MIAMI, July 10, 2014 – Miles away from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, improvised explosive devices are wreaking havoc in other parts of the world. Colombia, Pakistan, India and Syria rank high on a list of countries where this “invisible enemy” is leaving a trail of deaths and injuries.
In Latin America, most notably in Colombia, insurgents and criminal organizations build and employ bombs with the intent to cause devastation to government forces as well as innocent civilians. In fact, IEDs have become the weapon of choice of these organizations, desperate to find a force multiplier as they experience increased personnel losses.
“According to statistics, Colombia ranks first in the world, outside of Afghanistan and Iraq, in IED incidents,” said Juan Hurtado, science advisor at the U.S. Southern Command, the U.S. military geographic command that works with countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean to promote security and stability in the Western Hemisphere.
These deadly devices are made out of commercial-grade explosives, various explosive precursors, fertilizer, nails, nuts, bolts, and other objects.
In less than a year, between March 2013 and February 2014, a total of 2,356 IED events were reported in Colombia. The aftermath: 707 casualties, according to statistics compiled by the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.
JIEDDO was established by the Defense Department in 2006 in response to the alarming increase in fatalities and injuries caused by roadside bombs and other makeshift artifacts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Within Southcom’s area of responsibility, Colombia has 95 percent of all IED activity and 98 percent of all IED-related injuries.
To help change this concerning reality, Hurtado said, Southcom and JIEDDO have joined efforts, through the U.S. Military Group in Colombia, to collaborate with the Colombian military and police in search of cooperative and innovative ways for IED threat mitigation. The idea is to leverage the painful lessons learned and investments made during years in research and development, and to harness the “brain power” of Colombian and U.S. experts committed to this fight.
“A key element in this formula is the world-class support we are receiving from JIEDDO,” Hurtado said. “They have dealt with this threat for almost a decade, and they are eager to share lessons learned and benefit from the experiences of others.”
The science and technology division that Hurtado heads at Southcom hosts JIEDDO experts and coordinates counter-IED support on behalf of the command’s theater engagement division. His main efforts, he said, are to scope the level of activities, enable collaboration to assist regional requirements and formulate a sustainable path.
Together, Hurtardo said, they are working with the U.S. Embassy Country Team, the U.S. Military Group and Colombia’s organizations such as the office of the vice minister of defense, the Joint Directorate for Explosives and Demining — known as DICED, its Spanish acronym — and the Colombian army’s Counter IED and Mines National Center — known as CENAM, its Spanish acronym — in advancing a roadmap for collaboration against IEDs — the weapon of choice for insurgents and criminal organizations in Colombia.
As the Colombian government increases pressure against FARC — the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — the group desperately looks for new ways to offset its losses and delay the advance of the public forces into territories under their control, illegal coca cultivation areas and illicit drug labs, said Charles Brady, JIEDDO’s liaison officer and counter-IED integrator to Southcom.
According to CENAM officials, about 75 percent of the events affecting Colombian troops are related to IED incidents. Stood up in 2014, CENAM was created to assist with the IED challenges with a holistic approach, in cooperation with other government and nongovernment national and international partners.
The roadmap for collaboration that Brady referenced is comprehensive and was signed by Colombia’s vice minister of defense for policy and international affairs and JIEDDO in April 2013. It encompasses a framework of working groups that assist in the development of solutions to capability gaps such as identifying the need of protective garments and improved detection equipment for Colombian military troops.
The collaboration plan also includes support to sophisticated interagency efforts such as the creation of a national level counter-IED database and the establishment of standard evidence collection procedures that can enable the judiciary process.
Another key line of effort Southcom and JIEDDO are working on with Colombia is in the field of intelligence and data analysis technics. The idea, Brady said, is to leverage each other’s knowledge and expertise to attack the criminal and terrorist networks at their roots.
This effort is a two-way avenue, Brady said, noting that the work DICED, CENAM and others are advancing in Colombia will allow JIEDDO and Southcom to assist partner nations that may face a similar situation.
“Globally, we are seeing an increase in the use of these homemade bombs and their devious emplacement,” he said. “The U.S. has learned a great deal from Colombia about enemy tactics. We now understand their techniques for employment and the nature of the devices. This information is vital to our forces.”
On a recent visit to the United States, Vice Minister of Defense for Policy and International Affairs Jorge Enrique Bedoya Vizcaya met with JIEDDO’s director, Army Lt. Gen. John D. Johnson, and Southcom’s director of theater engagement, Navy Rear Adm. George Ballance, to review the current cooperation efforts and establish major goals for the near future. Crafting a whole-of-government approach by Colombia for counter-IED efforts, developing a centralized Defense Ministry counter-IED organizational structure, and increasing information exchanges to help build capacity in this field are among those goals, officials said.
Earlier this year the U.S. Military Group supported and facilitated the participation of six explosive ordnance disposal and IED experts from the U.S. Navy’s Counter-IED Center of Excellence at Indian Head, Maryland, in an exchange with Colombian forces.
Designed to develop capabilities for evidence and forensic analysis from bombs, the subject-matter expert exchange occurred at the Tolemaida National Training Center, the main Colombian Army training base, and involved the participation of 46 students from the Colombian Public Forces.
Every step taken in this direction, Southcom’s science advisor said, is a step forward in the battle against IEDs and the organizations behind them. Looking at statistics from last year, displayed on a Google-like map of the world, Hurtado pointed out that although the number of IED incidents actually increased in Colombia, the number of casualties shrunk significantly.
“That’s an important improvement,” he said. “Is it related in any way to the combined efforts? It is probably too soon to say, but what I do see is a rise in the discovery of IED caches and the found-and-cleared rate by trained personnel.”
Still, Hurtado said, much remains to be done against a scourge that is constantly evolving to stay relevant and that threatens to spread to other nations in the Western Hemisphere.