Last Thursdayâ€™s edition of Vanguardia Liberal â€“ the main newspaper in Bucaramanga, Colombiaâ€™s seventh-largest city â€“ included an interview with Gen. Carlos Saavedra, the head of the Colombian Armyâ€™s Bucaramanga-based Second Division.
The general discusses â€œOperaciÃ³n Escudoâ€ (Operation Shield), a large-scale military offensive just getting underway in the departments of Arauca and Norte de Santander in northeastern Colombia. The offensive, he says, can be considered a â€œcloneâ€ of Plan Patriota, the U.S.-supported military offensive that has been going on in southern Colombia for well over a year.
Arauca, of course, is the department where, since early 2003, U.S. military personnel have been training the Colombian military to protect an oil pipeline.
Here is a transcript of the interview translated into English.
Vanguardia Liberal: What are the Second Divisionâ€™s current goals?
Brigadier General Carlos Saavedra SÃ¡enz: The guiding direction of the Armyâ€™s command is to continue the campaign plan toward concrete objectives. In our case, that means guaranteeing the security of the countryâ€™s economic infrastructure in our zone: CaÃ±o LimÃ³n [the oil pipeline for whose protection the United States has provided over $100 million in military aid], the electrical gridâ€¦
VL: The feeling here in Santander [the department of which Bucaramanga is the capital] is that you have specific orders to focus on the border [with Venezuela]. How accurate is this?
BGCSS: Arauca is a critically important department. Obviously because of its strategic position, because much of the countryâ€™s economic structure is there, and it is where terrorist cells have grown, generating chaos and trying to sabotage our oil policy. This created a terrorist culture, a culture of violence, beginning years ago. While this has luckily changed, due to the stateâ€™s and all of the security forcesâ€™ efforts to eradicate them. An extraordinary job has been done.
VL: President Ãlvaro Uribe has denounced the infiltration of the zoneâ€™s political leadership [by armed groups]. What has happened?
BGCSS: Yes, it was like that, but this co-government, which made any development difficult, has ended. They stole not only the oil, but huge amounts of oil royalties. Now we find a department with legitimate government, legitimate mayors and people committed to development.
VL: Can it be said that Arauca has recovered?
BGCSS: Totally. There are outbreaks of violence like in all other parts of the country, but there is a commitment, we have a common vision.
VL: What is the situation of the fronts who remain there, the FARCâ€™s 10th and the ELNâ€™s Domingo LaÃn?
BGCSS: They have retreated in the strategic sense, not just the tactical. They still carry out criminal activities aimed at destabilizing, to try to do what they did before, to make the departmentâ€™s situation seem uncertain.
The 10th Front has had to change its tactics and dedicate itself to massacring people, as occurred at the end of last year in Tame [when the FARC killed 16 people]. They know that it is not possible to confront the security forces and this way they hope to create an atmosphere of fear.
VL: What did they intend with that massacre?
BGCSS: To affect the self-defense groupsâ€™ movements, to try to take control of the narcotrafficking market. Because that is the true fight, over the coca-producing zones. For that reason, at some moments, the FARC and ELN even fight each other. The troops we have in the zone hear the fighting, which is sustained and very strong.
Wounded fighters who have escaped tell us that they are fighting for control of the drugs, because since the three armed groups have lost their co-government [from which they stole resources], they have had to turn to the drug trade. That is why Operation Shield has begun, and this is how we are going to get them out of there.
VL: What is Operation Shield?
BGCSS: It is a new strength that will give the army the ability to improve its mobility, such as the transport of troops, with the goal of reacting more rapidly.
VL: What will be increased: troop strength, technical equipment, tactics?
BGCSS: We are going to have more prepared troops, more immediate measures, we are going to grow to 12,000 to 15,000 menâ€¦
VL: Isnâ€™t that a very large troop concentration for the region? Are the guerrilla fronts so large that they demand so many armed personnel?
BGCSS: No, itâ€™s not that they are so large, it is that we need to do away with the problem more quickly.
VL: All of these troops just for Arauca?
BGCSS: And part of Norte de Santander, but Arauca is the epicenter.
VL: Is there still U.S. training involved?
BGCSS: Yes, they are giving training support to the men, above all in embarkation and disembarkation maneuvers [from aircraft, especially helicopters].
VL: It is said that there is a contingent from the U.S. Southern Commandâ€¦
BGCSS: No, there are not that many of them, but we do have this aid, which has prepared many men, who have gone on to multiply the training.
VL: All are specialized in counter-guerrilla skills, or do they have other characteristics?
BGCSS: The units are counter-guerrilla units, some specialized in lowering aircraft, in rapid unloadingâ€¦ Nothing more. There are others specialized in providing physical security for oil infrastructure.
VL: Is it true that there is a plan to set up a theatre of operations in the zone?
BGCSS: No, in that sector it has still not been considered. Joint commands will be set up like in the south of the country and the Caribbean coast, but here, no.
VL: Will the Air Force be stood up in Arauca?
BGCSS: The aircraft that will be used there come from both the Air Force and the Army. We will surely have to buy others in order to improve troop mobility.
The plan is to carry out an effort in Arauca that can later be carried out in Catatumbo [a region in Norte de Santander department, to the north] and later in other regions. It is a fusion of men and machines to consolidate peace.
VL: In this moment Arauca is an experimental center for the strategy that will be carried out in other zones later on?
BGCSS: It already began in the south with our own resources [with Plan Patriota], now it is Araucaâ€™s turn.
VL: Can it be said that it is a clone of Plan Patriota?
BGCSS: Yes sir, something like that.
VL: How many men do the guerrillas have in that zone?
BGCSS: Between the FARC, ELN and self-defense groups, there are no more than four thousand.
VL: General, the Army has always complained about the lack of resources to control the aircraft that come and go carrying drugs or small arms. What has happened with that?
BGCSS: The Air Force has done much to control that situation, without having to set up radars or use other more sophisticated measures. With the radars in Guaviare the control [of airspace] has been optimized; now there are no so-called black holes. The shooting down of aircraft making suspicious flights has increased.
VL: What is the situation in the rest of the [Second Divisionâ€™s] jurisdiction?
BGCSS: In these moments in the Magdalena Medio region, the most critical issue is the theft of gasoline, as happens in Puerto BerrÃo. However, in the first three months we have reduced the theft of fuels by 67 percent in that region.
VL: What is happening in Norte de Santander?
BGCSS: There we are developing â€œOperaciÃ³n Fortalezaâ€ (Operation Fortress). There have been some strong combats there, because both the ELN and the FARC think they will be able to take back territories that the self-defense groups have left behind [after the December 2004 demobilization of the paramilitariesâ€™ Catatumbo bloc]. The quantity of landmines has been hard on the troops, but we are going to keep going, we are operating and fighting the FARC, who intended to take over those areas.â€
VL: And in Santander?
BGCSS: In Santander we are basically dedicated to protecting the civilian population, because it is a region that is under control. However, we are working on the problem of extortion, which is growing in the cattle-raising zones, because as far as kidnappings are concerned there is luckily only one person currently being held captive.
We have been able to control the armed groups in Santander, thanks to prolonged work in past years. Control of the recovered areas must be consolidated.
VL: What is coming for the northeast, General?
BGCSS: Times of war are coming, because Iâ€™m not so used to being in an office. We are carrying out tough confrontations in Norte de Santander, and others in Arauca, on the highway on the edge of the jungle. With me it is pure war.