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Last Updated:11/4/03
Testimony of General James T. Hill, Commander, United States Southern Command, hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: "Challenges for U.S. Policy Toward Colombia:Is Plan Colombia Working?" October 29, 2003

29 OCTOBER 2003

Mr. Chairman, Senator Biden, distinguished members of the Committee, it is a pleasure to appear before you today to discuss the United States Southern Command's role in assisting Colombia with its battle against narco-terrorism. Every day your soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and civilians at Southern Command are working hard and employing their skills to accomplish our missions in this vital endeavor. We are shoring up our own national security by addressing this challenge at this time and in this place. Simultaneously we are laying the groundwork to promote and maintain future security and stability.

Colombia is at a decisive point in their fight. I have been to Colombia 17 times over the past year, and I am seeing significant progress. I am guardedly optimistic that President Uribe will establish security and stability in that country. Much of my optimism stems from what I've personally seen him do over the past year. President Uribe is a man of vision, principle, and substance. He is inculcating his government and his armed forces with an aggressive spirit and belief they can win the war against the narco-terrorists and end the violence. But the momentum he has built and the progress Colombia has shown is reversible. Consequently, we must maintain our steady, patient support in order to reinforce the successes we have seen and to guarantee a tangible return on the significant investment our country has made to our democratic neighbor.

To outline United States Southern Command's efforts in this endeavor, I will discuss the status of Southern Command's support of Plan Colombia, the progress we are seeing in Colombia, and the way ahead. Assisting Colombia in their fight continues to be in our own best interest. A secure Colombia will benefit fully from democratic processes and economic growth, prevent narco-terrorist spillover, and serve as a regional example. Conversely, a failed Colombia, serving as a safe-haven for narco-terrorists and international terrorists, would be a most unwelcome regional model. The center of gravity right now is in Colombia, and the future health of the region hinges upon what happens there. While this is primarily Colombia's fight to win, we have the opportunity to tip the balance by augmenting their efforts decisively with our unwavering support.

U.S. Southern Command's Support to Plan Colombia

Plan Colombia is a six-year plan designed to defeat the threat the Colombians face. This threat continues to come from the three largest illegal armed groups in Colombia, all named on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations and two named on the President's list of drug kingpins: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, the National Liberation Army or ELN, and the United Self-Defense Forces or AUC. While these groups may retain fragments of their founding philosophies, they appear to have jettisoned ideology in favor of terrorist methods and narco-trafficking.

Narco-terrorism and its connection to the drug industry threaten the stability of several nations in Latin America and the Caribbean and erode the very fabric of democracy by spawning terrorism, corrupting public institutions, promoting criminal activity, undermining legitimate economies, and disrupting social order. The violence and corruption not only threatens our neighbors, it poses a direct national security threat to our homeland. The latest Center for Disease Control statistics indicate that over 21,000 Americans die each year as a direct result of drug related causes. This staggering number does not take into account the second and third order effects on families, the lost productivity of those lives cut short, or the additional thousands of Americans we lose to indirect drug related causes. As a nation we simply cannot afford to give up on tens of thousands of our own citizens every year. Illicit drug abuse is certainly a multi-faceted problem, but our support to Plan Colombia is effectively addressing one of its most critical components.

Our role at Southern Command is to support implementation of the military aspects of the plan. The plan addresses the entire depth of Colombia's complex problem, however, and is by no means envisioned as a simple military solution. As you know, various other U.S. government agencies and departments received funding to support both military and non-military aspects of Plan Colombia.

Colombia is just completing the third year of this six-year plan. The first phase of three focused on the Putumayo and Caqueta Departments of Southern Colombia where approximately half of Colombia's coca cultivation took place and lasted from December 2000 until December 2002. Southern Command was responsible primarily for training and equipping a Counter Narcotics Brigade, fielding Blackhawk and Huey II helicopters and also training pilots and crews during the first phase. Secondary efforts provided for infrastructure upgrades, riverine training, and counter-drug intelligence support. In Phase II, the Colombians are expanding the size of the armed forces, working with neighboring countries for combined operations, building forests where coca once grew, and creating units comprised of campesino soldiers to help guard towns where government presence was formerly lacking. These initiatives support continued drug eradication and interdiction. Phase III of Plan Colombia culminates the entire plan by expanding the government presence and control nationwide. While it is still too early to predict the exact end state of Plan Colombia, the progress we are seeing is a positive development that promises to complete that plan and institutionalize its successes.

