On February 13, 2003, US Southern Command contractors were flying a routine counternarcotics aerial surveillance mission over the Colombian jungle when the single engine on their Cessna Grand Caravan failed. Forced to crash-land on a “postage-stamp-sized” jungle clearing in territory controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the five-man crew escaped the wreckage without injury. But their luck immediately turned. FARC guerrillas executed the pilot, Tommy Janis, and Colombian intelligence sergeant Alcides Cruz. They seized the remaining three Americans as captives. More than five years later, Colombian military forces planned and executed a daring raid deep into FARC territory that led to the rescue of the three hostages without a shot being fired.
How did the Colombian military, which received extensive US military assistance in the years prior, pull off this raid? This is an important question given prominent recent cases of US partner forces collapsing spectacularly despite significant US efforts to build their capacity, to include the routing of Iraqi security forces by the Islamic State in 2013–2014 and Afghan forces’ inability to halt current Taliban advances in Afghanistan following the US withdrawal.
Operation Jaque, as the Colombian mission was named, succeeded because of persistent investment by the United States in the Colombian military. Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH)—the theater special operations command (TSOC) within US Southern Command—supervised this advisory effort that dated back to the late 1980s. Though the impressive operation was planned and executed directly by Colombian forces, SOCSOUTH played an important indirect and supporting role in freeing the hostages. Operation Jaque, and the broader partner capacity–building effort in Colombia, provides important lessons on how to conduct a sustainable irregular warfare campaign that will lead to a highly capable partner force able to operate independently after receiving US support.
The TSOC and Persistent Engagement Through Regionally Aligned SOF
TSOCs control nearly all special operations within each geographic combatant command. For US Southern Command, SOCSOUTH is the two-star headquarters that controls special operations logistics, planning, and operational command and control across Latin America. Because many special operations units are regionally aligned, enduring relationships and persistent engagement build trust between partner nations and the United States. As an example of this persistent engagement, Special Forces officer Charlie Cleveland, who coauthored a chapter on TSOCs with me in the recently released Routledge Handbook of U.S. Counterterrorism and Irregular Warfare Operations, first deployed to South America in 1987 and eventually rose to command all special operations in the region almost twenty years later as the SOCSOUTH commander.
Building Colombian Capability Over Decades
When the United States launched Plan Colombia in 2000, SOCSOUTH coordinated the operations of the 7th Special Forces Group and others as they trained the Colombian military on counterdrug operations. Training on tactics and intelligence accompanied organizational reforms and the introduction of new helicopters. Though Plan Colombia comprised a significant new investment in Colombian military capacity, it built on more than a decade of previous SOCSOUTH-coordinated investment in the region.
In an early example, the US Department of State asked the Department of Defense to establish and train antinarcotics police units in many of the Andean Ridge countries of Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela beginning in 1987. A captain at the time, Charlie Cleveland commanded the first Special Forces detachment to deploy. He established a forty-day training course he named Garras de Leopardo, or “Claws of the Leopard,” in Bolivia.
From this initial effort, Special Forces continued to build counternarcotic capacity along the Andean Ridge. In 1989, Special Forces detachments established a similar training program in Peru. By 1992, the United States had greatly expanded the operational employment of special operations forces throughout the region with SOCSOUTH coordinating Special Forces deployments to seventeen Latin American countries for 135 missions. Special operations engagement in Colombia expanded throughout the 1990s and exploded in the early 2000s under Plan Colombia, a $1.3 billion counterdrug program.
The 7th Special Forces Group led much of the training, focused on patrolling, marksmanship, immediate-action drills, land navigation, river crossings, mountaineering, first aid, survival skills, airmobile operations, mission planning, and human rights. This training built a Colombian force capable of the prolonged jungle and air assault operations critical for counternarcotic operations. But training was not limited to operational units.
While tactics were important, good intelligence proved essential. In Bolivia in 1989, Master Sergeant Stan Brown realized that missions most often failed due to faulty or incomplete intelligence as opposed to operational shortfalls by US-trained units. Subsequently, SOCSOUTH improved Bolivia’s intelligence capability with the creation of tactical analysis teams. These ad hoc teams fused tactical intelligence from national, theater, and local assets and their primary mission was to funnel “intelligence support to the host government.”
Most often the teams were comprised of two Special Forces intelligence sergeants. These teams were so successful that they quickly expanded to Colombia and nearly one dozen other Latin American countries. Throughout the 1990s, SOCSOUTH built the intelligence and operational capability in Colombia and along the Andean Ridge.
Yet the Colombian military required more than training. It also required organizational changes. Special Forces teams often adopt a “train-the-trainer” approach that builds a cadre of experts in the partner-nation military who can then train their own force. Unfortunately, this approach proved impossible in Colombia: nearly 70 percent of the Colombian army was composed of draftees on one- to two-year enlistments and the officers and noncommissioned officer ranks were thin, with only three officers in an army battalion. Thus, SOCSOUTH tasked the 7th Special Forces Group to build a professional 938-man counterdrug battalion that included forty-six officers and senior noncommissioned officers. The training course’s culmination exercise included operational patrols in the FARC-controlled jungles outside of the Tres Esquinas Air Base.
Finally, with the adoption of Plan Colombia in 2000, the United States helped the Colombians expand their aviation and airmobile capability with what would eventually be seventy-two helicopters. This support, which included training and maintenance, provided the Colombians the airmobile capability they would need for the counterdrug mission.
In all, American aid and training built new Colombian counterdrug capabilities critical during Operation Jaque. The new and professional counternarcotic battalion was trained and ready, while the fleet of new helicopters ensured they could reach remote sites across Colombia’s mountainous terrain. But most critically, Colombian intelligence identified an opportunity for a truly unique special operation.
