internal armed conflicts persist after nearly 40 years and the loss of more than 35,000 lives on both sides. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have become increasingly aggressive in recent months, conducting highly publicized kidnappings and initiating clashes with Colombian Security Forces. There were over 220 such incidents during the 6-month period from February to July of this year, highlighted by the Avianca airliner hijacking and the abduction of churchgoers in Cali.

Strong links exist between DTOs and the insurgents in Colombia. Thirty-six of sixty-one FARC fronts and thirteen of fifty-two ELN fronts are known or suspected to receive support from and protect DTOs. The ELN and FARC both profit from their association with DTOs, particularly the FARC which is heavily dependent on DTOs for revenues to finance their insurgent activities. Drug money makes up a major portion of the FARC’s war chest and is a primary financial source sustaining force levels, combat operations and weapons purchases.

Today, Colombian Security Forces confront a triangle of violence with themselves on one point, two insurgent groups on another, and paramilitary organizations on the third. Collectively, the FARC, ELN, and paramilitary groups threaten the democratic and economic security of Colombia, while providing sanctuaries for thriving DTOs. Insurgents also continue to find safe havens in Panama's Darien Province, as well as in Venezuela, Ecuador, and to a lesser extent Peru and Brazil.

We have long recognized that Colombia's problems are international in dimension. The events of the past year have crystallized this point with neighboring countries.

Spillover to Neighboring Countries

In one way or another and to varying degrees, the problems plaguing Colombia impact each of her five neighbors -- Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil and Panama. In the absence of coordinated action, I believe the external effects of Colombia’s problems will continue to increase in severity. We are aggressively working with all six countries to encourage a collective approach against a threat they are individually incapable of defeating.

Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru have deployed forces along their borders with Colombia to prevent or limit intrusions by insurgents, narcotraffickers, and paramilitaries. On any given day, Venezuela has approximately 10,000 troops routinely deployed along the Colombian frontier. The resolution of the border dispute between Peru and Ecuador and implementation of the peace accords have allowed both governments to turn their attention away from fighting each other to focusing on regional issues, such as narcotrafficking. In the case of Ecuador, the economic crisis and civil unrest have limited President Mahuad’s options for countering the violence and corruption associated with the drug trade. But despite economic constraints, Ecuador has increased the number of troops and active patrols along the border with Colombia.

Brazil now openly acknowledges that narcotraffickers and insurgents are violating its borders and that drug use is damaging Brazilian society. Incursions by traffickers and the FARC into the Amazon region have caused Brazil to reassess its vulnerabilities. During the past year, the Brazilian Army has reinforced military garrisons along the Colombian border, and the government continues to develop SIVAM, the $1.4 billion-dollar surveillance system for the Amazon. Brazil has also restructured its national counterdrug organization and system and has intensified military area denial operations in the vast Amazonas State.

Panama’s position is more complicated. The abolishment of their military forces following Operation JUST CAUSE left the country with only police forces -- the Panamanian Public Forces (PPF). The PPF are neither manned, trained, nor equipped to confront the heavily armed insurgent and paramilitary units that make repeated incursions into the southern portion of the Darien Province. The FARC enter Panamanian territory to rest and rearm. The paramilitary organizations violate the same territory in order to seek out and destroy FARC elements. U.S. support and mentorship provide the catalyst to help these countries help themselves.

Colombia’s Commitment to Fighting Narcotraffickers

Colombia remains our focus of effort for CD operations. As I stated previously, Colombia’s problems are becoming problems for the entire region. In my opinion, the focus for addressing Colombia’s internal problems must be on depriving the FARC and ELN of the illegal revenues they receive from narcotraffickers; this in turn will pave the way for a negotiated settlement to the four-decades old insurgency. Tactical defeats suffered by government security forces at the hands of the FARC in recent years have emboldened the FARC and provided little incentive for them to engage in meaningful or substantive peace negotiations with the Government of Colombia (GOC). However, I have been encouraged by the performance of Colombian Security Forces during the FARC’s countrywide July offensive and in subsequent engagements. In a number of instances, government forces inflicted substantial losses on the FARC, and we saw encouraging levels of cooperation and coordination among the Colombian Armed Forces (COLAF) and Colombian National Police (CNP). To improve the GOC’s position at the negotiating table, the armed forces must continue to upgrade their combat capabilities and sustain recently observed trends of improved performance on the battlefield.