Counter Narcotics Brigade

The Counter Narcotics Brigade (CN Brigade) headquarters and its three battalions are the best-trained and equipped conventional units in the Colombian Army. Its mission is to conduct ground, riverine, and air assault offensive operations against narco-terrorist organizations. U.S. military personnel conducted staff and light infantry training for almost 2,300 troops. In accordance with Plan Colombia, the CN Brigade was originally designed to operate in southern Colombia. The CN Brigade has had impressive results during drug interdiction operations in that part of the country by destroying coca processing labs, providing security to eradication operations, and seizing chemical precursors and coca leaf.

The Colombian military synchronized the deployments of the Counter Narcotics Brigade (CN Brigade) in Phase I with Colombian National Police and Department of State eradication efforts. The Office of National Drug Control Policy found that Colombia's coca cultivation decreased by 15 percent in 2002 from 2001. Additionally, as narco-traffickers began pushing cocaine labs away from southern Colombian cultivation areas, the Colombian police and military have found it easier to track and disrupt their illicit actions. Because of its success in the Putumayo and Caqueta Departments, this brigade is now also being used beyond its original scope in other parts of the country, most notably the Nariño Department. We continue to provide sustainment training to the CN Brigade. This unit is currently transforming to become more flexible and rapidly deployable to plan and conduct offensive operations throughout the entire country.


Since December 2000, the United States has provided air mobility to the first CN Brigade using a company of 28 UH-1Ns with a combination of Colombian and Department of State contracted pilots. The UH-1N aircraft are based in Tolemaida with the Colombian Army Aviation Battalion and are forward deployed to Larandia for operations. The current operational focus remains providing air mobility support for counter-drug operations. Delivery of the 25 Plan Colombia Huey IIs was completed in September 2002. These helicopters are also based at Tolemaida and currently focused on supporting pilot training and infrastructure security. All fourteen UH-60L Blackhawk helicopters procured under Plan Colombia for the Colombian military began operations in January 2003 after a thorough program of pilot training. These helicopters also support the 1st CN Brigade, pilot training, and infrastructure security. While the Department of State is responsible for program oversight and funding for operations and contract maintenance for all of these helicopters, quality control is provided by a U.S. Army Technical Assistance Field Team. The Department of Defense retains responsibility for training Colombian Army pilots, crew chiefs and aviation unit maintenance personnel to fly and maintain Blackhawk and Huey II helicopters. The maintenance programs are supplemented by a safety initiative that integrates risk management planning into air operations. Overall, these helicopters have given the Colombian military unprecedented mobility although they are still lacking sufficient lift assets. This mobility allows an increasingly well-trained Colombian Army to maneuver across a rugged landscape, in parts of the country they have not operated in for years, resulting in greater operational effectiveness against the narco-terrorists.

Engineer and Infrastructure Support

The Plan Colombia supplemental appropriation allowed us to complete large-scale infrastructure improvements that greatly accelerated the development of increased operational capabilities for Colombia's forces. In subsequent years, we have continued to provide necessary facilities to support our training and equipping programs. Among our more significant engineer projects were the expansion of both fixed-wing and helicopter facilities at Tres Esquinas, the establishment of a comprehensive helicopter pilot training school at Melgar and Tolemaida, improved port facilities at Buenaventura, development of riverine support and maintenance facilities at Tres Esquinas and La Tagua, and the development of helicopter operational and support facilities at Larandia. We are moving now to develop the logistics infrastructure needed to support Colombian forces as they move outward to re-establish government control throughout Colombia. We are currently completing a hangar that will directly improve the operational rate of the Colombian C-130 fleet by improving their maintenance program, and we have just awarded contracts to establish logistics support centers, motorpools and maintenance facilities. As a direct result of the completion of these facilities, Colombian forces will be better able to conduct and sustain forward operations.

Professionalism and Human Rights

Embedded within the training Southern Command and U.S. forces provide under Plan Colombia is the institutionalization of human rights and the respect for law by the Colombian military. Our military legal assistance projects in Colombia, which include developing a Judge Advocate General (JAG) school as well as legal and human rights reform, continue on track. The initial JAG school courses began in February 2002 in temporary facilities. The permanent JAG School opened on July 29, 2003, and provides courses on military justice, international law, and operational law. We have worked closely with the Colombian military to establish and build a Military Penal Justice Corps. Three hundred twenty military, police, and civilian lawyers received continued professional legal education beyond that provided at the school. The Colombian military legal corps, similar to the method used by our armed forces, is also becoming embedded with the field units of the Army in order to provide legal advice to commanders during operations.

