An unprecedented account of the Lancero course in counterinsurgency warfare in Colombia, translated below, was published in March 2006 in Paris Match. -- The 3,000-word account, accompanied in the magazine by 11 photographs and on TV by a documentary on France 2's "Envoyé spécial" program, is apparently enthusiastic and approving in tone. -- It makes no connections to the School of the Americas or the infamous history of counterinsurgency warfare as developed and practiced by the U.S. national security state, and only once alludes to the huge natural gas fields in Colombia that are the real reason U.S. forces are present in Colombia. -- But an undercurrent of criticism runs through Patrick Forestier's account, undercutting the official rationale (training soldiers to resist) and embracing a different characterization of the goal of the training: the transformation of men, through "brainwashing" and the "exhaustion method," into "zombies." -- The training, conducted in part in Tolemaida, and in part in Amazonia, includes an exercise, supervised by an American officer, simulating a hostage-taking of trainees (mostly soldiers in the Colombian army and from other South American countries, but including American and French military as well). -- Taken to a mock-up of a FARC camp, the trainees are beaten, tortured, and interrogated. -- A Capt. Gonzalez of the 7th Special Forces Group supervises the hellish training, and tells journalist Patrick Forestier that the U.S. runs similar extreme training courses, albeit secretly. -- As for the torture, Forestier notes: "In the American army, and perhaps in Guantanamo and the CIA's secret prisons, it seems that these same methods are used to make presumed members of al-Qaeda talk." ...
[Translated from Paris Match]
COMMANDOS TO THE LIMIT
By Patrick Forestier
** With the "trainees" of the extreme in Amazonia **
** Four Frenchmen, two Legionnaires and two Marsouins [marine infantry], take the toughest commando training course in the world for 73 days in Columbia. Objective: whatever it takes, to make it through the worst sort of treatment. The soldiers risk their lives in several "tests of confidence" that are forbidden in the French army because they're too dangerous. Prisoners in a secret Amazonian camp, the Frenchmen also have to endure interrogations supervised by an officer of the American special forces that are quite similar to those practiced at Guantanamo and in the C.I.A.'s secret prisons. Only those who are not physically and psychologically broken obtain the "Lancero" diploma. An unusual document that will soon be broadcast on France 2's "Envoyé spécial." **
March 9-15, 2006
"Remember," yells the private, "we're fighting to dismantle the narco-terrorist organizations that are destroying Columbia: The ELN, the National Liberation Army, the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and common criminals. You're all responsible for liberating our country!" Facing him, the future "lanceros" are listening, standing at attention. The four French soldiers are alseep on their feet, their eyes half closed, unsteady from exhaustion. Night and day they perform exercises. It's here in Tolemaida, 120 km from Bogota, the capital, that the world's toughest commando training takes place. It lasts 73 days. The objective: whatever it takes, to make it through and become a lancer. The name of the course, the only one of its kind in the world, was created in 1955, and is an homage to the Lanceros, a group of armed lance cavalry that in 1819 under the command of Simon Bolivar participated in a glorious battle in the campaign for the liberation of Colombia. The first Colombian instructors were sent to Fort Benning, in the United States, to take the Rangers' training course. Today, they train the commandos fighting the guérilleros who are holding hostage Franco-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt.
Except for a battalion of 300 men, the lanceros do not have a constituted regiment. At the end of the training, they are disseminated into the best combat units. Bolivian, Equatorian, and Panamanian soldiers undergo this unusual training. Only two northern hemisphere countries participate in it: the United States and France, sending troops there who are already experienced. The head command in French Guyana sends to Colombia its best soldiers, already skilled in jungle fighting. These are men who are super-trained physically, but who are also highly motivated, since the pressure put on them for two and a half months is enormous, as close as can be to real combat conditions.
Four French soldiers have just participated in this training: two *marsouins* [marine infantry], Capt. Christophe Degand and Staff Sergeant Freddy Phalampin of the 9th marine infantry regiment. With them, two "Legionnaires" from the 3rd foreign infantry regiment: Staff Sergeant Jacques Riesen and Sergeant Jeannus Richter, a big Polish fellow who complains like a Frenchman. The objective: to acquire the Colombian commandos' best techniques and know-how so as then to teach them to French soldiers. The method: to push psychic resistance to extreme limits.
