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Brazilian policeman Noberto Aviles regrets not getting fitter before coming to Colombia. “I didn’t prepare myself physically enough,” Aviles pants, as he grabs a breather in the canteen at Colombia’s main police training centre, a three-hour drive south of Bogotá. So far this morning Aviles has gone on a brisk 5km run, been put through several fitness drills and has been forced to do countless push-ups – all before breakfast. “It’s more difficult than I’d imagined,” he says.

Aviles is one of 107 young police officers and soldiers from 12 Latin American countries taking part in a commando course run by the Colombian anti-narcotics police’s elite Jungla, or Jungle, squad. Set up by Britain’s SAS in 1989 to create a special force to combat drug trafficking in Colombia, the 526-strong Jungla commandos are now passing on their battle-hardened experience of fighting leftist guerrilla armies and drug cartels to police from across Latin America.

In a lush valley, the 4,700 hectare training site – complete with two lakes, a tower from where recruits learn how to descend by rope from helicopters and experimental fields planted with 14 different varieties of coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine – will be home to the recruits over the next few weeks. For those looking to learn how to carry out top secret operations, raid rebel camps, patrol rivers, destroy cocaine laboratories deep in the jungle, hunt down drug kingpins, rescue hostages and become sharpshooters, Colombia’s Jungla course is the one to be on.

Four weeks in and already 11 recruits have dropped out. By the end of the four-month course that will test endurance and navigation skills to breaking point in the desert, rivers, cold mountains and humid rainforests of Colombia, around a quarter of recruits will have left or failed the test.

Jerónimo Animaz, a stocky lieutenant from the Mexican Army, is quietly confident about his chances of completing the course. The lessons on carrying out covert operations against drug traffickers using cutting-edge technology are especially useful, he says. “The Junglas can help the Mexican Army to be more effective against the cartels,” says Animaz. “We’ve a lot to learn from the Colombians, especially about how to use the latest technology to go after the cartels.”

He also believes the Mexican Army could learn a thing or two about how to work together. “I’ve been impressed with the discipline here,” Animaz says. “The Junglas are about teamwork, discipline and nurturing leaders based on the SAS doctrine. We could do with a bit more of that in Mexico.”

Being a Jungla man brings kudos and is often a stepping stone for promotion. Some recruits will go on to join, train or lead their country’s elite forces. “Getting a promotion is not my main objective for being here – I want to become a better shooter – but graduating from this course might well get me a promotion back home,” says 29-year-old Pablo de Los Santos, a policeman from the Dominican Republic.

What makes Jungla training special is the fact that the 25 course instructors are still often actively involved in frontline action. “Instructors don’t just stay in the classroom,” says course supervisor, chief superintendent Armando Lozano, who has lost count of the number of special operations he has been on during his 21 years with the Jungla unit.

“We teach based on real experience, which gives us credibility. We’ve got over 40 years knowledge of fighting the guerrillas and more than 20 years’ involvement fighting the narcos,” he says. Few other police forces in the world can match this mix of know-how and it’s what makes the Jungla commando course so coveted. All Jungla instructors have been in the trenches. They all have tales of gunfights with the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), losing friends to enemy fire, squad members maimed by landmines and enduring malaria and flesh-eating parasites for months on end in the jungle.

Chief superintendent Lozano remem- bers one Christmas Day nearly 20 years ago when he narrowly survived an ambush carried out by the Farc as he and other Jungla commandos were destroying a cocaine laboratory deep in the country’s southern jungles.

“There were around 50 of them [the Farc] against eight of us,” Lozano recalls. “From early morning to late afternoon we faced heavy gunfire. Our back-up finally came but by then four of us had been killed. That’s when I thought I wouldn’t make it out alive.”

While Colombia remains the world’s biggest cocaine producer and armed gangs still battle it out over drug smuggling routes, things were far worse during the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, when cocaine cartel boss Pablo Escobar was at the height of his power, the city of Medellín had the world’s highest murder rate.

But over the past decade, US aid has bolstered Colombia’s security forces with military hardware and intelligence training, helping them destroy record numbers of cocaine laboratories, capture dozens of drug barons and gain the upper hand against rebel groups in some parts of the country.

“In the 1990s we’d lose up to 30 men a day. Now deaths are more sporadic. We’ve got much better at infiltrating drug gangs,” says Lozano. Indeed, it is partly because of such successes against drug traffickers in Colombia that the epicentre of the drug war has shifted to Mexico. And as the Mexican cartels spread their tentacles into Central America along with surging coca production in Bolivia and Peru, there’s an ever-growing demand for Colombian expertise. “It’s an honour to be here,” says Mexican lieutenant, Animaz. “Colombia has been through what we are living in Mexico today. The Colombians have real experience in fighting the cartels that we can learn from, including their mistakes.”

