Expanding Roles and Missions in the War on
Drugs and Terrorism: El Salvador and Colombia
THE WAR AGAINST drug trafficking and terrorism
in Colombia continues to entice and perplex the United States, but
the average Colombian citizen in Bogotá regards the current
U.S. administration's commitment to Colombia as tentative and insincere.
The last case of sustained U.S. military support to a Latin American
government under siege was in El Salvador in the 1980s and early
Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush supported a small,
limited war (from a U.S. perspective) while trying to keep U.S.
military involvement a secret from the American public and media.
Present U.S. policy toward Colombia appears to follow this same
disguised, quiet, media-free approach.
In the 1980s, El Salvador became a "line in the sand."
The U.S. pledged to defeat Cuban-inspired and supported insurgencies
in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. U.S. policy
today appears to want to take a similar stance in Colombia. U.S.
support to El Salvador included a sustained commitment of military
advisers and a security assistance package guaranteeing U.S. support
for the long haul. The monetary commitment was hefty- $6 billion
in security assistance over the course of the war.1
But the U.S. military commitment of "boots on the ground"
in El Salvador was even more important: it was a concrete manifestation
of U.S. resolve to El Salvador Armed Forces (ESAF) and the El Salvador
If the United States is serious about countering terrorism and drug
trafficking in Colombia, it might be worthwhile to dust off El Salvador
archives and examine the model used there to create the necessary
organization and structure with which to respond. Other military
services played important roles during the El Salvador conflict,
but 90 percent of the advisory support effort came from the U.S.
Army. Therefore, the Army should be the focal point of any advisory
effort brought to bear in Colombia.
The El Salvador Model
United States support to El Salvador began
in 1981. Three mobile training teams (MTTs) of military advisers
provided infantry, artillery, and military intelligence instruction.2
Service support advisers on 1-year tours augmented these limited-duration
(3- month) MTTs. Typical service branches were infantry, Special
Forces (SF), and military intelligence officers, usually majors,
captains, noncommissioned officers (NCOs), or warrant officers with
linguistic capabilities. Some were Latin American foreign area officers,
and most SF personnel had served exclusively in Latin America.
U.S. military advisers populated the entire ESAF from joint headquarters
to brigades. Two officers (operations and intelligence) were assigned
to each of the six ESAF infantry brigade headquarters in six geographical
areas of the country. Personnel were also assigned to the ESAF artillery
headquarters, the logistics center, and the national training center.
Their mission was to support their Salvadoran counterparts in establishing
training programs and to assist in the military decisionmaking process
and in staff and operational matters. In San Salvador, El Salvador's
capital, U.S. Army combat and combat support majors and lieutenant
colonels supported key ESAF joint staff elements while quietly and
discreetly prosecuting the war operationally and with intelligence.
As early as 1983, the Salvadoran military intelligence effort received-
- Target folder packages from the Central American Joint Intelligence
Team of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
- Aerial platform intelligence support from Howard Air Force Base
in Panama and Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras.
- All-source intelligence analysis from the U.S. Southern Command
J2 through its liaison officer at the U.S. Embassy.
- Intelligence from an advisory team assigned to the Salvadoran
These elements worked in harmony to produce actionable intelligence
from within and outside El Salvador in direct support of the ESAF.
Reagan and Bush pulled out all the stops when it came to ESAF unit
and collective training. Entire Salvadoran immediate reaction infantry
battalions went to Fort Benning, Georgia, and Fort Bragg, North
Carolina, for advanced infantry training. Another battalion trained
at the U.S. and Honduran training facility in Puerto Castillo/Trujillo,
Honduras, until a training center was established at La Union, El
Salvador. Also, SF personnel trained ESAF infantry battalions and
brigades in country. Many Salvadoran officers and NCOs went to the
former School of the Americas (now the Western Hemisphere Institute
for Security Cooperation) at Fort Benning to learn the basics of
warfighting-from U.S. Army staff planning doctrine to infantry tactics.
The U.S. Army sought to improve ESAF professionalism by emphasizing
the importance of an NCO corps. As an experiment, cadets from El
Salvador's military academy were assigned to platoon leader or sergeant
positions in their last 2 years of school so they could apply leadership
skills in the field. Those who survived became officers with degrees
and 2 years of combat experience. They eventually became the colonels
and generals of El Salvador's postpeace-process military. This full-court
press from a committed U.S. administration produced rapid improvement
of the ESAF's combat capabilities and effectiveness.