During the Samper Administration we provided substantial assistance to the CNP, but provided little in the way of meaningful help to the COLAF. As a result, Colombian national capabilities are out of balance. We must now increase the capabilities of the armed forces without degrading the capabilities of the CNP. Though professional and well led, the CNP are precisely what their name implies -- they are a police force. They lack the strength in numbers and combined arms capabilities that are required to engage FARC fronts and mobile columns that possess army-like capabilities. This is a mission that the armed forces and only the armed forces can and should undertake. By bringing the capabilities of its armed forces into balance with those of the national police, Colombia can achieve a “one-two punch” with the armed forces preceding the police into narcotics cultivation and production areas and setting the security conditions that are mandatory for safe and productive execution of eradication and other counterdrug operations by the CNP.

Despite the current high level of violence and the increasingly complex problems associated with the insurgents, narcotraffickers, and paramilitary groups, I remain cautiously optimistic that Colombia, with increased U.S. support, can advance the peace process initiated by the Pastrana administration. To succeed at the peace table, the GOC must bargain from a position of strength, buttressed by consistent success on the battlefield. To this end, Colombia’s leaders have undertaken initiatives to make the armed forces equal to the task that lies before them.

Colombia continues to shoot down and force down narcotrafficking aircraft. The Colombian Air Force reports that during the past 18 months it interdicted at least 47 aircraft. The Colombians destroyed 22 on the ground, shot down 4, and captured 21.

To increase its capabilities and enhance coordination with and support to the CNP, we are working closely with the Colombian Army to create a Counter Drug (CD) Battalion. This battalion, which is one-third again the strength of a traditional Colombian Army Battalion, is being trained primarily by members of our Seventh Special Forces Group at the Tolemida garrison in southern Colombia. With organic intelligence, reconnaissance, indirect fire, medical and other capabilities, the CD Battalion will become fully operational during December of this year. This unit has been specifically designed to be interoperable with the CNP and to provide the complementary capabilities that are needed to achieve the synergy in CD operations that I have previously described. As the CD Battalion demonstrates its effectiveness, and I am confident it will, I will encourage Colombia’s military leaders to expand the concept and create a CD Brigade.

The success and effectiveness of the CD Battalion and the CNP forces it supports will be largely contingent upon the timely availability of accurate, fused, multi-source intelligence. To ensure that quality intelligence support is available, we have embarked on a concurrent initiative to create a Colombian Joint Intelligence Center (COJIC) that will be co-located with the CD Battalion and Joint Task Force (JTF) South at Tres Esquinas. By reprioritizing tasks, we have identified sufficient Fiscal Year 1999 funds to train, equip, and provide facilities for the COJIC. Training has already commenced and the target date for attainment of initial operational capability is 15 December of this year.

We anticipate that these two initiatives, in combination with a parallel training program designed to expand and refine the operational planning capabilities of JTF South, will bring significant improvements in the performance of Colombian Security Forces against the crucial cocaine cultivation and production areas in Putumayo and Caqueta Departments. As these new organizations demonstrate their effectiveness, I anticipate they will become models for further restructuring and refinement of Colombia’s Armed Forces.

