República de Colombia
Prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, today Colombia was inhabited by the highly developed and sophisticated Chibca Indians. Spanish occupation began in the 17th century and was consolidated during the early 18th in the viceroyalty of New Granada, which covered the northern part of South America. Discontent among various parts of the population - indigenous inhabitants, lower-class Spanish immigrants and mixed-race Creoles - with the arbitrary nature of colonial rule eventually led to the 1819 rebellion under the legendary figure of Simon Bolivar. New Granada became Gran Colombia, divided into four provinces (roughly equivalent to the four present-day countries of Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela). Colombia separated from the others soon after Bolivar's death in 1830. The Liberal and Conservative Parties have played a major role in Colombian politics ever since.
The Republic of Colombia was established in 1855. Over the 100 years, politics were dominated by the Conservative-Liberal feud, which often broke out into warfare. Periods of democratic government alternated with dictatorships. There were occasions, however, when the two parties were able to unite.
The 1970 election was a turning point in Colombia's recent history. Disaffected party members formed a guerrilla movement known as Movimiento 19 de Abril (M-19) which initiated a 15-year-long guerrilla campaign against the Government. They were soon joined in insurrection by two other left-wing groups, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) and the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN, National Liberation Army). While the three groups waged their campaigns with varying degrees of success, orthodox politics were taken over by the Conservative-Liberal duopoly. Meanwhile a third potent force emerged during the 1980s in the form of organised drug traffickers known as cartels. Their control of large sums of money now began to be turned into political power and leading politicians increasingly became tainted by their connections with drug money.
A number of right-wing paramilitary groups, variously associated with traffickers and/or elements of the military and security forces, have also emerged to play an increasingly influential and brutal role in the conflict. In September 1989, M-19 formally gave up their armed struggle and committed themselves to constitutional politics. In 1986, the Liberals won the elections and were victorious at the next two elections, giving the party 12 uninterrupted years in control.
By 1998, the electorate had had enough of the Liberals and returned Andrés Pastrana, a conservative and former mayor of Bogotá standing under the banner of a Grand Alliance for Change. By now, the country was in the grip of the struggle between the Government, traffickers, right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerrillas. Successive American governments put increasing pressure on the Colombians to prosecute a 'war on drugs'. Meanwhile, the strategy of the leftist guerrillas has concentrated on the creation of 'liberated areas'.
In 1999, the US Clinton administration unveiled Plan Colombia, a massive military and social support programme, valued at US$1,3 billion aimed at destroying the FARC and ELN as well as offering alternatives to coca-farmers and intensifying the war on drugs. The Bush administration, which inherited 'Plan Colombia' endorsed the plan and, with some modifications, put it into operation. Its first effects became apparent the following year when military forces retook part of the former 'liberated zone' after the breakdown of the agreement between FARC and the Government. The new hard line adopted by the Government was bolstered in May 2002 when the right-winger Alvaro Uribe, who favours all-out war against the left-wing guerrillas, won a comfortable victory at the presidential election, illustrating the will for peace of the Colombian people. Plan Colombia has been continued through the last decade, as did Plan Patriota, the Colombian government's policy in dealing with leftist-guerrillas turned narco-terrorists. Significant gains have been made by governement forces over the past decade in fighting and demobilizing armed groups.
Fuerza Aérea Colombiana
The birth and development of military aviation in Brazil
On December 31, 1919 the government of Colombia released funding for the formation of the Escuela Militar de Aviacion (military aviation school), marking the birth of Colombian military aviation. The school initially operated under the control of the Colombian army, and based at Flandes, it operated eleven aircraft supplied by France: three Caudron G3s, for Caudron G4s and four Nieuport 17s. Unfortunately the school closed within two years due to financial difficulties.
In 1925 the school made a restart at Madrid, near Bogotà, with three Wild WT-3s supplied by Switzerland. Full expansion came in 1932 after a Peruvian attempt to capture Colombia's southernmost town of Leticia, and in 1934 the military operated as many as 150 aircraft. The assistance of the Colombian-German airline of SCADTA was instrumental in these years, and could be traced back to several subtypes of Junkers and Dorniers, operated by the military. Later on, American aircraft, like Curtiss Hawk II biplanes, were obtained, and the school moved on to its current base at Calì. With the assistance of SCADTA a new base was developed at Palanquero near Puerto Salgar, on the banks of the Rio Magdalena, about 60 miles northwest of Bogotà.
The Aviacion Militar received new American equipment when the USA became involved in World War Two in 1941, and the country benefited from various lend-lease deliveries of North American T-6 Texans and Boeing PT-17 Stearmans for pilot training. Soon after World War Two, the Fuerza Aérea Colombiana became an independent part of the armed forces.
After a period of relative peace, internal political struggle broke out in 1948 with La Violencia, the most destructive of Colombia's civil wars, which lasted almost ten years. Not surprisingly, the equipment obtained by the military at that time was optimised for counterinsurgency tasks, resulting in the acquisition of many B-26C Invaders. During these years, the FAC acquired its first jet aircraft in 1954 in the form of the legendary T-bird and a limited air defence force was built up with six Canadian Sabre 6s operated from Palanquero. Sixteen F-80 Shooting Stars were also delivered. Meanwhile, several types of training helicopters were taken on strength.
Around 1960 the military transport element expanded, with vast numbers of the legendary Dakota being delivered, and the military airline of SATENA being formed at El Dorado, in order to service remote locations all over the country, displaying the social function of the air force in Colombia. More modern types like the C-130 Hercules, UH-1 Huey, T-37 Tweety Bird and T-41 Mescalero were obtained during the sixties. In 1972 Colombia joined the Mirage-family with the introduction of the Mirage 5 at Palanquero, eighteen of these entered service in three different versions.
