TOLIMA, COLOMBIA.— The truck rattles down the tropical brush road and leaves the last checkpoint behind. From the passenger seat, 'Major Reyes'—dark glasses, green uniform of the Colombian National Police and always using that pseudonym—boasts the title of one of the "Jungla commandos" in charge of training the Mexican police and soldiers who will fight "against the scourge of drug trafficking."
He has 107 Latin American students on his list; 33 Colombians and 16 Mexicans (15 federal police officers and a member of the Army).
If all of them survive the grueling 19-week course—in which they carry 55 lbs of equipment and lose as much as 35 lbs themselves—they will be able to claim the title of Junglas: elite soldiers fully capable of capturing drug traffickers barricaded in hideouts, dismantling clandestine synthetic drug laboratories in the jungle, infiltrating enemy ranks, deactivating antipersonnel mines in fields of illegal crops, handling explosives, jumping from helicopters and moving vehicles, planning high-risk operations and treating combat injuries.
“From Mexico there's a lot of participation, it's one of the countries sending significant numbers [of students], and since they're having the scourge of drug trafficking, they're utilizing the experience of Colombia,” Reyes comments on the way to the National Center for Police Training and Operations (CENOP), a 4,200 acre base with rivers, mountains and jungle three hours from Bogotá.
He and the other trainers interviewed on the tour will say they are proud to be “Jungla men”; they will claim that the Colombian experience "and the blood spilled" are at the service of the police of the world.
But the evidence indicates that the United States government is the invisible hand that instructs those who will later become instructors, finances the program, and sponsors a portion of the students' tuition; the training of each one costs around $12,000.
In the CENOP, the activities begin before dawn at 05:00, when the students go out to the patio in shorts to practice an hour of intense exercises so that, as the weeks go by, it gets easier to carry the heavy equipment up the hills and transport stretchers with companions. Afterwards they shower, make their bunks and have breakfast.
From 08:00 to 12:00 they take theoretical classes and then take a break for lunch. From 14:00 in the afternoon they have practical instruction, followed by a time to do homework and dinner. Depending on the training, the activities can end at 18:00 or as late as 01:00.
"Which of you is Mexican?" Colonel José Luis Ramírez, deputy director of the center, asks in his commanding voice as he enters one of the bedrooms.
The inmates stand at attention next to their bunks. It highlights the different colors of the military and police uniforms of Brazil, Belize, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Panama, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Bolivia and Mexico.
A 30-year-old man in a blue [Mexican] Federal Police uniform steps forward. A dialogue interrogation begins:
"Are you ready for the training to end, is it too hard for you?" The colonel asks aloud.
"Yes sir, of course the training is tiring, sir. But we're here to finish the course, sir,” says the Federal Police with his eyes straight ahead.
"In Mexico, where are you applying the knowledge acquired here?"
"In rural areas with dense vegetation, sir. Areas where access is difficult like in the mountains, where it is difficult to move personnel, sir."
"In search of what?"
"In the search of laboratories or marijuana plantations, sir."
Police officers on the campaign
The CENOP is shielded by mountains; any enemy trying to get close can be detected. In the mountains, the vegetation moves. From the sparse undergrowth, men in field uniforms emerge, their faces camouflaged with paint and armed with 7.62x51mm NATO caliber M-60 machine guns.
They move slowly, synchronously, without making a sound. Two advance, one carries a satellite phone, then the whole group descends on the position. They form a secure perimeter: they stay low to the ground, with weapons at the ready pointed in all directions. It is a patrolling exercise for finding and eradicating poppy fields.
“In the fight against drug trafficking, patrolling is used to advance through wooded areas where the vegetation is thick, with its security precautions in case an enemy presence is encountered. They come, they make a survey of the area, they secure it so that the eradication companies can enter,” explains the instructor.
The students stand motionless, awaiting the next order. In the badges of some uniforms you can see the Mexican flag.
"What do you do to not confuse civilians with criminals?" he is asked.
"We have an intelligence position in the unit; it knows what friendly and enemy forces we have there, what uniform enemy personnel wear. Although many times they try to confuse them with the troops themselves, but that's what the communications specialists are for, coordination with the high command," he answers.
What if the enemies don't wear a uniform?
"The order is that until they're positively identified, nothing can be done. And if they are civilians, the commanding officers will say: 'stop, cover the area and control the subjects', and then they decide whether to take the subjects into custody or respond with lethal force, since life is a priority of the staff."
Are there ever mistakes?
"No, because there are protocols, such as positively identifying the enemy, having knowledge of the area, and if personnel are found about whom you have no information, you have to identify them: 'Stop! What are you doing here? Who are you?' Because it may be a ranch hand and you cannot open fire until you positively identify them."
The instructor turns to the cadets standing at attention and yells: "Rapido, rapido!" They walk briskly in single file, stepping on the dry leaves.
The American hand
Major Reyes explains that the Jungla commandos were formed in 1989 with training from the British Special Air Service provided to Colombian officers. In 1991, the regiment was created, which to date has given 23 national courses and nine international ones, including training for some 7,000 police officers in Mexico.
“Afterwards, we'll improve the techniques, then we'll have the assistance of the Seventh Group of the U.S. Special Forces, which also provides tactics, techniques and procedures. We improve them and introduce our own techniques, taking into account the culture, idiosyncrasies and geography of the country,” explains the officer.
Colonel Ramírez notes: “The United States has always supported us […], but the Jungla commando is not a reflection of the British or the North Americans, it is the experience that the Colombian National Police has perfected in the fight against drug trafficking and terrorism."