OTHER U.S. SUPPORT TO THE CD EFFORT

While the CD Battalion and COJIC are important initiatives that will substantially increase Colombian Security Force capabilities to contend with the growing threat posed by the union of narcotraffickers with insurgents and paramilitaries, they are by no means all inclusive. We are providing assistance in other areas as well. We are enhancing Colombian Air Force interdiction capabilities by expanding training for pilots at the strategically significant Barranquilla Main Operating Base. Principal focus is on improving Colombian Air Force night interdiction posture through the provision of night vision goggles (NVG), aircraft cockpit NVG compatibility upgrades, and aircrew NVG training. In partnership with Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of State, we are attempting to accelerate A-37 service life extension and upgrade initiatives. These initiatives include airframe structural repairs, avionics upgrades, integration of podded radar systems, and creation of a two-year spare parts pipeline. Concurrently, we are striving to help the COLAF achieve sorely needed improvements in battlefield tactical mobility. Important breakthroughs are at hand. Using an existing foreign military sales case, we have assisted the GOC in its efforts to purchase five UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters that are available from Sikorsky for immediate delivery. Concurrently, we are working with the Department of State International Narcotics and Law Enforcement to effect a no-cost lease for 18 UH-1N helicopters recently repurchased from Canada. These aircraft are crucial, as they will provide tactical lift for the new CD Battalion. In response to an urgent request from the Commander of the Colombian Air Force, we have provided and expedited delivery of ordnance items required to replenish inventories depleted during the July FARC offensive.

We have stressed to our Colombian and Peruvian colleagues the need to retain the strategic initiative. Past and present airbridge interdiction operations have caused traffickers to seek alternate routes for movement of precursor chemicals and other materials associated with the production process. Thanks to previous strong support from the Congress, we are aggressively implementing a five-year program designed to create or enhance the capabilities of Peru and Colombia to interdict traffickers on the extensive river networks that traverse primary drug cultivation and production areas. Peru has fielded two of 12 planned Riverine Interdiction Units, and the program is now expanding to Colombia where our goal is to roughly double the capabilities of its already formidable riverine force. A major milestone was achieved last month when President Pastrana personally activated the new Riverine Brigade and its five battalions. Earlier, the Colombian Navy launched its first indigenous support or “mothership.”

U. S. Southern Command continues to assist the Colombian Security Forces by providing essential CD training. During this fiscal year, over 30 CD training teams have deployed to Colombia providing training assistance to more than 1500 members of the security forces in such diverse subjects as light infantry training for CD field operations, helicopter familiarization, and riverine craft handling and safety. The command has also provided communications support and facilitated information sharing by completing the first phase of a theater-wide communications system that links participating nations, through our country teams, to the Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) at Key West that now oversees CD operations in both the Source and Transit Zones. As I stated in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, earlier this year, I strongly commend the performance of Colombia’s military and national police leadership teams and applaud their aggressive ongoing initiatives to restructure their forces. Additional U.S. assistance to Colombia in the areas of increased detection and monitoring, information sharing, equipment and training are necessary and should be pursued. Increased U.S. support for Colombia’s Armed Forces will improve their performance on the battlefield, provide increased GOC leverage at the negotiating table and significantly increase the chances for success of the peace process.

These measures are additive to the attempts to improve and better capitalize on the capabilities of our regional partners in the Source Zone as previously discussed in this statement. However, all of these measures taken singly or in combination are insufficient to address what I consider to be a classic strategy to resources mismatch. There are no villains here. Despite the best efforts of everyone involved, the frequency, pace and tempo of higher priority global military operations have taken a heavy toll on scarce and crucial assets such as Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms.

CD REQUIREMENTS

U.S. Southern Command lacks the resources to fully accomplish the goals and objectives of the National Drug Control Strategy. While the U.S. military services are tasked to support detection and monitoring requirements with dedicated CD aircraft and ships, out of theater contingencies, higher priority missions, and limited availability of high demand/low density assets result in inconsistent and inadequate support for our requirements.

Our most significant deficiency is in the area of ISR. Lacking adequate ISR, we cannot react quickly and effectively to changes in drug traffickers’ operational patterns. U.S. Southern Command’s ISR capabilities have been seriously degraded due to the non-availability of required assets. This has significantly reduced the effectiveness of our CD operations. For example, during July of this year, the FARC were able to coordinate a nearly nationwide offensive in the second most populace nation of South America without U.S. intelligence detecting a single concrete indicator of FARC intentions.

