Photo by Hans-Máximo Musielik
For nine days in July, the United States military sponsored dozens of elite Latin American soldiers and police from 17 countries for a "friendly competition" at the enormous Tolemaida military base in Colombia.Dubbed Fuerzas Comando, it's basically the Olympics for special operations teams in the Western Hemisphere, and it serves as a showcase for the billions of dollars America has given to Latin American countries in recent years to battle drug cartels and guerrilla organizations.
Throughout Central and South America - territory that the Miami-based US Southern Command considers its "area of responsibility" - US trainers are "professionalizing" special ops forces so that they are better prepared, military authorities say, to face threats like drug-trafficking organizations, guerrillas, and paramilitaries.The world's largest naval exercise, RIMPAC 2014, in photos. See them here.The commandos in training are not "trainees." In this scenario, they are "partners," and they are facing asymmetrical threats that the US in theory wishes to avoid confronting itself.Fuerzas Comando was organized by US Southern Command's special-ops component, SOCSOUTH. Belize, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad & Tobago, and Uruguay all participated, as did Canada and the US.More notable, perhaps, were the countries that did not participate. Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Mexico did not send teams to this year's competition. Each has had frosty or outright hostile relations with the United States in recent years."The invitation is open," SOCSOUTH operations chief and US Army Lieutenant Colonel Ricardo Bautista told VICE News during Fuerzas Comando. "Because of political reasons, not all countries participate, but the invite is definitely sent to all the countries, from Mexico on down."
The events in the competition tested teams' endurance, skill, and training in events that included a firing range estimation, an obstacle course, a rucksack march, stalk and shoot scenarios, and aquatics.Watch out for the VICE News "War Games" documentary on Fuerzas Comando 2014, coming soon.All photos and captions by Hans-Máximo Musielik
International judges evaluate a sniper team's performance during a firing range estimation test. The snipers are given targets at different distances and limited ammunition, and are timed.*
After a long nighttime march, a competitor from Paraguay lays exhausted at the finish line. During the event, each participant carries a 40-pound backpack, as well as their personal gear and weapons, for about 12 miles.*
Costa Rica advances during the nocturnal foot march; they must all cross the finish line as a team. Judges and security officials run along side them.*
A spotter and sniper from Paraguay during a marksmanship test.*
The view through a judge's observation telescope during the marksmanship test.*
A monument to Colombia's special forces inside the Tolemaida base.*
A competitor from Peru drags "Francisco," a 155-pound dummy that simulates an injured companion. The judge in front of him eggs him on. Each individual team member must complete the exercise.*
The Belize team prepares for the aquatic test: Carrying an inflatable boat about 1,000 feet to a dock on a lake, which they then paddle across. Once they reach the other side, they run several miles to a different lake, which they swim across wearing 40-pound backpacks. Then they run to a firing range where, despite their exhaustion, they must accurately hit targets.
The Colombian competitor speaks only Spanish, the Jamaican only English, so the two communicate by using the few words they know in each other's language.*
The Belize team rowing during the aquatic event.*
Members of the Kaibiles, the special operations force from Guatemala, cross a lake wearing 40-pound backbacks.*
Paratroopers practicing for a judged jump they'll make later in the week.*
A Colombian soldier crawls toward a snipers' test.*
A participant aims at a target on the firing range while judges look on. Accuracy is not easy after dragging Francisco.*
Colombian soldiers do the wave.*
A soldier struggles across a ropes course.*
Esteban Santos (right), Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos's son - and a paratrooper himself - cheers on the home team.*
At the indoor firing range, participants must quickly differentiate between kidnappers and hostages, and fire accordingly.*
Members of the Honduran army's elite unit, known as TESONs, prepare for a jump.*
A C-130 Hercules from the West Virginia National Guard releases paratroopers during the friendship jump.*
Two rainbows appear as soldiers from the sponsoring country and the host country wave the US and Colombian flags.*
Cameramen film the closing ceremony alongside a sniper.*
The Colombian army's banda de guerra form up during the closing ceremonies.*
The Colombian team raises the Fuerzas Comando 2014 champion's cup. This is the sixth time Colombia has been crowned the winner.Watch 'Israeli Urban Warfare,' part of the VICE News documentary series War Games.