United States Southern Command has supported Colombian efforts to extend human rights training throughout its ranks. Colombia is fighting its illegal armed groups justly, in accordance with democratic values and human rights. This is instrumental in what we are collectively striving to achieve. The Colombian government is not resorting to rural concentration camps, peasant roundups, massacres, disappearances or other tactics used by their enemies. According to the Department of State's 2002 Colombian Human Rights Report, the vast majority of allegations of human rights abuses, over 98 percent are attributed to Colombia's illegal armed groups, primarily the three narco-terrorist groups, and not to government forces. This report clearly demonstrates the institutionalization of human rights by the Colombian government, whose forces as recently as the mid-1990s were accused of 50-60 percent of human rights abuses.

The Human Rights report finds that, "the government has an extensive human rights apparatus coordinated by the office of the President's Advisor for Human Rights. That office coordinates with local human rights groups. Most notably, it established a special 'momentum' committee to advance judicial resolutions of 100 key human rights cases." Over 290,000 members of Colombia's security forces have received specialized human rights training since 1996, conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Colombian Red Cross, the Roman Catholic church, foreign governments, and other government offices and agencies. I am convinced the Colombian government is serious about human rights and will continue to promote them aggressively.

The Uribe Administration's Progress

Plan Colombia predates President Uribe by two years and will end coincidentally when he leaves office in 2006. While he has firmly embraced the plan, he has also brought to office new initiatives and a long-term vision that extends well beyond that six-year plan. President Uribe won a landslide victory by running on a platform of aggressively hunting down the terrorists in his country and asserting government control of national territory. After years of failed attempts to negotiate with illegal armed groups, to include a bold experiment that gave the FARC a safe-haven in the southern part of the country, the people of Colombia had finally had enough of terrorist groups, especially after seeing how the FARC had used their safe-haven to plot terrorist acts and establish drug base camps instead of developing their notional politics into a concrete reality.

President Uribe faces enormous challenges, but he is using his mandate to put deeds behind his words. He has only been in office for fourteen months, and turning the government from a conciliatory posture to an aggressively focused one is not an easy task. We need to be steadfast in our support of him now to set the conditions for his longer-term success. The signs of his progress, which have built upon our support to Plan Colombia, are already becoming evident. Colombia developed a comprehensive national security strategy that directs all the tools at the government's disposal toward a common end of defeating the terrorists. The Colombians now spend more than 4 percent of their GDP on defense. President Uribe has levied a war tax on the country's wealthiest citizens. He is increasing police end-strength to supplement those already planned for the military. The government has developed a plan to protect travelers along the major roadways. He is pushing the military and the police to gain control of areas and neighborhoods dominated by the narco-terrorists. In those areas where the government is gaining control, they are taking governance to the people by providing more robust social services and the rule of law to support those who previously suffered most from their absence.

The military has had growing operational success against the narco-terrorist organizations across the country, particularly against the mid-level leadership, and all indications are that they will continue to take the fight to the illegal armed groups over the next year. The firm resolve of the Uribe Administration, backed by aggressive military operations, has resulted in increased desertions by enemies of the state. These desertions are promising, especially since the government provides a program under which those who leave the FARC voluntarily are put in protected housing and receive health care, education, and work training.

The Colombia Initiatives sponsored under the FY03 appropriations have tied into support of the new administration and Phase II of Plan Colombia. Our Special Forces have trained the staff and soldiers of Colombia's best units, giving these units an added edge of operational effectiveness that is paying dividends. The Colombians have established their own Special Operations Command to coordinate and oversee difficult and complex operations against the most sensitive targets. The establishment and training of a Commando Battalion, modeled on our own Ranger battalions, has given the Colombians a unit that can strike high-value targets including enemy leadership. The Colombians plan on establishing another commando battalion in Fiscal Year 2004. We have also trained the Colombian urban counter-terrorist unit and continue to upgrade their capabilities and equipment. U.S. Special Forces also trained Colombian Armed Forces in Arauca to protect a portion of the 772-kilometer oil pipeline that had been a frequent target of FARC and ELN attacks. Pipeline attacks are down significantly. This training was just one part of a nationwide Infrastructure Security Strategy that protects critical facilities and reestablishes control in narco-terrorist influenced areas of the country.

We continue to train Colombia's helicopter pilots, providing their forces a growing ability to perform air assaults that are key in the battle against dispersed enemies. We deploy intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets in country that have provided timely, actionable intelligence to Colombian units. We are training their staffs with Planning Assistance Teams that increase their ability to plan and execute intelligence driven operations against illegal armed groups. We are working with Colombian Marines to establish two Mobile Training Teams that will work with the Riverine Brigade to raise proficiency for riverine interdiction. We contract logistics to help the Colombians maintain their own C-130 fleet. We are training the Colombian National Police Carabineros (Rural) with the goal of reestablishing governance throughout the country.