Operation Jaque: Success in the Indirect Approach
After the Cessna crashed in the jungle in 2003, SOCSOUTH and Colombia together focused on rescuing the hostages despite intelligence challenges. Twice, SOCSOUTH deployed forward, but found only frustration. Immediately after the crash, Brigadier General Remo Butler, the SOCSOUTH commander, deployed with a small planning staff to mount a recovery operation should the opportunity arise. Unfortunately, the trail went cold and SOCSOUTH returned to the United States. Then, in July 2005, the US Embassy Intelligence Fusion Center developed a lead on the American hostages. While the intelligence did not pan out, SOCOUTH planners came to realize they lacked the operational capability to act on time-sensitive intelligence.
As a result, Cleveland, now a brigadier general who had taken command of SOCSOUTH the previous month, launched a three-year campaign to build joint capacity, plans, and mutual trust by establishing a small headquarters in Colombia. Over time, this forward team developed rescue plans with their Colombian counterparts.
Finally, in 2008, the three-year effort paid off. In January, signals intelligence indicated that the hostages would soon move. Operations commenced in earnest. Over the next two months, the SOCSOUTH-forward team and Colombian Special Operations Command deployed ten Colombian and five US-Colombian reconnaissance teams to the jungle. In February, a Colombian reconnaissance team identified the Americans bathing in a stream, providing the third proof of life since their capture. Unfortunately, the FARC moved the captives before a rescue mission could be launched.
Over the next three months, Operation Jaque took shape. It was a risky operation, but Cleveland and the US ambassador both recommended that Admiral James Stavridis, the US Southern Command commander, sanction the operation. After working with the Colombians over the past three years, and especially closely over the past few months, Cleveland was confident in their ability to pull off the daring operation. Mutual trust had been developed during the planning over the previous three years and during combined operations in the jungle during the previous months.
Operation Jaque was built on an elaborate deception plan. In January and February of 2008, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez had arranged the release of FARC hostages as a humanitarian gesture. Both missions included Mi-17 helicopters, doctors, nurses, and Telesur television journalists. These hostage releases provided an opportunity for Operational Jaque.
By penetrating the FARC’s communications, the Colombians duped “the FARC into collecting the VIP hostages to attend an international propaganda video with their new commander, Alfonso Cano.” The Colombians convinced Gerardo Aguilar Ramírez, the FARC leader who held the hostages, that he was to board a helicopter with the hostages to meet with Cano.
On July 2, 2008, the FARC fell for the ruse. The recently purchased Colombian Mi-17 helicopter, repainted in the “international search and rescue colors” of red and white, landed outside the rebel camp. Not only did the helicopter look similar to the one used by the Venezuelans only months prior, but so did the crew and passengers. The passengers included Colombian soldiers posing as doctors, nurses, a Telesur television team with a camera, and FARC guerillas from Cano’s camp.
The FARC captors loaded the hostages onboard the helicopter and then boarded for what they thought would be a short flight to Cano’s rebel camp. But once the helicopter was airborne, the Colombian forces quickly subdued Ramírez and his bodyguard, the only FARC guerrillas that were armed. Among the fifteen hostages were the three American crew members.
After 1,967 days in captivity, they were finally free. Weeks later, the rescued Americans served as guests of honor at Cleveland’s change of command at Homestead Air Force Base. Cleveland’s three-year effort that began with the establishment of the SOCSOUTH-forward team in July 2005 had paid off.
Two Key Lessons for Irregular Warfare
First, successful irregular warfare operations often require long-term investment. Investment in the Andean Ridge started in the late 1980s but did not pay dividends until the 2000s. By the late 1990s, the FARC was so strong that some analysts believed the group would be capable of achieving victory in five years. The group nearly doubled in size between 1997 and 2004. Yet the US investment paid off with the hostage recovery in 2008 and a peace accord in 2016, both seemingly unfathomable only years prior. Building partner capacity takes time.
In addition to US efforts in Colombia, the Routledge Handbook of U.S. Counterterrorism and Irregular Warfare Operations examines a number of other irregular warfare cases. Overall, cases where investment is long-term and persistent are more likely to succeed, such as in El Salvador and the Philippines. By contrast, the episodic nature of support in Yemen proved ineffective.
Second, success in irregular warfare is often measured by how little assistance is required. The Colombians planned and executed Operation Jaque with little assistance from the Americans. In fact, US officials were not notified of the full plan until late June, only days before its execution. But the fact that the United States was not directly involved with the mission planning does not mean America’s irregular warfare efforts were not a success. Quite the opposite, the hallmark of true irregular warfare is building host-nation or indigenous forces capable of executing unilateral operations.
US Army Special Forces Major Russ Ames best summarized the operation when he remarked, “The highest praise for a [foreign internal defense] effort is when the host nation achieves a level of capability, that, when combined with their local knowledge and language, makes them more effective than [the United States] could ever hope to be. . . . This is the holy grail of Special Forces work.”
In Afghanistan, this was the goal—to move from US-led to Afghan-led operations. But this transition likely came too late. If recent decades are any indicator of the future, irregular warfare is not going away. To be most effective, the United States must maintain persistent engagement. If they do their job well, the TSOCs serve a critical role in facilitating this persistent engagement and providing policymakers with options once crises arise.
Retired Colonel Liam Collins is a fellow with New America and a permanent member with the Council on Foreign Relations. He was the founding director of the Modern War Institute and former director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. He holds a PhD from Princeton University. He is the coeditor of the Routledge Handbook of U.S. Counterterrorism and Irregular Warfare Operations. You can read more about Plan Colombia and Operation Jaque in two chapters from the handbook: “Theater Special Operations Command: The Operational Employment of U.S. Special Operations Forces” and “Plan Colombia and the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group.”
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: US Army Special Operations Command History Office