The Commander, U.S. Military Group (USMILGP), San Salvador, assisted
by a deputy commander, operations officer, and U.S. Army section
chief, managed the robust security assistance program and supervised
the military advisers assigned to the USMILGP and the American Embassy.
The USMILGP operations officer and senior U.S. operations adviser
coordinated the military advisers' day-to-day activities. Lieutenant
colonels assigned to the Salvadoran Joint Command Headquarters and
who worked with their ESAF counterparts assisted the USMILGP as
To ensure that the U.S. Army did not exceed its in-country advisory
force structure, the U.S. Congress placed a 55-man cap on U.S. personnel
permanently assigned to the program. The cap did not include temporary
duty (TDY) personnel. At times as many as 250 U.S. service members,
most of them on TDY, responded to legitimate host-nation requests
for support that permanent personnel could not provide (medical,
mine detection, or antiterrorist training support). This small support
package sustained the war effort from 1981 until the Farabundo Marti
National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the Salvadoran government signed
peace accords in December 1992.
Assessing the Model
U.S. military advisory programs in El Salvador
received mixed reviews.4 But if "success
has a hundred fathers and failure is an orphan," the Salvadoran
advisory model has been generally touted a success. The U.S. military
effort helped create a more combat-effective ESAF. U.S. military
assistance vastly improved the ESAF's ability to use its equipment
and perform combat operations and clearly contributed to putting
an improved Salvadoran military on the battlefield. ESAF combat
and civic action performance improved enough to undercut FMLN combat
capabilities and popular support.5
The advisory effort also helped create an environment that promoted
success at national and strategic levels. As noted in 1993, the
ESAF's new professionalism and the dramatic improvement of its human
rights record "affected how the populace, the international
community, and even the FMLN ultimately viewed changes in Salvadoran
political conditions [and] served to legitimize the gains made by
the Salvadoran government in its creation of a climate in which
the political left could voice opposition without fear of military
reprisals or deathsquad murders."6
U.S. military advice and assistance also helped create a secure
environment in rural areas. U.S. Army advisers trained peasants
in basic marksmanship then united them with the police and the military
in local self-defense units. These self-defense forces kept insurgents
from harassing small towns, provided security, and became instruments
of a democratic government. They were well-received and remained
in place from the late 1980s until the early 1990s.
Human rights benefited most from the U.S. Army advisers' presence.
Required to report any human rights violations to the American Embassy,
U.S. Army advisers paid close attention to field reports emanating
from ESAF combat units. As a result, atrocities or abuse during
ESAF military operations did not reach the levels of violations
in Guatemala. Guatemala's army, which was not supported by a U.S.
Army advisory program, has been accused of committing atrocities.
ESAF personnel suspected of atrocities had to answer any charges
levied by the United Nations Commission on the Truth for El Salvador.
U.S. Army advisers were not allowed to accompany Salvadoran units
on combat operations to verify reports of atrocities. Much could
have been gained from doing so, but not doing so kept U.S. military
and civilian casualties to only 20 during 10 years of conflict.
In future conflicts, the Army must make a cost-benefit analysis
to weigh the policy's pros and cons.
Despite positive indicators of the military advisory program's benefits,
a debate continues as to whether the war ended as a direct result
of the program or as a consequence of the negotiated settlement
between the FMLN and the Salvadoran government. What is certain
is that the ESAF's improvement on the battlefield (and on the front
pages of newspapers) put the Salvadoran government in a stronger
negotiating position at the peace talks. The military advisory program
deserves at least some of the credit for this.
The Colombian Conflict
Placing an El Salvadoran template over Colombia
presents challenges, chief among which is Colombia's geographical
size. Colombia is the size of Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico combined.
El Salvador is only as big as Massachusetts and fits easily into
southern Colombia's Caqueta and Putumayo departments. The towering,
snowcapped Andes Mountains bisect Colombia from north to south,
and a dense jungle in the south competes with the Amazon's rain
forest. Rivers crisscross southern Colombia and swamps make movement
of military units difficult or next to impossible.
