Colombian air force Col. Donall Tascon, left, discusses flight procedure… (Chris Kraul / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Melgar, Colombia — Before his helicopter training run, Mexican air force Lt. Isaac Garcia got some pointers from battle-hardened chopper jockey Col. Donall Tascon of Colombia.
Garcia knew that Tascon taught classes during the day and sometimes flew dangerous missions against leftist rebels at night, and that he had chalked up 2,500 hours of flight time, much of it on special operations and perilous rescue missions. He didn't have to be told that for the Colombian pilot, fighting a drug war was anything but an academic exercise.
"We have a lot to learn from Colombia. We're now going through what they have experienced for the last 20 years," the 27-year-old Garcia said later of the drug-fueled violence plaguing Mexico. "What Colombian pilots know about night missions, flying over difficult terrain, and participating in joint task forces is invaluable to us."
Garcia, who says Colombia's history gives its pilots and trainers a unique credibility, is one of 18 Mexican helicopter pilots undergoing training at a Colombian air base two hours southwest of Bogota, the capital. The curriculum includes special operations, rescue missions, weaponry and battle tactics.
Colombia, as part of a regional counter-narcotics push, is helping train the armed forces of Mexico and 13 other Latin American and Caribbean nations, many of which receive U.S. financial assistance.
Garcia's 32-week helicopter training course, for example, costs about $75,000 per pilot, officials said, and is funded through the Merida Initiative anti-drug aid the U.S. provides Mexico.
In addition to pilot training, Colombia instructs others in skills such as conducting criminal investigations, processing intelligence and deploying soldiers in jungle warfare.
Instruction sites vary from Afghanistan to an isolated spot about 300 miles south of Melgar at the Puerto Leguizamo marine base on Colombia's border with Peru. Colombian instructors there will soon show 45 sailors and soldiers from 11 countries how to pilot high-speed and heavily armed river patrol boats, said Colombian marine Gen. Rafael Colón.
Other countries, including Peru to Guatemala, see value in Colombia's experience fighting the insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and drug gangs. Many are confronting similar scourges.
"Southern Colombia is the perfect classroom, and has all the ingredients: a porous tripartite river border with the presence of the FARC, illegal crops, and illicit traffic in arms and money," Colón said. "Countries come to learn and exchange ideas."
Colombia has benefited from Plan Colombia, the $7-billion U.S. aid package that has been decisive in modernizing and reshaping the military forces of a nation that a few years ago seemed on the verge of becoming a narco state.
In an interview, Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera said the main motive for offering training is strategic: to strengthen the region against criminal bands and rebel groups trafficking narcotics and terrorism. But he didn't deny that neighboring countries are attracted to the cost advantages of Colombian training.
Tascon, commander of the Combat Air Command base in Melgar, said that providing Garcia's pilot training at the U.S. Army's helicopter flight school at Ft. Rucker in Alabama might cost as much as $120,000.
Rivera said the Defense Ministry is creating a new agency to manage the increasing demand for training and market a "portfolio" of counter-narcotics and anti-terrorism instruction.
"It will have a budget funded by Colombians but also by allies, including the United States, with an interest in this type of cooperation," he said.
Colombia's pilot training role is expected to grow soon with Connecticut-based Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., the manufacturer of Black Hawk helicopters, planning to build a flight simulation training center that would open in early 2012.
"Air power, the use of helicopters, made the difference in Colombia gaining the upper hand," Tascon said. "Other countries recognize how decisive it is and naturally want to learn from us."
Kraul is a special correspondent.