Further expansion took place in the eighties with considerable deliveries of the OA-37B Dragonfly, which earned fame over Vietnam. At the end of the decade a batch of Kfir C2 fighters was delivered from Israel and subsequently upgraded to Kfir C7 by the Comando Aéreo de Mantenimiento (CAMAN) in Madrid in the nineties. The Mirages were upgraded to the same standard by CAMAN, with the installation of canards and improved fuel systems. Both types are also equipped for air-to-air refuelling from the FAC's Boeing 707 & 767 tanker and transport aircraft. The nineties saw the delivery of specialised COIN-aircraft like the OV-10A Bronco and Embraer Tucano trainers, some of the latter are able to carry bombs and unguided rockets. These aircraft operate mainly over the east of the country, where the Los Llanos region has a high level of guerrilla activity. They regularly deploy to Puerto Carreño under the commando of the Grupo Aéreo del Oriente formed in 2000. To deal with continuing guerrilla activity Escuadrones Aerotácticos (tactical squadrons) were formed at the main FAC bases in the late nineties, consisting of several types of helicopters and AC-47 gunships supplied by their respective Grupos.
The 1999 'Plan Colombia' emphasizes on technology, rather than on large numbers of new aircraft being procured, although several new Black Hawk-helicopters (dubbed Arpía in Colombian service) entered FAC service in recent years. Other recently acquired types include Schweizer SA2-37A Condors and Cessna 560 Citations equipped with cameras and sensors to monitor guerrilla and narcotic related activities. Huey-helicopter, Broncos and AC-47s gunships have all been upgraded over the past decade; meanwhile, new Kfir and Super Tucano coombat aircraft, as well as training and combat helicopters have been delivered and the FAC has significantly improved its intelligence gathering and medevac capabilities, making it one of the best equipped and trained air forces in Latin America.
Aviación del Ejército
Until 1997, the Aviación del Ejército, the aerial branch of the Colombian Army, was a very limited force, operating only light aircraft in liaison roles. However, things changed dramatically with the formation of the Brigada XXV de Aviación del Ejército (BRIAV) in August 1997. Unlike the FAC, which heavily relies on American equipment, the BRIAV took delivery of ten Kazan-built Mil Mi-17V-1Hip helicopters in the same year, marking the beginning of a huge expansion.
The largest Colombian airbase, Tolemaida, was prepared to host the Batallón de Helicópteros of the BRIAV and more helicopters were about to follow. The Plan Colombia included the delivery of 33 ex-Canadian UH-1Ns, 25 ex-US Army UH-1H Huey IIs and fourteen UH-60L Black Hawks for which training is provided by the US Department of State contractors under the Colombia Plan Helicopter Plan. Furthermore, the Plan Colombia called for the delivery of another fifteen UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters, totalling almost thirty examples of the type. Later deliveries saw a batch of six Mil Mi-17MD Hips being added to the fast growing force. Five Kaman K-1200 K-Maxes were used for general support mission by the US Department of State also took residence at Tolemaida but have since been withdrawn. Continuing deliveries of Black Hawk helicopters and the nationalization of US provided helicopters have made the Colombian army aviation brigade the largest and best equipped independent army aviation branch in Latin America.
Unlike the Colombian Army, the history of the Aviacion Naval (Naval Aviation) can be traced back to August 14, 1935, when its foundation was ordered by decree. The navy operated limited numbers of light aircraft and amphibians over the years with the ala fija (fixed wing squadron).
Helicopters entered the fleet only in the early eighties, with the delivery of two MBB Bo105 helicopters for shipborne operations off the Almirante Padilla-class frigates. By that time all aircraft were concentrated on the Atlantic coast with the ala fija and the ala rotatoria. In 1987 the current Grupo Aéronaval del Atlántico was formed at Cartagena's Rafael Nuñoz airport, fulfilling many tasks. More light aircraft, of which some impouned on narcotics flights, entered service throughout the years. To support the Colombian marine corps, several Bell 412s added useful capabilities to the fleet in 1998.
From 2000, more Grupos were formed on the Pacific coast and in the central area and some aircraft were transferred from the Caribbean coast. Secondhand as well as brand new CN235 aritime patrol aircraft were bought, and other aircraft for general aviation duties were added. In 2009 Twin Huey helicopters were taken over from the US Department of State.
Policia Nacional de Colombia
With the regular army dealing with the guerrillas the Policia Nacional de Colombia (Colombian National Police) is heavily involved in counternarcotics, two tasks that oftern interfere. The police's aviation force, Area de Aviacion (ARAVI), headquartered at Bogotà's El Dorado airport, operates under the command of the Direcciòn Anti-Narcòticos (DIRAN) (Counter-narcotics Directorate).
As the largest police aviation force in South America, beefed up by the US Plan Colombia, the fleet is scattered over the whole country. El Dorado, Guaymaral and Mariquita are the main police aviation bases, the latter also housing the police's own aviation school.
Apart from the Colombian owned aircraft the US Department of State runs the Aerial Eradication Program (EAP) under the Plan Colombia. Coca and poppy fields are sprayed by Air Tractor AT-802s supported by two Cessna 208s. Colombian operated helicopters provide necessary SAR and gunship support during eradication missions. Deliveries of new helicopters continue apace, with Bell 206s, Black Hawks and Russian-made Mi-17s being scheduled for delivery over the next few years.