We are providing medical training and assistance to help the Colombians improve their casualty evacuation methods as well as implementing other safety programs to help them preserve their combat power. In civil-military operations, we are helping the Colombians to build a civil-affairs capability that will be implemented in the Arauca Rehabilitation Zone to bring humanitarian aid and functioning institutions to previously terrorized areas. This program will eventually be expanded across the country. Finally, we worked with the State Department to re-establish the Air Bridge Denial Program that is run by the Colombians with U.S. ground and air safety monitors.

Beyond our coordinated military efforts, President Uribe has sponsored political, economic, and judicial reforms. With the support of his Congress, the government is calling for political reforms. These reforms aim to reduce the government bureaucracy, cap pensions, and eliminate corruption. These measures will streamline the government and increase its ability to focus on the internal conflict. Economically, Uribe's stance and the promised reforms have buoyed the country's confidence. Colombia has raised over one billion dollars via bonds since the new administration took office, and its stock market has increased by 50 percent this year. Likewise, President Uribe has sought to stamp out corruption and bolster judicial reform. He issued Presidential Directive No. 10, which was his anti-corruption strategy, designed to halt the revenue lost from corruption and political cronyism. He established a mechanism to oversee state contracting that will save an estimated two billion dollars annually, and he has established merit-based hiring practices.

This list is just a partial highlight of the coordinated effort the Colombian government is making to solve its own problems. President Uribe has infused his government with energy, organization, and a sense of purpose. He is getting results now, and will continue to direct all his resources toward making Colombia a safe, prosperous, democratic nation. He understands that this is primarily a Colombian problem, one which Colombia must solve, yet he still needs our help to make his efforts ever more effective. President Uribe stood by us as a member of the Coalition of the Willing in Operation Iraqi Freedom, a stance unpopular with the Colombian public. He is providing the strategic leadership that Colombia needs to move ahead. Recent polls show public confidence in him and the military increasing. Now, with initial progress early in his administration, is the time he most needs us to demonstrate to him, his government, and his people our continued resolve. There are already some indications that the FARC will exercise strategic patience and attempt to wait out President Uribe and Plan Colombia. Should we falter at this juncture, we could very well assist the FARC in their plan.

Under President Uribe, our country's significant investment in Plan Colombia and the Andean Ridge Initiative are beginning to show substantial results. He is fully adhering to Plan Colombia and already looking well beyond it. Most notably a subsidiary campaign plan provides a long-term strategy and has been coordinated across the Colombian services, the interagency and our military. This campaign plan details the systematic defeat of Colombia's narco-terrorists. He is building the systems that will eventually return Colombia to the ranks of peaceful and prosperous nations. President Uribe has only three more years in office. Consequently, it is critical -- especially this year and next -- that he gets our unwavering support to set all his long-term initiatives firmly into place.

Way Ahead

We are seeing the pendulum swing in Colombia, and we will continue all of our planned training and support as well as seeking new opportunities to increase that support at this critical moment. Colombia is the linchpin in the narco-terrorist battle, but we must be careful not to win the battle in Colombia and lose the war in the region. As the Colombians make progress, their success will push narco-terrorists to seek safer areas in which to operate. Already, the FARC, ELN, and AUC operate across the porous borders of Colombia's neighbors, and the remote nature of many of these areas makes them ever more attractive as safe-havens. While we are seeing increased coordination and cooperation among most of Colombia's neighbors, some of those countries also lack the resources to maintain territorial sovereignty in these ungoverned spaces. Thus, across the Andean Ridge, we are working with the bordering nations to increase cooperation further, fortify borders and strengthen capabilities.

In an ongoing multinational exercise, we are training with the Colombian Navy on littoral techniques in a combined operation with Panamanian, British, and Dutch participation. In Peru, we continue to sustain their riverine interdiction ability, as well as working with the interagency to support their eradication program and counter-narcotics aviation. We are working closely, in support of the Department of State, to restart the Air Bridge Denial Program in Peru with additional safeguards. In Ecuador, we have supported their riverine capability and worked closely with them in completing the essential forward operating location at Manta. We are seeing a welcome acknowledgment of the Colombian border concern by their leadership, and we are studying the possibility of training their 19th Jungle Brigade along the same lines as the units we've trained in Colombia. In Bolivia, we have worked on their riverine capabilities as well and supported their eradication efforts. We will continue to monitor the Cocalero movement and recent turmoil, which poses a threat to regional stability. I am particularly encouraged by the bilateral talks President Lula of Brazil and President Uribe conducted in March during which they acknowledged the common interest their countries shared in controlling drug traffickers in the Amazon region. We have already seen the Brazilians take up active patrolling on their own border with Colombia.