Another difference between Colombia and El
Salvador is the nature of the Colombian insurgency. The National
Liberation Army and Colombian United Self Defense Forces are at
war with Colombian government forces, but the tenacious, 15,000-man
strong Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), which has fought
the Colombian government since the 1960s, overshadows them. FARC
has evolved from a classic guerrilla group to a terrorist and drug-trafficking
organization. This is significant because with substantial drugfinanced
resources, FARC is better equipped and supplied than El Salvador's
FMLN was. FARC can purchase state-of-the-art communications equipment,
weapons, and ammunition through international black markets and
even keep its members in new uniforms and boots.
FARC's lucrative drug business almost puts it into the category
of a drug cartel or illegal corporate enterprise with its own CEO,
middle-management executives, sales and distribution infrastructure,
and security force. Today's FARC is a mafia with well-established
connections in the drug underworld supported by a large army of
hit men as ruthless as any Los Angeles, California, gang. Terrorists
in the classic sense, FARC insurgents target civilians, kidnap prominent
members of the establishment, and murder people in cold blood to
maintain millions in drug revenues and to provide a more-than-comfortable
lifestyle for their leaders.
FARC's tentacles extend beyond Colombia to influence every aspect
of drug production, transport, and delivery throughout Latin America.
It is no exaggeration to say that all countries in Latin America
and the Caribbean have a permanent FARC presence or that FARC influences
them in one way or another.7 The 40-year-old
insurgent organization has roots deeply embedded in the political,
social, and economic fiber of Colombia, is ubiquitous, and foments
anarchy. FARC finances, arms, trains, and equips radical groups
and inspires them to take violent action against elected governments.
FARC insurgents monitor all aspects of their huge drug empire and
aim to create a narco-superstate in the southern hemisphere.
FARC thrives on chaos. The more chaos it creates, the more easily
it can produce and transport drugs. FARC uses drug money to buy
the services of Latin American politicians, judges, ministers, police
chiefs, and armed forces commanders. The social consequences of
drug addiction in Los Angeles or Miami are minor compared to the
consequences of allowing FARC to destroy political freedom, law
and order, and civilization in Colombia.
One of the great challenges of the war is how to dismantle FARC.
How does the military take on a mafia? Would the U.S. Army be capable
of taking on the Chicago or New York mafia? If it did, where would
it apply combat force? While it is not an impossible task, it is
certainly a formidable one.
A professional army's job is to win its nation's wars. In Colombia
and neighboring countries, "winning" the war on drugs
can only be measured by sporadic battlefield victories resulting
in guerrilla casualties, the successful chemical spraying of coca
fields, or the seizure of large drug shipments. The ultimate military
victory would be FARC's destruction, the dismantling of its entire
coca drug network, and the end of the war on drugs in the United
States. These will be achieved only when Colombia, neighboring Latin
American states, and the United States are totally committed to
defeating drug traffickers. The job is simply too large for the
Colombian military alone.
In El Salvador, FMLN chose to negotiate for peace. The government
and FMLN negotiators decided to end the war for the sake of creating
a future for their beleaguered country, and a negotiated settlement
to the war led to the signing of peace accords. But FARC has no
allegiance to Colombia. It is a criminal organization that does
not desire a future for Colombia other than as a territory for business
operations. As a Salvadoran government official told us, "Negotiations
always serve a beneficial purpose, but in the case of Colombia,
you cannot negotiate with organized crime."8
Taking on FARC militarily is not a question of winning, but of keeping
FARC from winning. The ESAF is fighting to preserve Colombia's political,
economic, and social infrastructure and to maintain security for
its citizens. If the Colombian military does not take the battle
to FARC, FARC will completely dominate rural Colombia and major
urban population centers.
The Colombian government has prudently combined its military and
national police operations. Because drug trafficking and terrorism
are criminal activities, the government has put the national police
in charge, with the Colombian military in a supporting role. This
strategy and the use of village defense forces combined make a good
recipe for success, one that keeps the government on a higher moral
The Colombian military is in combat against the FARC cartel's military
arm, all other FARC combatants, and associated field drug producing
and refining operations. The Colombian military can put pressure
on FARC's leadership by killing as many of its members as it can,
blocking supply corridors, and destroying drug-producing and processing
areas, but the war will only end when attrition depletes FARC's
ranks and it loses the will to fight. There can be no final victory
until all Latin American countries put pressure on FARC transit
routes, and the United States and Europe's insatiable demand for
drugs subsides. The Colombian military can and must take the battle
to FARC, and U.S. Army advisers can play a significant role in this
war. The U.S. Army can make considerable contributions to improve
all aspects of the art of warfare through the advisory program.
