Why Special Forces Are America's Tool Of Choice In Colombia And Around The Globe
In the end, Gadoury decides to reconnoiter training areas closer to the base. At 8 a.m. the team sets off on foot, loaded down, as always, with their M-4s, lots of ammo, and water and food. Their CamelBaks are full, and before long the men are sucking from the water hoses. Col. Jairo Bocanegra, the chief of the Colombian instructors, leads the party. Two Colombian counterguerrilla platoons have set off earlier to flush out any guerrillas. Bocanegra reminds his men to look before they shoot. Watch out for friendlies--and unfriendlies. Bearded men, men dressed as policemen, and women with guns are to be considered probable rebels. Gadoury reminds his men to let the Colombians do the shooting. Pedro rolls his eyes. "I'm coming home alive," he says. Pedro walks point. The rest fall in.
They pass through open fields. Then it's into the jungle. The Colombians pass around green berries, chewing them to slake their thirst. It is 9 a.m. Every soldier's shirt is soaked with sweat. Another half-hour brings them to a one-room ceramic-block house. It is adorned with a large tree branch wrapped in green paper and white cotton--the family's humble Christmas tree. The gaunt farmer offers the men a seat at his porch table, while his 13-year-old son dips drinks from a barrel. Gadoury gamely accepts the drink, creek water flavored with a squeeze of lemon, and gulps it down. After listening to the man's worries and poring over a map, the group sets off again. The A-Team's warrant officer, a savvy 17-year veteran, reminds the men not to make easy targets by silhouetting themselves along the ridgeline. The day concludes without incident. The training site has been scouted. It has been hot work, but no one has gotten hurt.
Since reaching out to civilians is a critical element of Special Forces work, Gadoury's A-Team brought along two-man psyops and civil-affairs units. Herrera understands why. "This kind of war," he says, "is 80 percent psychological." Many of the rebels are third-generation fighters, like one of the captured prisoners Herrera interviewed one night. He asked the teen, who had joined the guerrillas four years earlier, at age 13, "What do you do?" "Soy sicario," said the youth. "I'm an assassin. And you are the plague." So Herrera is trying to win over the fourth generation, the children of Saravena, with almost daily psyops outings. Sometimes he puts on a circus, with soldiers as clowns performing stunts and skits. Twice a week, children are invited to the bases to ride on the tanks and swim in the three pools, since there are none in town.
We're here. The main job of transforming the Colombian military is just beginning. The first Colombian counterguerrilla battalion will learn maneuver, reconnaissance, ambush, and sniper tactics. Later on, it will get new hardware (weapons, night-vision goggles, and helicopters) and more know-how (assistance with tactical intelligence collection and analysis and mission planning). But the informal back and forth between American and Colombian soldiers is just as important as the new gear. The Americans are sharing what they know; they are also sending a message: We're here with you.