Why Special Forces Are America's Tool Of Choice In Colombia And Around The Globe
Still, success breeds success. The aggressive jungle patrols that Herrera's 18th Brigade initiated soon after he took command paid off big time one day when Herrera's men captured a rebel leader who calls himself El Indio. The man is apprehended on the river border between Colombia and Venezuela. It is a major coup. El Indio has been a key link in the drugs-and-guns daisy chain, brokering deals across the border and ensuring safe passage for rebels back into Colombia. El Indio participated in the 1999 killing of three American activists, Herrera says, and reported directly to two top rebel chieftains who have been indicted by the United States for the three murders, for the kidnapping of American oil workers, and for cocaine trafficking. Informants report that Venezuelan military officers have assisted El Indio and other rebels--fuel for an international crisis.
As Christmas approaches, word of a rebel holiday offensive spreads. The U.S. Embassy closes nonessential offices. Amid the building tension, a Green Beret in Arauca can't resist a bit of gallows humor. He sends a package rigged to look like a letter bomb on one of the supply flights to Saravena. The package is addressed, in a sprawling red scrawl, "To the gringos in Sarabomba."
Soon, real bombs begin exploding. On December 22, a bus full of Occidental Petroleum employees is attacked and set afire. Two passengers die; 15 are injured. A raid by the 18th Brigade the following night yields five guerrilla suspects, caches of Beretta pistols, a machine gun, grenades, detonators of Venezuelan military make, and a few crude homemade mines. On Christmas Eve, a car is found in downtown Arauca packed with ammonium nitrate and shrapnel. Disaster is averted. But a policeman is killed and another wounded by a bomb in a neighborhood not far away. On New Year's Eve, mortars pummel the Banadia pumping station--a major oil facility--just east of the Saravena base.
Worry that the rebels can strike anywhere, anytime has made the Colombian military reluctant to send any unit smaller than a 140-man company out on patrol. That leaves them blind to what's happening around them. To solve the problem, the Special Forces' A-Team is training three Colombian assault companies and several small reconnaissance teams. There's a hitch, though. Gadoury needs to find a place for this new force to conduct a final field exercise, a live-fire nighttime operation. No one's going into the jungle to chase guerrillas until all the kinks are worked out. The first area Gadoury proposes is no good--it turns out to be a known guerrilla stronghold. To scout the area--let alone use it--would put the Americans in conflict with their rules of engagement: They're not supposed to venture where combat is likely. That description, of course, could apply to all of Arauca province.
There is another problem. The rules make the American soldiers feel like sitting ducks, unable to take aggressive action even when they have intelligence identifying a clear threat. The men believe they may fire back only if they or the Colombians on the base are directly attacked.