BRAINWASHING AND THE STRATEGY OF EXHAUSTION
In the camp, the interns are mistreated by "tacticos," instructors who inflict penalties or reward the soldiers with points. With the lanceros, everything can be graded and punished. You have to get 70% of the points in each of the phases, or no diploma. This morning's exercise: how to invest a house suspected of harboring guérilleros. Further off, the enemy is supposed to be dug into a shelter. You have to wipe it out with three cartridges. The shooting uses real bullets. "It's a cross between a sect and a prisoner camp here," whispers Staff Sgt. Phalampin, with a wry smile. "They took away our watches so we'd never know what time it is," adds Sgt. Richter. "Our bags are searched to see whether we're hiding food and medicine."
Indeed, among the lanceros there can be no lapse in the iron discipline. The slightest slip-up, the smallest delay are punished by series of push-ups. Or else you have to "act the buffoon," which means holding one's weapons at arm's length as you jump up and down a few dozen times. This sort of punishment is repeated all day long under the heat of the sun. The pupils are exhausted. The Galil, an Israeli-made rifle, weighs about ten kilos, and it's often over 95 degrees. It's so bad that Richter collapses, for water is rationed. Fatigue, lack of sleep, food above all, in portions with few calories, bring down even the toughest. The French soldiers are always hungry. But the goal is to learn to fight on an empty stomach. The students have also to surmount several extremely dangerous confidence tests. Whoever refuses one or fails is immediately eliminated. The "leap of death" from a cliff into a raging river, a 200-meter "roulette" with no security above the rocks: suspended from a pully that rolls on a cable, the lancer hits the water at more than 40 miles an hour. In every case, the goal is to test the valor, the personal courage of each individual.
THE LEAP OF DEATH
The most terrible confidence test is the "leap of death." Before getting into trucks, the instructors blindfold all the students, then head in the direction of Girardot, 50 km from the Tolemaida camp. Under the tarp it's 104 degrees and the rate of humidity is 100%. It's night when they get there. They gather in an abandoned factory lit by torches. The yellow eagle, the lanceros' emblem, decorates the walls. "Remember that we're fighing to exterminate all the terrorist groups that are rotting our country as well as the rest of the world," a security officer hammers home. "This test is mandatory, but it's voluntary. But you have to pass it to earn the title of lancero! If a pupil declines, he'll be eliminated immediately!" Still with eyes blindfolded, the French are led onto an iron footbridge thrown across the Magdalena, the great river that runs through Colombia. "Blind," the interns don't know they're walking over a 100-foot abyss. Capt. Degand goes first. "You think you're gonna die? You're afraid? mocks an instructor. "You have to represent with pride the French Republic," he bawls at Riesen. "I want you to yell in French like the gods of the French Legion." Riesen climbs over the guardrail of the bridge, firmly held by the instructors. "Follow carefully the superstructure," he repeats to the Frenchman, who understands only a few words of Spanish. Upon hearing "Lanceros!" the junior officer jumps, roping down, bouncing with his feet on a steel beam while yelling: "Legio patria nostra," the Legion's slogan. Now he's hanging by a rope over the river, turbulent as the Rhône in flood. Blind, he descends into the darkness, not knowing that the cord, too short, stops about 15 meters above the water. Suddenly the Legionnaire feels the cord disappear in his hands. He drops into the water like a stone.
Now it's Richter's turn to throw himself into the abyss while shouting as loud "Lanceros" as loud he can. On the bridge, the instructors are delighted. "He's a real legionnaire," they shout. It's 11 at night, but Lt.-Col. Murcia has made the trip. A former intern and instructor, this officer was the leader of several combat units before taking command of the school. "I'm very proud. It's an honor," the infantry officer confides. It's important to him to supervise the "leap into the unknown" himself. Two lanceros have already been drowned in earlier years while undergoing this dangerous ordeal. "Among us," an officer explains, "a solider who's a lancero is respected because his readiness and sense of duty are very high." Once in the water, the danger for the French is that of disappearing as they drift. Every soldier has removed his blindfold and has to grap a cord stretched across the river, further down. A difficult maneuver in the midst of branches that get in the way. Riesen does well. Once on the bank, a nurse checks his heart. Then punishes him so he'll learn to take even more! For the legionnaire, the test is not finished. He's collared by a sergeant. "Do thirty push-ups!" he tells him. Now the Frenchman's strength is running out. It's 2 a.m., but Lt. Jaimes couldn't care less. He has to push his pupils to exhaustion. In the abandoned factory, the solders have collapsed on the ground, soaked to the bone and drunk with exhaustion. Since the beginning of the training, they've been sleeping two or three hours a night. So as soon as they can, they recuperate. . . . and avoid wondering about this artillery training.