This is where the El Salvador model comes in.
Exporting the El Salvador Model
To apply the El Salvador model in Colombia,
the United States must include U.S. Army advisers at the military
joint command level within the Colombian military and, perhaps,
even to Colombia's police forces. The Colombian military's equivalent
to the U.S. joint staff (Jstaff) is the department staff (D-staff).
Placing U.S. Army combat, combat support, and combat service support
colonels or lieutenant colonels in the D1 through D5 staff sections
will ensure support to personnel and logistics matters as well as
to operations and intelligence matters. Assigned to the USMILGP
on a 1- year unaccompanied or 2- year accompanied basis, these officers
would have additional duties to the USMILGP commander as subject
matter experts and would form the nucleus and would form the nucleus
of an ad hoc advisory task force headquarters. This U.S. Military
Advisory Task Force-Colombia (USMATFC) headquarters would manage
the day-to-day advisory operations for the USMILGP commander.
Placing military advisers with the rank of major or lieutenant colonel
at the Colombian Army's general headquarters is the next step. The
ejército, or army, staff (E-staff) is equivalent to the U.S.
general staff (G-staff). The U.S. Army should assign officers who
are fluent in Spanish to support ejército staff sections.
Like D-staff advisers, the officers would assist in manning the
The United States should also create a military intelligence analytical
advisory effort for Colombia's joint and army intelligence centers
by assigning two to three U.S. service members at each level. Intelligence
personnel (captains, lieutenants, warrant officers, or senior NCOs)
should thoroughly understand how to develop collection plans; integrate
intelligence preparation of the battlefield; and thoroughly employ
all-source analysis, particularly the fusion of signals, imagery,
and human intelligence. An effective military intelligence advisory
effort should have experienced personnel with multiple tactical
unit tours, combat experience, and even extensive training center
rotational experience. Obviously, Spanish-language expertise remains
With this structure in place, advisers could flow down to the 6
Colombian army combat divisions and approximately 20 brigades, with
one operations adviser (combat arms or SF captain or major) and
one military intelligence adviser (captain or major) assigned to
each combat division and subordinate brigade headquarters. Such
assignments would take personnel outside of Bogotá into rural
areas, so they would serve unaccompanied 1-year tours. A nationwide
VHF tours. A nationwide VHF radio net using multiple repeaters,
a SATCOM UHF radio system, or cellular phones would link the advisers.
Advisers could be placed at selected locations such as military
schools or regional training centers.
If not enough U.S. Army personnel are available to man all divisions
or brigades, the priority of effort should be to the geographic
areas or units that will benefit the most from an advisory presence.
This flexible, rotational approach toward manning could fill one-third,
two-thirds, or all of the Colombian army's infantry divisions and
brigades with advisers as the mission dictated. This approach follows
the current U.S. approach in support of Plan Colombia, which Colombia
developed as an integrated strategy to meet the most pressing challenges
it must confront.9 As in El Salvador,
the advisory program should use specialized MTTs, particularly SF
personnel, to provide tactical training to Colombian soldiers.
The U.S. military advisory program in Colombia should be more joint
and interagency in nature than it was in El Salvador. U.S. Air Force,
Navy (USN), and Marine Corps (USMC) personnel should provide advice
from the service headquarters level down to specific locations and
units. The National Security Agency, Drug Enforcement Agency, and
Central Intelligence Agency can also play significant roles. This
joint, interagency approach would be of considerable benefit to
the Colombian military.
In the Colombian departments of Caqueta, Putumayo, and Amazonas,
USMC and USN advisers could help in riverine warfare operations.
The area is similar to the Mekong Delta region of the Republic of
Vietnam, and the extensive river networks that crisscross the area
are main FARC logistics and drug-trafficking routes. Because the
absence of adequate pick-up and landing zones limits heliborne air
assault operations' effectiveness, the best way to interdict FARC
movements is to attack river transportation. A standing naval infantry
advisory presence would enhance the Colombian Navy.