However, leaked documents indicate otherwise. The Jungla program depends heavily on the DEA, which assists the Colombian commanders to "coordinate training, assistance in operations and logistical support," according to diplomatic cable 10BOGOTA508, drafted by officials of the United States embassy in Colombia and published by WikiLeaks.
The diplomatic cable, dated July 2008, states: “The high degree of self-reliance and superb Jungla training regimen make the Junglas one of the Embassy's most effective and nationalized programs […] The many Jungla contributions to antinarcotics efforts, both in Colombia and on the international scene, demonstrate the high return that this sustained [U.S. government] investment continues to yield.”
It even boasts that since 2007 when the Jungla school opened its doors to police from all over Latin America and Afghanistan, and that nine instructors would be in Jalisco until August 2008 to train 60 Mexican police officers.
Reporting by The Washington Post, published in January 2011, confirmed that Colombians train thousands of Mexican policemen, soldiers, prosecutors and judges in counternarcotics operations, in both the U.S. and Colombia, and that the rationale of this maneuver would be to circumvent Mexico's nationalistic sentiment.
"Colombia's new role provides the Obama administration, which pays for part of the training and has a close alliance with Colombia, with a politically viable way to improve Mexican security forces without a substantial American military or police presence in Mexico. Placing U.S. forces there would be politically contentious in Mexico even as Washington commits hundreds of millions of dollars to help smash powerful drug cartels," said journalist Juan Forero from Colombia.
Quoted by the Post, the Mexicanologist Roderic Ai Camp opined: "The American military can indirectly do a lot more through the Colombians than they politically would be able to do directly."
However, that Colombian generosity was almost rescinded because of the corruption of Mexico's police according the diplomatic cable 08MEXICO3498, reported by the newspaper La Jornada, in which General Óscar Naranjo, director of the National Police of Colombia, threatened Genaro García Luna, Secretary of Public Security of Mexico, with canceling the courses due to "the levels of corruption in the forces" of that agency. He expressed concerns that the corruption would affect Colombia.
While the instructors at CENOP assure that they have no problems with Mexicans, Reyes comments that they no longer train municipal and state police officers because "they have information" that, at the end of the term of the governor or mayor who hired them, they remain outside the institutions and are recruited by criminals. When this happens, "the level of training that the students have was used counterproductively," he says.
In its role as an exporter of anti-drug strategies and techniques, the Colombian National Police boasts as one of its achievements the operation to capture and execute drug lord Pablo Escobar.
The Mexican reality
In seconds, four students glide from a height of 20 meters from a structure similar to those of a small helicopter. They repeat the exercise several times: first one at a time, then tightening the rope so that the rest go down, and then stopping halfway. With these rappels, they train for quick, surprise assaults.
"And what good is that in the fight against drug trafficking?" the instructor Orlando Martínez is asked.
"Laboratories or illicit crops are in areas where there are no roads to get there by vehicle, there are no roads; so we have to insert by air. In the jungle, we find 50-meter trees, so [the training] is used a lot for infiltration."
"And in the cities too?"
"In the urban part we use a fast-rope, but the lower the better. There are no tall trees but there are buildings. When the command is one meter away you can get off on your own by jumping from the helicopter, but above two meters it's necessary to use a rope."
The 16 Mexicans who receive the training were chosen by their superiors and also had to pass physical and mental examinations administered by the Colombians. They are between 22 and 32 years old. Upon their return, they will have to teach their companions what they have learned.
When asked which parts of the course have helped them, they give mixed answers. Some complain that the classes focus too much on rural counterinsurgency techniques that do not work in Mexico, where drug trafficking fights in urban areas. Others, on the contrary, say that what they have learned will help them to save themselves from the ambushes that the Federal Police suffer in Michoacán and Chihuahua, where their companions have lost their lives.
“In rural areas, the problem is minimal and the people, who are humble, don't seek problems with us, nor have they reached the extreme of laying mines and boobytraps for us; on the other hand, the urban conflicts have been very intense,” explains one of the Mexican students who requested anonymity.
Another thinks: “The techniques they teach us can be applied in the case of Michoacán; Most of us have been there, where the ambushes of the Federal Police personnel happen, and in those moments we haven't been able to react due to the lack of training. With the combat experience of the Jungla Commandos, we can reduce the heavy casualties from ambushes."
Later, Major Reyes clarifies that as the course progresses, techniques for urban operations will be taught and that the Junglas are a tactical unit, but that other units teach intelligence strategies prior to the operation.
"How do they train them not to hurt innocent people or not to confuse them with criminals?" He is asked.
"We are trained for clear, precise, discriminating objectives. No actions are taken against unidentified targets."
"And how do they teach the proportional use of force?"
"All training is based on human rights. The level is so high that the use of force is considered a last resort. Ideally, it should be a clean operation, and that is very information-based; we work intimately with intelligence counterparts."
"But if they start a shootout against a group of armed drug traffickers in the streets..."
"Well, here in Colombia it doesn't happen that you see a drug dealer on the streets, logically"—he interrupts, surprised by the question—"and if someone sees one, they don't think it is… since they don't operate publicly, because if they did, they would be captured... it's very rare…"
He is stunned. He does not conceive of cities where gunmen and police chase each other during shootouts like in the Old West, that innocent bystanders are killed in confrontations that passed through the area or that drug traffickers travel in convoys with plates that identify which cartel they belong to, as happens in Mexico. That does not happen in Colombia.