In October 2017, Hurricane Matthew devastated the island nation of Haiti. Nearly 1,000 people were reported killed and parts of the island were as much as 90 percent destroyed. In response, the Colombian Navy loaded an offshore patrol vessel, ARC 7 de Agosto, with 20 tons of medical and humanitarian supplies and an urban search and rescue team and sent it to support the Haitian government. The timeline is significant because Colombia had just negotiated a historic peace settlement with the FARC-EP, or Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia–Ejército del Pueblo, the largest insurgent group in the country’s long-running internal conflict. Only days before ARC 7 de Agosto sailed for Haiti, the Colombian peace deal was narrowly defeated in a national referendum. It would be renegotiated and passed by the Colombian congress in November of that year. Even though it was far from the first time that Colombia had supported multinational operations and participated in humanitarian missions, it was a clear sign that Colombia’s increasingly secure domestic situation would allow the armed forces, particularly the Colombian Navy, to become more active in ensuring the security of the region beyond the borders of Colombia.
Geographically, Colombia is a maritime nation with long coastlines in the Caribbean and the Pacific, but historically it has not been treated as such. Even though Colombia’s navy can trace its lineage to the 1832 Battle of Lake Maracaibo, the modern Colombian Navy dates to its reestablishment in the 1930s after a brief war with Peru in the Amazon. Colombia has long been dominated by the interior and cities in the Andean region, like Medellín, Cali, and the capital, Bogotá. The long-running insurgency in Colombia forced the government to focus defense resources on the capabilities most relevant in the fight against communist guerrillas and narco-traffickers. Even foreign military assistance like the US-Colombia “Plan Colombia” focused almost completely on army and air force development. However, geographically, Colombia is one of the world’s relatively few bi-oceanic states, with major ports and thousands of kilometers of coastline on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. Extended around territorial islands, Colombia’s Exclusive Economic Zone is almost as large as the country’s landmass and nearly surrounds both sides of the Panama Canal. The Colombian Navy is also responsible for the security of the country’s 18,000 kilometers of navigable rivers.
Colombia is already involved in security in the Caribbean and beyond. Regionally, Colombia is well-respected. It enjoys a strong relationship with Panama, Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil, cooperating with all of them on either maritime or riverine security issues. Colombia is a NATO partner, and has deployed naval vessels in support of NATO operations off the coast of Africa. Colombia has trained hundreds of international students from other Caribbean and Central American countries in some of its navy and marine corps schools, and is looking to further expand those offerings. The country also boasts a United Nations-certified demining school in Coveñas, on the Caribbean coast. In addition, Colombia has a long history of participation in multinational exercises like the United States-led RIMPAC and UNITAS, and has a strong, mutually beneficial relationship with the United States. In the United States Southern Command, a Colombian general heads the J7/9 directorate for exercises and coalition activities, and a Colombian officer has deployed as part of a US Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force as the deputy commander. But most significant is the growing leadership role Colombia is taking in regional security. Operación Orión is a recurring multinational counter-narcotics operation that has involved as many as 25 different countries and is led and coordinated by the Colombian Navy.
Recently, Hurricane Iota ravaged parts of Central America and passed almost directly over the Colombian islands of Providencia and San Andrés. The Colombian military was quick to respond, with the navy in the lead. The Colombian Navy quickly sent several vessels loaded with marines and aid for the islands, including its first employment of an amphibious landing craft away from the Colombian coastline; the craft was loaded with trucks, heavy machinery, and construction equipment. While the ongoing support and disaster relief operation was domestic in nature, the San Andrés and Providencia islands are over 400 miles from the Colombian coastline and the navy’s ability to rapidly and effectively respond to a disaster there showcases the kind of support that the Colombian Navy could offer to other countries in the region after similar disasters.
Today, Colombia is poised to take an even greater role in the Caribbean region, and likely globally as it prioritizes closer ties with NATO. The country enjoys a dramatically more secure domestic environment than it did 30, 20, or even 10 years ago. It will increasingly become a security exporter in the region, and will do so at a time when a strong regional navy can have a strong stabilizing effect. Unusually extreme weather is increasingly common in the Caribbean, and as the region’s population swells, humanitarian crises will continue to require multinational responses. Venezuela is increasingly a force of instability in the region, as well, and illegal narcotics trafficking has remained relatively persistent despite long-term efforts to combat it.
In its long-term strategy, Plan De Desarrollo Naval 2024, the Colombian Navy intends to grow its capability, replacing all of its aging frigates with new, domestically built vessels and replacing the submarine fleet. Perhaps most importantly, the Colombian Navy is investing in manned and unmanned aerial surveillance. Surveillance is especially important in the Caribbean and the Eastern Pacific because the intelligence it creates can be easily shared among states and leveraged for interdicting illicit maritime movements. At the same time, the Colombian Navy is also making prudent investments in personnel; since 2017 it has received accreditation for both the naval academy and the navy non-commissioned officer school. It is in the process of receiving accreditation for the marine non-commissioned officer school and expanding post-graduate education opportunities at the naval academy as well as continuing to professionalize the non-commissioned officer corps across the navy.
A more muscular and engaged Colombian Navy in the Caribbean will pay dividends for the region and can help displace some United States and European nations that routinely patrol the Caribbean and use naval forces to support their former colonial possessions. A robust Colombian Navy can share some of the burden in the region that is currently carried by extra-regional navies and help develop the maritime services of smaller nations. If regional navies like Colombia’s increase their involvement in international issues like drug trafficking, some of these high-end assets can be redeployed where they are more needed, like the Pacific or the Persian Gulf.
It remains to be seen if the Colombian government will fully fund the Colombian Navy’s plans for the next decade. Increasing instability in Venezuela and the inevitable military spending cuts in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic may draw resources away from Colombia’s navy. However, the navy has used its capabilities for highly visible humanitarian missions within Colombia and has remained engaged with regional partners. It is still clear that the Colombian Navy will continue to be a regional anchor in the southern Caribbean and a primary contributor to regional maritime security. To this end, Colombia’s most important tool has been their sustained engagement with other nations in the region, and it will continue to be; Colombia is not only a contributor individually, but it can be an integrator in a multinational construct. With continuing investment, the Colombian Navy can be an increasingly important player in the Caribbean and the Eastern Pacific and a model for maritime leadership globally.
Walker D. Mills is a US Marine currently stationed in Cartagena, Colombia. He holds a master’s degree in International Relations and Contemporary War from King’s College London and is a student at the Center for Homeland Security and Defense master’s program at the United States Naval Postgraduate School.