As Mexican drug cartels encroach into rural areas, Colombia’s long-tested knowledge of fighting a war in similar terrain is also being snapped up by the Mexicans. “The Mexicans are particularly interested in learning how to build a secure police base and how to defend it from attack in rural areas,” explains sub-lieutenant and Jungla instructor, Elmer Garzón.

Not all foreign recruits, though, have had a positive experience with the Junglas. In 2007, five Afghan police officers arrived at Colombia’s police training centre in a high-profile visit billed as a showcase in international cooperation against drug trafficking. Cultural differences and the language barrier proved too much in the end. Four dropped out and only one Afghan policeman passed the course. “It was difficult with the Afghans,” says Lozano. “We tried to be flexible with them and their prayer times but it didn’t work out.”

Throughout the year invitations from the Jungla unit land on the desks of police and army chiefs across Latin America, who then select their best men to take part in the course. Uptake has increased, especially from Mexico and Panama. “Interest from the Mexicans is growing year by year,” says Lozano. “Just a few years ago, Mexico sent a couple of police on the course. Today they’re sending up to 30 men. They’ve seen how our training is getting them results. The same goes for Panama.”

To cater for the increasing demand, next year 40 Colombian police commandos hoping to become Jungla instructors will be put through their paces during a three-month course – only around half of those taking part are expected to make the grade.

The big advantage for foreign governments is that the US government, as part of its billion dollar aid package to Colombia, known as Plan Colombia, picks up the bill for the course, paying for the arms, equipment, uniforms, lodging and food. It is also part of Washington’s push to promote greater regional cooperation in combating drug trafficking.

For the Colombians, it means they can rely on trained elite forces when on joint border patrols and special operations with their neighbours. “Narco-terrorism is a global fight that crosses borders,” says sub-lieutenant and course instructor Roger Rueda, who joined the Junglas seven years ago. “It’s important for us that our neighbours speak the same language.”

Yet perhaps more importantly, Jungla training allows Colombia to become an influential regional player and be a leader in counter-narcotics efforts. It’s also an important exercise in diplomacy. While some instructors complain in private that training foreign forces diverts resources and personnel at the expense of their own special operations, all agree it helps Colombia strengthen ties with its neighbours and change negatives stereotypes about the country.

“We want students to leave with a good impression and experience of Colombia,” says Jungla instructor Rueda. “It’s about portraying a positive image of the Colombian police and the country in front of the international community. The Junglas go a long way in doing that.”

Improving the reputation of Colombia’s armed forces, though, isn’t an easy task. Over the years, corruption scandals, cosy relationships with drug cartels, links to right-wing paramilitary groups and human rights abuses have combined to mar their image.

Perhaps the worst human rights violations have involved army officials killing civilians, who were then passed off as rebels killed in combat to inflate the body count. Dozens of army officers have been purged from their ranks over the scandal. Earlier this year, an army colonel was sentenced to 21 years in prison after admitting his unit murdered more than 50 civilians.

“Human rights is still sometimes a problem but it’s got much better. How to treat, respect and protect civilians is now a major focus of any police or army training,” says chief superintendent Lozano. “We’ve also got much better at identifying who the enemy is so that innocent civilians don’t get killed in the crossfire,” he adds.

For most recruits, the toughest weeks of their instruction are yet to come. Soon they will leave the confines of the training centre and head out to the jungle for a month. There they will have to survive on little or no sleep or food and walk up to 25km a day carrying 20kg packs.

“It’s a brutal change for some. Many don’t make it through the jungle phase,” says sub-lieutenant and Jungla instructor Fredman Freyle, who rates the recruits from Bolivia, Peru and Mexico as among the strongest in the squad.

The final test involves planning and launching an attack on a mock rebel camp in the jungle where Jungla instructors lie in wait. “We try to develop a sixth sense among these students that will help them against their enemy in their country,” says Freyle. “It’s a question of survival.”

Planning ahead

Since 2000, the US has spent $7bn (€4.8bn) on military hardware, training Colombia’s security forces to fight rebel groups and on anti-narcotics operations in the country. This makes Colombia, a key ally of Washington in the region, one of the largest recipients of US aid in the world.

The aid package, known as Plan Colombia, has given the country dozens of helicopters, arms and intelligence-gathering equipment to guerrillas and drug traffickers. Introduced during Clinton’s presidency, it has pumped billions of dollars into reducing cocaine production by aerial spraying swathes of Colombia’s coca fields.

Critics say that, while coca production in Colombia has decreased, the problem has been pushed across its borders into Peru and Bolivia. The Obama government has gradually reduced the amount of military aid Colombia receives.

Fight club

Along with Jungla training, the Colombian police also offers in-country tailor-made specialist courses for regional police forces. Since 2009, it has trained around 8,000 police and soldiers, mostly from Latin America. Some of the most popular courses are:

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