Canada interested in Colombian naval base, sale of helicopters and remotely-piloted systems to the National Police

Published by Brent Patterson on

Photo of Bell 407 helicopter with surveillance technology.

The Maple has reported on briefing notes, obtained through an access to information request, prepared for then-Defence Minister Anita Anand for the 15th Biennial Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas held on July 28, 2022.

This conference took place a little more than a week before Gustavo Petro was sworn in as the President of Colombia on August 7, 2022.

The briefing notes on Colombia for the Minister include the line: “the Canadian defence industry … through the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC) … [is] exploring opportunities related to a new naval base and Ministry headquarters.”

The “new naval base” could refer to the long-delayed relocation of the Cartagena Naval Base or the controversial construction of a new Coast Guard base on the ecologically-sensitive Gorgona Island off the coast of Buenaventura.

Unclassified document obtained by The Maple.

The briefing notes also reference that Mirabel, Quebec-based Bell Helicopter Textron Canada “is providing … four 407 helicopters to the Colombian National Police”.

The Canadian Commercial Corporation has stated that it delivered four Bell 407 helicopters to the Colombia National Police in 2013-14 and that in 2019 “Bell signed a contract with the Colombian National Police for a Bell 407 helicopter” through its “continuous efforts” along with the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS) team in Bogota.

The verb tense “providing” and the date of the briefing notes (July 2022) could suggest additional Bell 407 helicopters for the National Police.

The briefing notes for Minister Anand was prepared about a year after the National Police were implicated in human rights violations during the National Strike in Colombia, including the use of helicopters in the Operation Siloé attack in Cali on May 3, 2021.

Amnesty International has highlighted: “Witness testimony and verified video evidence also confirms that around 9 pm two helicopters, allegedly belonging to the National Police, flew over the area and fired at demonstrators seeking refuge in houses in the neighbourhood.”

It should also be mentioned that in the popular protests that began in Colombia on November 21, 2019, the Colombian National Police deployed its Bell 407 helicopters equipped with facial recognition technology to surveil protests in Bogota and in other main cities, likely including Cali where mobilizations took place.

Photo: PBI-Colombia accompanies popular protests, November 2019.

A new naval base

The “new naval base” could refer to the long-delayed relocation of the Cartagena Naval Base from the tourism sector of Bocagrande to Tierra Bomba to the nearby island of Tierra Bomba first proposed by then-Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos in 2011.

A Canadian Trade Commissioner webpage on the “Defence and security market in Colombia” does list under “key opportunities” the “relocation of Cartagena Naval Base, repurposing of MoD-owned Hotel Tequendama”.

Beyond that relocation project, there is also the US-financed coast guard station being built by the Colombian military on Gorgona Island, which is situated in the Pacific Ocean about kilometres 200 kilometres south-west of the city of Buenaventura.

Agence France-Presse has reported that environmental groups filed a class action lawsuit in November 2022 seeking to suspend construction of the base.

That article also provides this context: “In 2015 the government agency that grants environmental certification approved construction of the base, which will feature a 132 meter dock, a radar installation and housing for military personnel.”

Photo: A humpback whale in the waters of Gorgona Island.

Photo of mural against the base.

In December 2022, Cambio reported: “A month ago, during one of the days of regional dialogues of the National Government, the people of Guapireños warned Vice President Francia Márquez that they did not want any dock or army base in Gorgona, because the island would be seriously affected.”

That article in Cambio continues: “Vice President Márquez replied that she would support them in their fight to prevent intervention in Gorgona: ‘Development cannot be at the expense of people’s lives, nature and well-being. Development is with the people, it’s with nature or it won’t be,’ she said.”

Then earlier this year, Infobae reported: “On Monday, March 13, a public hearing called ‘Save Gorgona’ was held, led by the Minister of the Environment, Susana Muhamad, which revealed the suspension of that project.”

But on May 29, 2023, RCN Radio reported that, “after 25 meetings with activists, journalists, scientists, park rangers, environmentalists, experts, communities and people interested in the impacts of the project” the National Environmental Licensing Agency “imposed new requirements on the Ministry of Defense so that it can continue with the project of ‘construction, operation, abandonment and restoration of the Coast Guard Station.”

National Police also interested in remotely piloted systems

The Canadian Trade Commissioner Service also highlights that the Colombian “Army, National Police have procured Canadian aircraft” and that the “Army and National Police have expressed interest” in “remotely-piloted systems & autonomous technologies”.

Remotely-piloted systems could refer to drone technology used for surveillance purposes, including the surveillance of popular protests.

LAVS for the Colombian Army

The Trade Commissioner Service page also notes among a list of “Key opportunities for Canadian defence and security companies in Colombia” – “Ground Vehicle Systems: for all the Armed forces”.

Photo: LAV III.

During the 2022 election, presidential-candidate Gustavo Petro promised: “I am not going to waste resources on weapons and bombs.”

But a year later Canada announced a nearly half-billion dollar contract to sell armoured vehicles to Colombia.

On June 29, 2023, the Canadian Commercial Corporation (CCC), “Canada’s government to government contracting agency” announced its “$418-million government to government (G2G) contract with the Colombian Ministry of National Defense for the supply of 55 Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) from General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada (GDLS-Canada).”

In terms of context, Tecnologia & Defesa reported in January 2023 that GDLS-Canada had been “lobbying officials and senators for more than two years” on this sale. Pucará Defensa also reported “the Canadian government has followed and monitored this process, also supporting it through the Canadian Commercial Corporation…”

The two-year period (dating back to January 2021 or earlier) could mean that GDLS, supported by the CCC, was lobbying to sell these armoured vehicles when Amnesty International had called on Canada to “immediately cease the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer of equipment that could be used against civilians” (June 28, 2021) and 245 academics had asked Canada to “prohibit any future sale of weapons or light-armoured vehicles by Canadian companies until Colombia has reformed its National Police” (June 8, 2021).

We will continue to follow the sale of Canadian “military goods” to security forces in Colombia and the human rights implications of those sales.

We do so, because as David Pugliese has reported in the National Post, “The Canadian Commercial Corporation acknowledges it conducts no follow-up to ensure exported Canadian-built equipment isn’t being used to abuse human rights.”


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