- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

The Bush administration’s expanded role for military advisers in Colombia has started to pay dividends with the capture and killings of senior guerrilla leaders.

Long limited to an antidrug role, U.S. personnel won authority in 2002 to train the Colombian army in counterinsurgency operations.

U.S. Green Berets showed the local soldiers how to patrol in small units and use high-tech gear in the Andean jungle to find and kill antigovernment guerrillas.

The quarry is the top brass of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a murderous army of cocaine traffickers who once roamed the country with virtual impunity.

The U.S.-trained Colombians “have located and killed not only FARC members, but senior FARC members,” said Steve Lucas, spokesman for Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, which oversees American military operations in Latin America.

“Their strategy is to integrate operations by gathering appropriate intelligence and use that intelligence to conduct a decapitation strategy. Get the leadership, in other words,” he said.

A new Colombian “Commando Battalion” was created this past spring. The Americans showed them how to conduct surveillance while on patrol, use night-vision goggles and operate lasers to point out targets. What’s more, the administration and Congress also lifted a ban on intelligence sharing. Southern Command began telling the Colombian army where to look for the guerrillas, based on communications information and spy photos.

The result: Since last spring, the Commando Battalion and other forces have killed at least three senior FARC leaders. The insurgents control most of Colombia’s vast cocaine-trafficking operations, using terrorist attacks and kidnappings to protect their illicit trade.

A U.S. defense adviser said in an interview that there are reports from Colombia that another “big fish” was killed last week. Mr. Lucas said he had no information on such an incident.

The new thrust is part of a “decapitation” strategy to disrupt and disband the 18,000-strong FARC by killing its leadership.

Before September 11, U.S. advisers were limited to training the Colombians for antidrug operations.

But the global war on terrorism brought a realization that drugs and terrorism in Colombia are one. “You cannot eradicate cocaine, which funds the terrorists, without also going after the terrorists,” the defense adviser said.

At the urging of the White House, Congress in 2002 passed a law expanding the U.S. role, while keeping a cap on military advisers at 400.

With the new authority, Green Berets helped Colombia create the 600-soldier Commando Battalion, and a separate infrastructure-protection unit to hunt guerrillas who attack oil pipelines.

“The problem is [the Defense Department] and Congress are not allowing us to participate in combat ops,” one American soldier said. “Therefore, we train the guys in camps and never get to leave. We can’t even accompany them on patrols. It really crimps our style and hurts our credibility.”

Said Mr. Lucas: “The way the Colombians are using [the Commando Battalion] is to plan operations, deploy teams of the battalion together with more conventional Colombian army units and then go with them on these missions, which is not unlike how we use our Special Forces.”

In October, the Colombian military announced it had killed Edgar Gustavo Navarro, the deputy commander of a large FARC unit.

Last week, the army penetrated deep into rebel-held territory to raid a FARC camp near Guermia, east of the capital of Bogota. Gen. Martin Orlando Carreno, Colombia’s army chief, said his men captured 14 FARC members and shut down a drug lab.

One of the captured is the brother-in-law of Tomas Molina Caracas, a FARC kingpin who, according to the U.S. defense adviser, was being actively hunted by U.S. intelligence and the Commando Brigade.

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