Why you should care
Colombia is no longer Latin America’s security headache. Now it is exporting its know-how, reducing some of the burden on the U.S.
Mexican, Brazilian and even Chilean students pull up seats in Mr. Carlos Ardila Castro’s classroom in the Escuela Superior de Guerra in Bogotá, Colombia. Lesson for the day? How to stop arms trafficking.
At 46 years old and with 23 years of military and intelligence experience under his belt as an officer in Colombia’s military, Mr. Ardila Castro is now a consultant for the United Nations. Colombia is known for exporting coffee and bananas. But Ardila Castro is a provider of Colombia’s new export to the world: war and security know-how .
“There are a substantial number of people who worked in the (Colombian) armed forces, the police … that got a ‘second life’ when they retired,” said Jorge Restrepo, Director of CERAC, a security and conflict think tank.
Colombian military and police officers are in high demand, according to Restrepo, because Colombians have faced decades of internal conflict. They’re seasoned. And they’ve got U.S. training. In the last 15 years, an estimated $8 billion in U.S. aid has gone to Colombia, in large part to fund a ferocious U.S.-backed security initiative for military and police-related training.
It’s more than the training. Restrepo says that surviving the Colombian “test” proves to security companies around the world that officers who made it through 20 years of service in the Colombian military have the experience the companies need.
Colombian military and police officers are in high demand.
“If [military and police officials] can remain for 20 years in the Colombian military and police, with all the stringent controls in terms of human rights, corruption, checks and background checks (they’re routinely checked with polygraphs) … [then] they’ve managed to pass a test,” he says.
The result is that Colombian talent is getting scooped up all over the place: Oil and mining companies in Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru are recruiting pilots to man helicopters. Ex-Colombian police routinely advise Central American governments. And some young soldiers are cutting out of the military early to pick up contracts with private security companies in far-flung places like Kyrgyzstan and the United Arab Emirates, where they make far more than back in Colombia.
One of the big importers of Colombian know-how is Mexico. Since authorities beat back the coca export industry in Colombia, many trafficking centers have shifted to Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. The Mexican reality today was Colombia’s reality a decade ago.
“Mexico has a lot of the same characteristics as our conflict,” says Ardila Castro. “Police and air force talent from Colombia is very relevant to Mexico’s reality.” In fact, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto hired former Colombian National Police Chief Óscar Naranjo to advise the Mexican government when he came into office in 2012.
Ardila Castro has consulted in Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and throughout Central America. No matter where he goes, he says, “This experience, this know-how that we have … what I’ve seen abroad is that since we’ve lived through all of this, they look up to us with great admiration.”
Exporting Colombia’s masterful talents in the art of war and defense could be the military’s saving grace in light of ongoing peace talks with the country’s FARC rebel group, which could end a long chapter of fighting, and would likely also mean a military wind-down.
“[The Military] will need to do something with their professional soldiers. And they will need to offer those people some kind of credible, professional work,” says Christian Voelkel, a Colombia analyst for the International Crisis Group, a think tank.
Police and air force talent from Colombia is very relevant to Mexico’s reality.
Voelkel observes that the Colombian military is still officially at war, but he believes that unofficially, the transition has already begun. The numbers tell part of the story: In 2006, in the hey-day of Plan Colombia, the U.S. was sending $738 million in aid to fight off a left-wing insurgency that made up another chapter in the U.S. “War on Drugs.” But since 2010, military and police aid from the U.S. has been slashed by nearly 50 percent. In 2010, military and police aid weighed in at $434 million. The budget for 2014 is just $226 million.
But Voelkel believes that the military transition is fragile. Colombia could invite trouble if it doesn’t actively manage the opportunities to export its security know-how. Soldiers that drop out early and get recruited to private security gigs in Asia and the Middle East could weaken the Colombian military before the war is completely finished, for example. Voelkel said that soldiers know their roles could vanish if a peace deal is signed. So unofficially, there’s a lot of tension among personnel.
“Anything that happens in an uncontrolled, ad-hoc manner is very, very dangerous for an administration,” says Voelkel. “That’s why exits like training people and peacekeeping are actually quite attractive … it keeps people under control.”
One lingering question is: What is actually getting exported? The human rights advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) fears that Colombia might export the military’s institutional flaws associated with human rights, just as much as it exports its successes in security expertise. According to a report released earlier this year, it pointed out that U.S.-Colombia cooperation is strong, but opaque.
“Beyond official advertisements of the strategy and occasional, anecdotal press reports, little information is available about the extent and nature of Colombia’s training,” says WOLA. “While foreign aid law requires the United States to report to Congress in some detail about its own overseas training, these reports include no mention of U.S.-funded activities carried out by Colombian forces.” WOLA is calling for more transparency.
Still, it’s unlikely that the U.S. is complaining about Colombia as new security competition in Latin America.
“The U.S. are very happy that Colombia assumes the role of ‘teacher of the rest’ and decreases their burden. And from their perspective, it’s the multiplier effect,” says Voelkel.
The teacher now can be proud of the student turned teacher. And relieved, too.