BOGOTA, Colombia - Only weeks after a dramatic hostage recovery operation that freed three U.S. military contractors, former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, and 11 other Colombians, the Colombian Army played host to the 2008 Senior Enlisted Leaders Conference, July 21-25 , in Bogota.

Sergeants major from Barbados, Bahamas, Belize, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Paraguay, Peru, St. Kitts and Nevis, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay and the United States attended the conference, now in it's fourth year and co-sponsored by U.S. Army South. Participants shared information and experiences aimed at developing junior leaders and discussed different approaches to conducting military operations and training.

"This conference is focused on the professional education of the non-commissioned officer," said U.S. Army South's Command Sgt. Maj. Armando Ramirez. "As sergeants major and command sergeants major, we put our minds together and collectively develop a strategy that will enable us as senior non-commissioned officers to enhance the proficiency of the non-commissioned officer corps within the Latin American and Caribbean countries."

Briefings and presentations were divided amongst the participating nations, giving representatives the opportunity to share their capabilities, challenges and unique circumstances. This allowed for a substantive exchange of ideas and shared experiences as the top enlisted men discussed ways to make their armies more efficient. The topics of regional security, stability and peace keeping operations were key issues throughout the conference and discussions centered on strengthening relations and building a framework of understanding and cooperation in order to meet mutually beneficial goals.

"My expectation was to come and interact with the other sergeant majors to see what is affecting us regionally," said Warrant Officer 1 David V. Diego of the Belize Defense Force. "[This is] so we could come to a consensus that all of us could work towards a common objective: to have peace in our area."

Day two of the conference featured a short flight from BogotAfA! on a C-130 military airplane to the Colombian Army Training Center in Tolemaida. There, participants toured the expansive training base and watched Colombian Soldiers taking part in various activities like air assault operations, building clearing, parachute training, obstacle-course exercises, water-borne operations and helicopter maintenance.

"I was very impressed with the Colombian Army," said Command Sgt. Maj. Cristhian E. Polo of the Chilean Army. "Their exercises were conducted with discipline and precision. The helicopter and obstacle course events and the squad assault events were spectacular. They are a very professional, very well-conditioned armed force."

As the four-day conference progressed back in BogotAfA!, participants gained a deeper insight into each nation's regional contributions, challenges and capabilities and learned proven methods to enhance the development of their junior Soldiers. Many of the sergeants major that arrived as strangers formed lasting bonds of friendships with their allied counterparts.

"It was just a great experience in terms of sharing knowledge and building relationships," said Ramirez. "I feel they're going to take back a more friendly relationship that we have between countries and I think it's just going to continue to grow."