REAL GRENADES ON THEIR BELTS
At daybreak, the French soldiers leave in a truck for the mountains that loom above Tolemaida. In the midst of pastures and banana plantations are burning the flares from several natural gas fields watched over by the army. They're all targets for FARC, which is prowling about the area. Like the other lanceros, the French soldiers are armed with real bullets and carry real grenades on their belts. The perimeter is protected, since the FARC are nearby. Their zone begins at the next village, after Campo Guado. "We have some intelligence. We have to keep our eyes open," a young sergeant whispers to me. Raids, ambushes -- the operations never stop. The students are harrassed several times a day by the Ayacucho unit, which pretends it's the enemy. Diarrhea, vomiting, wounds: given the humidity, the slightest scratch can turn into a serious infection. Capt. Degand has been stung by some big ants. Then he fell on his elbow, which is now swollen and bright red. By the time two months have gone by, everyone's nerves are on edge. All the French soldiers have a single desire: make it to the end no matter what happens. They're not alone.
Two U.S. Army Rangers are also taking the training. Staff Sgt. Felix Morales is 28 years old. He comes from Fort Benning. But the one with the most experience is Staff Sgt. Jason Condé, 29, from Fort Lewis's 75th Ranger Regiment. "I've already been to Iran and Afghanistan," he tells me. "But the training here is at a different level. I'm doing it to improve myself and move up in rank. For me, it's a new school with its own techniques and a different style." The day before, Jason passed out. Heatstroke. Today, he's complaining about his stomach. A Colombian private takes advantage of this to put pressure on him. That's the way the game is played. "You wanna go home?" asks the South American. "Get on back to New York!" The American says nothing. "He's sick, but he says he'll be better today. We'll see," shouts the Colombian, trying to destabilize a bit more the Ranger, who grits his teeth. Throwing in the towel is out of the question. Already last year, the two American interns dropped out. Jason has his pride....
WATCH OUT FOR VIPERS, SWALLOW GRUBS
The last days of training are the hardest. They take place in Leticia, right in the heart of Amazonia. Till now, no journalist had ever been authorized to cover this phase. Out of context, it could seem too degrading. As soon as back door of the Hercules C-130 opens, the heat is overwhelming. Lt. Col. Murcia got here first. He's accompanied by Capt. Gonzalez, an American army officer born in Puerto Rico, who belongs to the 7th Special Forces Group, the one in charge of South America. "I spent two years in Panama. In 1989, I participated in Noriega's overthrow. I was an executive officer there and commanded a squad." Capt. Gonzales is one of 800 American military advisers in Colombia. For the past 18 months he has been an instructor with the lanceros. His next mission: in Afghanistan, hunting the Taliban and al-Qaeda on the Pakistan border. "They need people over there," he says. "It's an emergency. After the jungle, the desert will be a change!" By the side of the road leading to the port, the wanted posters for FARC leaders are pasted on a huge sign. As soon as they arrive on the banks of the Amazon River, they board two navy shuttles. On board, each lancero is blindfolded and hooded. The rest of the trip doesn't promise anything good. After an hour, the boats land on a deserted island. "We have arrived in hell," a Colombian trainee says. Here, the first danger is the snakes. An American reservist of Colombian origin gives a course on reptiles. "With Colombia's vipers, you don't die in a few days, you die in a few hours," he says. We spend the first night in the rain. As dawn breaks, the French soldiers' morale is down to zero. It's hot, but they're cold. Because of the humidity, their hands are withered and cadaverous. Here, they get no rations, but breakfast on enormous palm-tree grubs still wriggling but, so they say, stuffed with vitamins. Every soldiers has to swallow one raw. Some throw up, others hold their noses. Only the French soldiers do it right: they swallow the animal whole. They've already eaten grubs in French Guyana. Little by little, both the French and the Colombians are growing weaker. As they board a cattle barge, they don't realize they're falling into a trap. "From now on, you're going to do what I tell you," says a Colombian officer. "Put your shirts over your heads," he adds, ordering his men to tie each soldier's hands and tie them all to a rope. Suddenly the "trainers" put on FARC insignia. The scene couldn't be more true to life. In fact, guérilleros really do sometimes wear soldiers' uniforms when they carry out raids. "We're basing this on Cali hostage taking, where the FARC kidnapped several legislators by disguising themselves this way before boarding a bus," Maj. Alferez explains to me. The trainees are hostages. Just like thousands of Colombians held in the jungle by the revolutionaries. This traffic earns the Marxist guerrillas 37 million euros a year.