In El Salvador U.S. military advisers were prohibited from accompanying
their Salvadoran counterparts on combat operations-even though on
some occasions, U.S. military advisers broke the rules and did just
that. These occurrences were the exception and not the rule, and
the USMILGP command did not endorse them. However, by not participating
in field operations, U.S. advisers had difficulty establishing their
reputations and remaining a viable part of operations. To enhance
U.S. advisers' influence and professional standing with their Colombian
counterparts, U.S. advisers should accompany their host-nation counterparts
when they take the field.
Even limited deployments would probably result in U.S. advisers
being killed or wounded in action in numbers greater than those
killed or wounded in El Salvador. Nonetheless, U.S. advisers would
certainly be more effective, viable, and responsive, and Colombians
might regard anything less than adviser participation in combat
operations as a less-than-firm U.S. commitment to the war against
drug trafficking and terrorism.
Showing U.S. Resolve
The advisory program functioned reasonably
well throughout the Salvadoran conflict, fulfilled its intent, and
directly affected the war's outcome. U.S. military personnel-
- Were present at all major combat unit headquarters.
- Assisted in unit operations planning.
- Provided tactical intelligence analysis.
- Developed individual and unit training programs.
- Acted as subject matter experts in support of ESAF commanders
The U.S. ambassador or the USMILGP commander could count on trained
professional U.S. military personnel to observe and report on events
in the war zone.
In El Salvador, the physical presence of U.S. military personnel
was proof of a firm U.S. commitment to support a besieged government.
Salvadoran soldiers saw the evidence of the U.S. commitment when
America's fighting men stood beside them. No other type of security
assistance could have replaced this concrete example of U.S. resolve.
Colombian soldiers will feel the same way. A former Colombian army
commander responsible for Plan Colombia counterdrug and combat operations
said, "Your [U.S. military advisers'] presence is yet another
indicator of your support. Your presence and support are indicators
of your confidence in our operations. Your physical presence here-eating
and sleeping, and sharing the war effort-demonstrates your trust
in our ability to protect the force, as we prosecute the mission."10
A robust U.S. military advisory program might not bring the Colombian
war to a negotiated settlement as it did in El Salvador, nor will
it ensure an ultimate military victory for the Colombian military;
however, it can buy time to achieve victory by preventing the destruction
of Colombia's political, economic, and social infrastructure by
an armed, well-organized criminal group. If this safeguards U.S.
national interests in Latin America, then the mission is worth executing.
1. Benjamin C. Schwarz,
American Counterinsurgency Doctrine and El Salvador: The Frustrations
of Reform and Illusions of Nation Building (Santa Monica, CA: RAND,
2. Victor M. Rosello, Peter Diaz, and Victor
J. Castrillo, "US Military Intelligence and Electronic Warfare
Support to the Salvadoran Conflict: A Brief History," Low Intensity
Conflict & Law Enforcement (Summer 1994): 74.
3. Ibid., 70.
4. A.J. Bacevich, James D. Hallums, Richard
H. White, and Thomas F. Young, American Military Policy in Small
Wars: The Case of El Salvador (Washington, DC: Pergamon-Brassey's,
5. Rosello, "Lessons from El Salvador,"
Parameters (Winter 1993-94): 104.
7. The authors obtained the views expressed
through their discussions with Latin American military counterparts.
The perspective on the regional threat from FARC and its foreign
liaisons is in direct contrast to the view that the Latin American
area is a safe, benign environment posing no immediate threat to
the United States and its national interests.
8. David Escobar Gallindo, interview with
the authors, San Salvador, El Salvador, 20 June 2002. Gallindo served
as a representative for the Salvadoran government during the negotiations
leading to a peace accord from 1991 to 1992.
9. Plan Colombia's objectives are to promote
the peace process, combat the narcotics industry, revive the Colombian
economy, and strengthen the democratic pillars of Colombian society.
For more information, see on-line at <www.state.gov/p/wha/rls/fs/2001/
1042.htm>, accessed 25 February 2004.
10. MG Mario Montoya Uribe, Colombian Army, former
Commander, JTF South, interview with the authors, Tres Esquinas,
Caqueta Department, Colombia, July 2001.
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