Inside Colombia’s Elite Jungla Commandos, Part 1
Without moving his eyes from the jungle floor, the door gunner held up three fingers, indicating that we had three minutes until we hit the LZ.
A Jungla operator adjusted the strap on his helmet, while another bowed his head and crossed his chest with a simple wave of the hand. Not knowing what resistance might be waiting when the chopper left them in the bush below, they were prepared for war.
We were in the middle of enemy territory and about to take out a FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) 18th Front cocaine lab capable of producing hundreds of kilos of pure cocaine a day. The American DEA agent shouted above the high-pitched whine of the Blackhawk helicopter, “These guys hit their targets hard and fast. Keep your eyes open and your head down, and don’t move off the LZ until it’s secure. You’re in FARC territory now!”
Colombia is a country mired in war, a war that has spanned decades, a war knee-deep in narco-terrorists, guerrillas, paramilitaries and cocaine. No matter what you think of the war on drugs, the fact remains that the long-term security of the United States is indeed tied to what happens in Colombia. From the violence on the U.S./Mexican border to the price you pay at the gas pump, a stable Colombia is vital when it comes to our national security interests.
To hear most people report it, you would think that Latin America, the war on drugs and the U.S. involvement are a useless waste of money with absolutely no return on the investment. But as I’ve learned from past experience, ground truth always trumps what you hear on the news, and to find it you have to lace up your jungle boots and wade into the swamp.
S.W.A.T. Magazine wanted a firsthand look at Plan Colombia (U.S. legislation aimed at curbing drug smuggling by supporting different drug war activities in Colombia). Not just the nuts and bolts of the aid package buried in government reports, but the what, where and how of the operators who put their butts on the line every day in this deadly game of chess. To do this, I would find myself in the middle of Colombia working with one of the most high-speed Special Ops groups in the world: the Colombian Jungla Commandos.
THE JUNGLA PROGRAM
Started in 1989 by British SAS, the Airmobile Interdiction (Jungla) Program now consists of 600 specially selected Colombian police divided into three Jungla companies (Bogotá, Santa Marta and Tulua). The Jungla course takes 4 1/2 months to complete. During this time, the operators receive training in small arms use, drug lab destruction, night operations, small unit tactics, sniping, LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance and Patrol), demolitions, and medical training.
All of the training is conducted by Colombian instructors, with some portions taught by U.S. Army Special Forces, CIA, DEA and other USG agencies. Selected Jungla personnel also receive advanced training at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) at Fort Benning, Georgia, and at the International Academy of the American Air Forces (IAAFA) in San Antonio, Texas.
The Junglas are perhaps the finest Special Forces units in Colombia, if not all of Latin America. They have seized tremendous amounts of cocaine, destroyed hundreds of laboratories and captured numerous leaders of FARC, ELN (National Liberation Army), AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), and major narco-trafficking groups since their inception.
These airmobile operators are the force of choice for Colombian and U.S. government authorities seeking to capture HVTs (High Value Targets) such as narco-traffickers and FARC guerrilla leadership. In fact, the training and funding of Jungla forces is directly responsible for FARC’s devastating losses in the last couple of years, with numerous front commanders either being captured or killed. FARC numbers that used to be estimated at 17,000 have now dwindled to just over 10,000. But with that decrease in numbers, the threat is becoming more concentrated.
Unlike in the past, when FARC simply forced the owners of drug labs to pay a tax, FARC now owns and controls the labs. And make no mistake about it, the cocaine business is thriving, especially with the deadly Mexican cartels as major customers. Colombian jungle processing labs are now fortified with armed guerrillas, so taking them down is a wartime combat scenario instead of a simple police operation. But this type of combat is what Jungla forces are trained to do—and they do it very well.
When these young warriors put on their game face, they do it knowing they’ve received the best training and equipment money can buy. Much of their tactical equipment and training is funded by the U.S. State Department Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS), which has proven to be a decisive advantage for the Junglas when they’re facing enemy combatants. Their gear generally reflects the same individual equipment issued to U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers: M4 carbine, M249 SAW, M60, M224 Mortar, advanced night vision, encrypted communications, mine detection, E&E and survival equipment.
Having been trained as a high-speed air assault team, the Junglas simply don’t screw around when it comes to doing their job. When target intelligence has been verified, assets are allocated and a Jungla team is brought in and briefed. Immediately after the briefing, they are mobilized onto the target area. If there is no suitable LZ, the operators will fast rope into the jungle, while additional Blackhawks fly security with their M134 mini-guns. Once on the ground, the action is swift and decisive, with most ops lasting less than an hour from the time they hit the LZ.
It’s pretty safe to say if HVTs get on the Junglas’ dance card, they’d be better off turning themselves in instead of waiting for their skies to be darkened by these warriors. The lure of cocaine money and the quest for power, however, keep these narco-terrorists moving, building and networking, thus providing the Junglas with a constant supply of fresh targets. It’s the ultimate cat and mouse game.
A CAUSE FOR WAR
What was once FARC’s guerrilla war over policy and politics has turned into a war for profits. Even the disbanded remnants of the AUC have become nothing more than DTOs (Drug Trafficking Organizations). And considering how much money there is in cocaine, I doubt we will see an end to this war anytime soon.
The average HCL (Cocaine Hydrochloride) lab costs up to $500K, which is peanuts in the world of cocaine, so destroying a lab hardly hurts the pocketbooks of the narcos. They simply rebuild it with more cocaine money. However, lab destruction does set the narcos back when it comes to time expended. It’s excruciating work to build an HCL lab: it takes months to haul boards, barrels and equipment through horrendous terrain, by mule, dugout canoe and on the backs of workers, consequently slowing the production of cocaine. So the Junglas’ war on cocaine is not a fruitless cause.
The U.S. border with Mexico is rampant with deadly cartels that are funded and equipped by Colombian cocaine. Every time we destroy a lab or take out an HVT, we disrupt the flow of cash, weapons and drugs that cartels depend on to wage their war. This in itself is reason enough to continue fighting the war in Colombia. In fact, it is my opinion that we should be adding assets to the conflict. As a DEA agent tasked as liaison for the Junglas told me, “There’s no shortage of targets, but we do have a shortage of assets.” He was referring to the limited number of Blackhawk helicopters in Colombia.
Even with limited assets, Colombia is upping the ante in this war. In addition to destroying labs and concentrating on single HVTs, it’s now zeroing in on the traffickers, support networks and workers that help to make cocaine. New special operations groups are being formed and trained to infiltrate and take out the command and control structure, as well as provide intelligence and SNA (social network analysis) on everyone associated with the cocaine trade and guerrilla activities. As with the Jungla program, NAS, DEA, CIA and other USG assets will provide funding and training, but once these new programs go live, they will operate autonomously under the command of the Colombian government.
The political landscape in Colombia is changing, and the operatives on the ground say that the war will be changing as well. While I was incountry, the top news story was the rumor that FARC has acquired up to 20 Russian SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles). If this turns out to be true, it could prove to be a major game changer in the way a mission is carried out.
Regardless of what the war will morph into, taking out HVTs and drug labs will always be a high-stakes poker game for the players involved. And I took a seat at the table as a heavily armed Jungla operator slid open our Blackhawk’s door in FARC territory….
[ Author’s note: Colombian and American operators face many threats in this war, and S.W.A.T. Magazine is not in the business of putting warriors’ lives at risk. Consequently, all photos have been cleared for publication. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article in the February issue of S.W.A.T. ]