To compensate for inadequate resources, we have implemented innovative tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) such as pulse operations in the Caribbean to disrupt the flow of illegal drugs. We have also deployed air assets to support surge CD operations in Central America and in the Eastern and Western Caribbean. Simultaneously, we have aggressively pursued closer cooperation, more complete coordination, and expanded information exchange with Dutch, British and French forces resident in our AOR. These efforts have paid off in the form of several significant seizures.

A REGIONAL APPROACH TO CD OPERATIONS

U.S. Southern Command’s Theater CD priorities are consistent with the National Drug Control Strategy and with interagency guidance. Our number one priority is to support the Government of Colombia in its efforts to destroy the cocaine and heroin industries in that country.

Accordingly, Colombia remains our focus of effort but not at the expense of forging regional and inter-regional approaches to the narcotics trafficking threat. While continuing our support to Colombia, we must sustain support for Peru and Bolivia to ensure they maintain momentum in reducing coca cultivation and drug trafficking. We cannot mortgage the successes we have achieved in these countries or alienate neighboring countries like Brazil, Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela with a "Colombia Only" policy.

While I subscribe to the theory that there is no “silver bullet” for the drug problem, the effectiveness and impact of eradication efforts in Peru and Bolivia must not be underestimated. For the second consecutive year, we have observed significant reductions in coca cultivation, leaf production, and base production in both countries. As a result of forced and voluntary eradication, cultivation is down 26 percent in Peru and 17 percent in Bolivia, while leaf and cocaine production potential has been reduced by roughly 25 percent in both countries.

Though these gains have been partially offset by increases in all categories in Colombia, eradication efforts in Peru and Bolivia convince me that they are making steady and significant inroads into cocaine production at the source. At U.S. Southern Command, we are evaluating other options (equipment and infrastructure development) that will allow us to sustain and even further enhance the progress Peru and Bolivia are making.

The regional riverine training center at Iquitos, Peru, has trained more than 300 personnel from the Peruvian National Police and Coast Guard. Graduates have been assigned to the first of 12 Riverine Interdiction Units (RIUs) or to locally constructed motherships that will support sustained operations by the RIUs.

Heretofore, Peru has lacked the capability to interdict narcotraffickers using the extensive network of inland waterways. This initiative will significantly expand Peruvian organic counterdrug capabilities and will provide them urgently needed capabilities to assert control over rivers that have provided traffickers an alternative to the Air Bridge. We have been monitoring Peru closely and view with concern the steady rise of coca prices since August of last year. The profitability threshold has been crossed, creating the incentive for farmers to turn away from alternative crops and return to illicit coca cultivation. Though preliminary figures indicate that eradication is ahead of last year’s pace, we must ensure that Peru continues to receive the U.S. support and assistance it requires to preserve the landmark progress that has been made over the past two years in reducing coca cultivation.

Like Peru, Bolivia has made impressive strides in its counterdrug efforts. Despite periodic resistance, President Banzer has resolutely pursued his “Dignity Plan” and remains steadfast in his commitment to eliminate illegal coca cultivation by the year 2002. Progress to date has been impressive. The forced eradication program undertaken primarily by the armed forces has met or surpassed all established goals. To assist Bolivia in maintaining the momentum that has been established, we must continue to provide adequate support to each of the four pillars of the “Dignity Plan” -- prevention, eradication, interdiction and alternative development.

THEATER ARCHITECTURE

To meet current and future CD responsibilities, U.S. Southern Command must compensate for the loss of U.S. bases in Panama by creating an alternative theater architecture that will support efficient, effective and flexible CD operations into the 21st century.

Puerto Rico has replaced Panama as the focal point of our theater architecture. U.S. Army South recently completed its relocation from Fort Clayton in Panama to Fort Buchanan; Special Operations Command has displaced from its garrison locations in Panama to its new home at Naval Station, Roosevelt Roads; our restructured Navy Component Command, U. S. Navy Forces South, will stand up at Roosevelt Roads later this year, and our intratheater airlift assets and other forward deployed elements of SOUTHAF have migrated from Howard Air Force Base to new locations in Puerto Rico and in Key West. JTF Bravo, augmented with additional helicopter assets from the 228th Aviation Battalion remains at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras and continues to serve as our primary operating location in Central America.