TURNING MEN INTO ZOMBIES
Once aboard, the insults and the first acts of violence begin. "Thieves, assassins, government puppets," shout the soldiers disguised as guérilleros. "We're going to see if your army can get you out of here. The first one who moves gets killed!" "Get moving," yells the second-in-command, hitting the trainees as they head into the jungle. They've all lost their bearings. None of them dare fight back. Covertly, the American captain directs the maneuver. The column arrives at a fenced-in area, the reconstitution of a FARC base where guérilleros hold hostages. With barbed wire, watch towers, loudspeakers, it looks like a concentration camp. In between revolutionary speeches, you hear babies crying, women shouting. The sound is turned way up to drive the hostages crazy. Inside, it's hell, or, in any case, something resembling it. Here, the one hundred trainees are treated like animals, as is sometimes the case for FARC hostages, several of whom have died in captivity. At night, they're stuffed into cages where each one has to stay in numbered positions. Acts of humiliation, blows, insults, the whole arsenal of breaking down the mind. Riesen, the French soldier, is no more than a shadow of his former self. His jailers have taken away his belt. The Legionnaire is holding up his pants to keep from being naked. To make him realize that no one can help him, they make him repeat: "I'm alone! I'm alone!" It's up to him to manage his stress. The goal is for him to resist interrogation. "Your name? What unit do you belong to? How many French are with you?" Inside, the head of the "torturers" is Capt. Gonzalez. It's an astonishing role-playing game. An American officer disguised as a Marxist revolutionary interrogating a French soldier! "If you don't tell me what I want to know, you'll be killed," a Colombian yells into the ears of the Frenchman, who, blindfolded, no longer knows what's going on. With every blow of an electric billy club, the legionnaire starts. An extreme form of training, but one that is hyper-realistic, because to be a lancero is to be prepared for this sort of torture. "We use physical pressure on the students," the American officer explains, "but in their psychological state, these pressures seem tougher to them than they really are." It's Richter's turn to be tortured. He's nothing more than a puppet, but the ordeal continues. The goal: that he learn to resist, the key word of this incredible training. In the American army, and perhaps in Guantanamo and the CIA's secret prisons, it seems that these same methods are used to make presumed members of al-Qaeda talk. "Do you have similar training courses in the United States?" I ask the American captain. "Yes!" he replies. "They're secret courses. We don't have the right to say more." It's at night that the trainees suffer the most. With the sound of the loudspeakers turned all the way up, "they have to get used to keeping a clear head if they're captured by terrorists," Lt. Rianio tells me. "They have to proect their men's lives no matter what. That's the only thing we want here. They all have to learn to resist."
The third day is the day of liberation. Helicopter, explosions. The bullets are blanks, but the scenario is as realistic as possible. For the "prisoners," it's a real deliverance. The French soldiers seem somewhere else, indifferent, still disoriented by the ordeal they have just undergone. The prisoners leave the camp like automatons. They're all broken. "They tortured us, they gave us nothing to eat or drink," sais Jason, the Ranger. "As soon as they saw we were trying to escape, they beat us up," Riesen adds. "I didn't think they'd go that far. With us, no training is pushed that much to the extreme," Richter, clearly shaken, whispers to me. But the trainees' ordeal is not over. To eat a real meal, they have to wait, their stomachs empty, in the heat of the sun. Phalampin, one of the French soldiers, passes out. They put him on an IV, but has return to duty quickly or he'll be eliminated from the training. To conclude, Lt. Silva doesn't bother with analysis: "What you lived through in this camp is over," he tells them. "We cannot rule out the possibility of your finding yourself in a similar situation in the jungle when you carry out an operation in hostile territory," an officer admits, however. But all the French soldiers passed the training. Now they're lanceros, and are now teaching jungle fighting to soldiers stationed in French Guyana. Without, however, taking realism so far psychologically, for the civil war context in which the Colombian army is evolving is unlike those in which French soldiers are engaged.
[PHOTO CAPTIONS: Page 31: In the "prisoners' camp," the trainees are interrogated in a group of huts. Here, a Colombian pupil is taken out manu militari by an instructor disguised as a guérillero. Pages 32-33: 1. The four French soldiers in the camp. 2. Because of the lack of sleep, the pupils fall asleep during theory courses. 3. An instructor blindfolds Capt. Degand before a confidence test. 4. The Colombian instructors wear guerilleros' outfits to fool the trainees. 5. The pupils are transported to a deserted island aboard a navy shuttle. Page 34: 1. This pupil has fallen, but he'll have to get up or he'll be eliminated. 2. Staff Sgt. Phalampin receives an IV after fainting. 3. The pupils are taken blindfolded out to be interrogated. 4. Sgt. Richter is interrogated by instructors. 5. Like real hostages, the trainees are tied and walk Indian file with their shirts over their heads.]
Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
Home page: http://www.plu.edu/~jensenmk/