American Forces Press Service
TIBU, Colombia – The markets are all open in this small Colombian town. Some streets are cobbled, some are bricked, some once had macadam and others are just dirt.
Chickens run around in the backyards of houses facing the air strip, and a plane or helicopter landing there attracts curious on-lookers.
They had a lot to look at today as U.S. Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, joined virtually the entire Colombian defense leadership to visit Joint Task Force Vulcano, located just outside town.
The Colombian government established the task force in December. It is the latest effort to defeat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – known by its Spanish acronym FARC – and other terror groups and criminal gangs.
“It draws all assets of the government together to provide security for the people,” said Colombian army Capt. Jose Mojica, a spokesman for the task force.
Dempsey arrived at the base in a Colombian Air Force Mi-17 helicopter along with Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon Bueno and Gen. Alejandro Navas, commander of the Colombian Armed Forces.
Dempsey thanked the troops and police for their courage in facing groups that threaten not only their country, but the region and the hemisphere.
“I thank you for your courage and for the sacrifices you have suffered over these many years,” the general said. “As the chief of our armed forces, I come here today to first of all say ‘thank you,’ and secondly, how much we admire your courage and democratic values. I commit to continuing to be a good partner with you in this conflict.”
Following his comments, Dempsey discussed strategy with the minister and the chief of defense and also Army chief Maj. Gen. Sergio Mantilla Sanmiguel, Navy chief Vice Adm. Roberto Garcia Marquez and Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Tito Saul Pinilla-Pinilla.
Only a couple hundred soldiers were at the task force base. “We have little amount of people here, because the rest are in the field,” Mojica said, adding that they patrol continuously.
The impoverished area is three kilometers from the Venezuela border, which U.S. officials, speaking on background, said is porous and suffers from corruption. The area is a prime shipping point for cocaine and the FARC and other terror groups use the proceeds to fuel their fight, they said.
If money stays in the village, it is well hidden. Whole families ride on small motorbikes with a father driving, mother on the back, and a small child wedged between them.
Before Joint Task Force Vulcano stood up, there were a small number of troops in the region. Now there are more than 10,000, Mojica said. The forces are composed of three mobile brigades and a geographic brigade. A fourth brigade is getting ready to deploy to the area.
This is all part of an ambitious Colombian strategy to cut the FARC by half in two years. U.S. Embassy officials said there are about 8,000 FARC members now. Colombian officials spoke of the plan as the end game for the rebellion against the government after 48 years of intermittent war.
The Colombian military is a leader in counterinsurgency strategy and have incorporated civil affairs efforts into almost every operation. Health care is a big draw, especially for the underserved people in the countryside. One of the first operations the task force set up was a health care program, including a health fair for the people of Tibu.
The FARC had warned towns people to stay away from the health effort, and task force commanders were worried the people would be too afraid to show up, Mojica said. But by 6 a.m., 250 people already were line, he said.
The FARC and their criminal allies are not taking the challenge lying down. The group attacked a police station outside Tibu just after Dempsey left the area. First reports indicated two police were dead and three were wounded.