Recognizing that we are at a critical and decisive point in our support to Colombia, I have reorganized an element of my staff to focus exclusively on current operations and long term planning for Colombia. I have reorganized our personnel operating in Colombia to maximize the support we can provide and gain every possible efficiency while operating within the mandated cap on military and civilian personnel. We are actively involved in the interagency development of the Political Military Implementation Plan to support the near and long term progress being made in Colombia, to include reassessing the current military personnel limitation and dedicated resources.

As the lead Department of Defense agent for implementing military aspects of U.S. policy in Colombia, U.S. Southern Command will continue to maintain a priority effort against narco-terrorism. Key in most of our recent endeavors has been approval by the U.S. Congress of Expanded Authority legislation. This legislation has allowed us to use funds available for counter-drug activities to provide assistance to the Government of Colombia for a coordinated campaign against the terrorist activities of its illegal armed groups. The granting of Expanded Authority was an important recognition that no meaningful distinction can be made between the terrorists and drug traffickers in our region. All three of Colombia's terrorist groups are deep into the illicit narcotics business. Trying to decide whether a mission against a FARC unit was a counter-drug or counter-terrorist one was an exercise in futility and hampered operational effectiveness on the ground. Expanded Authority has eliminated the time consuming step of first evaluating the mission based on its probable funding source and now allows us to bring to bear all our assets more rapidly. As just one example, it will allow assets controlled by Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S) to continue being used to their full potential to provide real-time, actionable intelligence that is key in conducting effective operations against the narco-terrorists. Additionally, JIATF-S will take an increased role in counter-illicit trafficking, as many materials other than narcotics use the same transit routes through our area of responsibility. Expanded Authority for FY04 and beyond is the single most important factor for us to continue building success in Colombia. While our efforts are, for good reason, Colombia-centric, we are not letting others fall behind to become the next targets for terrorist groups. The cooperative counter narco-terrorist groundwork we are laying today will further our national security for decades to come.


The future security and stability of Colombia and the United States, indeed all of Latin America and the Caribbean as well, are now, more than ever, tied inextricably together. Latin America and the Caribbean are important to the United States strategically, economically, and culturally, and our ties will only grow stronger over time. Many of the region's countries are consolidating democracies, however, that will take time to mature. Meanwhile, these countries face uncertainty, whether from weak institutions that have yet to undergo multiple cycles of free elections or from disappointment that liberal market reforms have not yet produced sustained improvement. It is upon these inherent vulnerabilities that criminal organizations prey. Illegal armed groups foster corruption, greed and instability and undermine the best efforts of dedicated public servants and honest citizens. Corruption and instability create safe-havens for not only narco-terrorists and drug traffickers but also for other international terrorists.

It will be up to those nations to demonstrate their ability to govern, enforce the rule of law, implement judicial reform, and develop a profound respect for human rights. These fundamentals provide the stable and secure environment necessary for economic growth - growth that will improve the quality of life for ordinary citizens. Southern Command plays a crucial role in assisting the development of security forces that help provide the ability to govern throughout the region, particularly in Colombia.

We are at a critical time in Colombia's history. The elected government of President Uribe enjoys unparalleled approval ratings approaching 70 percent. Under his leadership, the military and police are helping to regain control of areas long held by narco-terrorists. Colombia's citizens are taking a more active role in their nation's defense and providing actionable intelligence to the Colombian Armed Forces. There is a renewed sense of momentum, commitment, and hope as the Colombian people struggle to save their country, but there is also a finite window of opportunity beyond which public opinion and support will wane without significant progress.

I am optimistic about the progress we are seeing in Colombia, though there remains an enormous amount of work to be done. We are at a critical point where the progress in eliminating conflict, reducing tension, and establishing democracy throughout the region could be at risk if we are not steadfast in our efforts. While our attention is drawn to another region of the world, we must keep in mind that we live in this hemisphere, and its continued progress as a region of democracy and prosperity is paramount to our national security.

I would like to thank the Chairman and the Members of the Committee for this opportunity and for the tremendous support you have provided this command. I can assure you that the men and women of the United States Southern Command are working to their utmost to accomplish their missions for our great country.

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