By Donna Miles, American Forces Press ServiceJune 11, 2013
SONSONATE, El Salvador, June 11, 2013 -- Capt. Ernesto Santamaria of the Colombian army remembers a scary childhood. The FARC -- Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia -- ran rampant in Colombia, terrorizing citizens with a spate of murders, kidnappings and other activities associated with narcotics trafficking.
Twenty-five years ago, the Colombian police force was corrupt and the military forces were in disarray.
Today, thanks to strong Colombian leadership and persistent U.S. support and engagement, Colombia has capable and highly respected security forces that have weakened the FARC and continue to deal it crippling blows.
And as Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command, told Congress earlier this year, the nation once on the brink of falling to a powerful insurgency now stands as a regional model, exporting security to its neighbors and beyond.
The Colombians have become leaders in counterinsurgency tactics, and they share this training with their Central American and West African counterparts, Kelly reported. As one example, Colombian air force pilots, operating out of a state-of-the-art training center that includes simulators found nowhere else in Latin America, now train helicopter pilots from the Mexican and other neighboring militaries.
"They have become exporters of [force integration training]," Army Brig. Gen. Sean P. Mulholland, commander of Special Operations Command South, said of Colombia's regional outreach.
"This is Latins training Latins, and that is a beautiful story," Mulholland said.
Santamaria, who grew up as the Colombian army was transitioning into a strong, professional force, said he's proud to be part of that story. He's among a contingent of Colombian soldiers who deployed here and to Panama for three months to share their engineering experience during the Beyond the Horizon 2013.
U.S. Southern Command's largest annual humanitarian civic assistance mission in Latin America, Beyond the Horizon includes medical, dental, veterinary services and engineering projects.
At one of the construction sites, in the remote Salvadoran village of Las Marias, the Colombians are working alongside military engineers from the United States, El Salvador, Chile and Canada to build a new schoolhouse.
Army Lt. Col Raymond Valas, commander of Joint Task Force Jaguar, is overseeing the Beyond the Horizon 2013 mission in El Salvador. He called the multinational collaboration one of the most important aspects of the mission, noting that all of the participants are all working together in demanding conditions to accomplish a common goal.
Valas recalled walking the Las Marias construction site and marveling at how easily a U.S. soldier, a Colombian soldier, two Chilean soldiers and a Salvadoran soldier pulled together to pour concrete in sweltering 120-degree temperatures.
"No one put them together in that way. It was just a group of engineers from different countries, getting together to get the mission done," he said. "And all the differences between us kind of melt away as we focus on the task at hand. You take your motivation from one another, and it has an overall impact on our soldiers that just can't be measured."
Only the crème de la crème of Colombia's engineers got a chance to participate in the mission, Santamaria said. Twenty Colombian engineer units nominated their top candidate, who then underwent rigorous screening, including a written test in construction skills and a psychological battery. The high scorers then went through personal interviews. Officials then selected five engineers for the coveted slots.
For Tomas Vargas, who has served 11 years in the Colombian army, the opportunity to deploy to El Salvador was a career highlight. Despite long hours, hot, sticky conditions and a pressing construction schedule, Vargas said he's delighted to be able to support a humanitarian project.
"The people here appreciate what we are doing," he said. "And we are doing it with all of our hearts, which means a lot."
Vargas, who never before had been outside Colombia, said he has learned more during the deployment than he ever imagined -- about other cultures, about construction techniques and about partner militaries.
"There is always something new to learn here," he said, emphasizing how much he has gained through the new friendships he has forged. Vargas said he was particularly surprised to see how independently U.S. soldiers operate, carrying out their assigned tasks without someone constantly looking over their shoulder.
Santamaria said he, too, is picking up new insights about everything from construction techniques, planning processes and logistics support to military discipline.
"All of us from different countries have come together, and we all have brought something to support this mission, and that is how the very best work happens," he said.
Santamaria said he plans to take those lessons back to Colombia to share with his fellow soldiers and senior officers.
"What we are gaining here is experience that we can apply in our own country," he said. "We are getting to learn about different countries and different cultures and to see other militaries that are very organized and professional."
When he and his soldiers return to Colombia, Santamaria said, they hope to leave behind a positive impression of their country.
"I want everyone to see that we are good, hard-working, disciplined soldiers," he added.
But even more important, he said, are the tangible projects they will leave behind for the people of El Salvador.
"The schools we are building will benefit the children who are the future of the country," he said. "So of all the missions we have ever done, that makes this one the best of all."