The loss of Howard Air Force Base has also caused us to revisit our in-theater CD command and control architecture. Panama-based JIATF South which previously functioned as our principal planning and execution oversight activity for CD operations in the Source Zone has been merged with JIATF East in Key West creating a single operational headquarters for the planning and execution of CD operations in both the Source and Transit zones. A similar merger has unified the Southern Regional Operations Center (SOUTHROC) with the Caribbean Regional Operations Center (CARIBROC). Through creative use of information technology, this consolidated organization now gives us the capability to “see” from the Florida Straits deep into the Source Zone.

The final and, from a counterdrug perspective, most critical element of the new theater architecture are the Forward Operating Locations, or FOLs, that will fill the void created by the loss of Howard Air Force Base. Constrained counterdrug detection, monitoring and tracking missions are currently being conducted from FOLs at Curacao and Aruba in the Netherlands Antilles and Manta, Ecuador. To provide adequate coverage of the expansive Source and Transit Zones, some level of military construction is required at each of these locations to expand their capacities and improve operating and safety conditions. We will also need one additional FOL in Central America to provide increased coverage of heavily used Eastern Pacific transit routes. FOLs are a cost-effective alternative to overseas U.S. bases. They enable us to exploit existing host nation infrastructure to achieve levels of coverage that will equal or exceed that which we enjoyed from Howard Air Force Base at a fraction of the cost when measured over a 10-year period. The Manta FOL is particularly critical as it will give us the operational reach that we need to effectively cover Colombia, Peru and the remainder of the critical southern source zone. A total of $122.5 million in Air Force military construction (MILCON) funding is needed ($42.8 million in Fiscal Year 2000 and $79.7 million in Fiscal Year 2001) to achieve the upgrades and expanded capacities that our CD mission demands.

CONCLUSION

I have now served at U.S. Southern Command for almost 24 months. Shortly after assuming command and making my initial assessment of security conditions in my area of responsibility, I asserted that Colombia was the most threatened nation in the 32 country AOR. Today, even though I continue to stand behind that assessment, I am cautiously optimistic about Colombia’s future. My optimism stems from several convictions, two of which I would like to share with the Caucus. First, I have been in and out of Colombia for more than a decade. The leadership team which now guides the country and its security forces is the best I have seen. In Generals Tapias, Mora, Velasco, Serrano and Admiral Garcia the armed forces and the national police are in the hands of top flight professionals. These are senior officers who are both competent and ethical. Their total and undivided allegiance is to Colombia. They know what needs to be done to enable Colombia’s security forces to prevail against the narcotraffickers, insurgents and other agents of violence who have wreaked havoc on Colombia’s society and its economic well-being. Second, they have set the wheels of military reform in motion and the changes they have implemented have already borne fruit on the battlefield. The outcomes of the country-wide offensive undertaken by the FARC during July merit close examination. I am convinced that Colombia’s security forces emerged with the upper hand. Recent successes can be attributed to improved intelligence preparation of the battlefield; better cooperation between the armed forces and national police; improved air-ground coordination; more effective command and control and competent, aggressive leadership at both tactical and operational levels. As the new Counterdrug Battalion achieves initial operational capability, the Colombian Joint Intelligence Center comes on line, additional helicopters bring about urgently needed improvements in tactical mobility, riverine forces are expanded, and anomalies in the ratio of support to combat forces are corrected, I predict these favorable trends will continue. While I share the widely held opinion that the ultimate solution to Colombia’s internal problems lies in negotiations, I am convinced that success on the battlefield and the leverage that it will provide is a precondition for meaningful and productive negotiations. We at U.S. Southern Command are genuinely grateful to the members of the Caucus for your support and interest in our region. We are turning the corner in Colombia. With your continued support and assistance we can and will resolve the two most stressing challenges to the security, stability and prosperity of a region that is rapidly growing in importance to the U.S. -- the national crisis in Colombia and the hemispheric crisis generated by illegal drugs and their corrosive effects on our society and those of our neighbors to the South.