“Amazon to Darien, Atlantic to Pacific” – Intelligence in Colombia with former Head of its Navy Admiral Hernando Wills
Andrew Hammond: Hi, and welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian and curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of the secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: This week, I sat down with the former head of the Colombian Navy, Admiral Hernando Wills Velez, to discuss all things intelligence in Colombia. This is part of an ongoing effort at "SpyCast" to double down on the international part of the International Spy Museum name, but it also coincides with a pop-up exhibit at our museum on a Colombian operation that saved hostages and where intelligence was absolutely key - Operation Jaque. Colombia and its Navy must reckon with a unique combination of security challenges, including Marxist insurgents, right-wing paramilitaries, drug cartels, crime syndicates, and all of this made even more complex by the sheer size and internal diversity of the country - jungles and deserts, mountains and beaches, from well-developed to undeveloped - and by its geographic location at the crossroads of the Americas. To sum up, it is a remarkably fascinating case study for the role intelligence might play.
Andrew Hammond: Admiral Wills was also the commander of the Pacific Fleet, head of the Colombian Coast Guard and a former aide de camp to the president of Colombia. In this episode, we discuss intelligence from the point of view of a senior military officer, the pressure of high command, the intelligence landscape in Colombia, the professionalization of intelligence in Colombia and how it helped him in his role, and the role the U.S. has played in supporting the development of Colombian intelligence. Hernando was broad-minded, warmhearted and down-to-earth. I hope you enjoy listening to him as much as I enjoyed talking to him.
Andrew Hammond: I'm really pleased to get a chance to speak to you. I really enjoyed it when we met the other month, and I'm really glad that we've now got time to do a podcast together. So I want to thank you for taking the time to speak to me. I was just thinking when I was preparing for this interview - head of the Colombian Navy. For most people, they never end up in a position of such responsibility. So for the majority of listeners who haven't been in that kind of position, what's it like? It sounds like a lot of pressure, a lot of stress. Tell us a little bit more about it. What was it like to be the head of a navy?
Hernando Wills Velez: Well, thank you. First of all, thank you, Andrew, for this opportunity. It's a big honor for me to be talking to you and to speak to the audience. And that part that you were mentioning, I mean, it's just like, you know, time goes so fast. I joined the Navy when I was 15 years old - very young. I finished high school in the Naval Academy. And then you start like - you know, in your regular business as a young lieutenant in ships and destroyers, positions on land. And all of a sudden, you see yourself as an admiral. I mean, just, it's a crazy thing.
Hernando Wills Velez: And, yeah, you're right. It's a big responsibility. I was - I had the privilege to be selected by the president to lead the Colombian Navy and - especially in such difficult times. At that time, we were just in the middle of this big struggle with internal conflicts. And - but it was a great opportunity and a great moment of my life because I had the opportunity to do things in favor of the Colombian people. And so that was great.
Andrew Hammond: And the time period when you were the head was 2013 to 2015, is that correct?
Hernando Wills Velez: Yes, 2013 to 2015. And there was a - at that time, we were just - the government was beginning the talks with former FARC, a terrorist organization, in order to sign, like, a document to end the conflict. So it was very tricky because we were in the middle of the fight, and there were some conversations at the same time. So it was tricky, but the morale of the troops and the Navy was really high. At the same time, we were actually doing a big effort against narcotraffic in both coasts of Colombia - you know, the Caribbean and the Pacific coast. So we were very much involved in everything at that time.
Andrew Hammond: I want to go on to discuss the role that intelligence played throughout your career, but I was just thinking, before we get there, it could be good just to help our listeners visualize some of the maritime environment that the Colombian Navy operates in. So you mentioned it there - there's the Pacific side, the Atlantic-Caribbean Sea side. There's also important rivers and waterways - the Amazon and so forth. So help us understand just the geography of where the Colombian Navy operates.
Hernando Wills Velez: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you for that question. Well, basically, you know, Colombia is located at the northern part of South America, and we are very close to Panama. Actually, Panama used to be one of the Colombian departments. So we have coasts on the Caribbean and then on the Pacific. The geography is very complex, and it's very interesting. And basically, it is good for good things and good for bad things. So basically, I think it favors the action of illegal groups.
Hernando Wills Velez: If you go to the Pacific Coast, it is more than 1,300 kilometers of coastline. We don't have, like, roads over there - very little airports. So all the transport of goods and people are made by sea or by the rivers. And there is tropical jungle everywhere. You will find, like, a river every hundred, hundred and fifty meters or - it's crazy - a lot of rivers. And the state presence is very scarce. I mean, we don't have, like, a strong state presence, and that facilitates the actions of illegal persons that want to try to do, like, narcotrafficking and the like. And the Caribbean part is a little bit different. It's more developed. We have the bigger cities over there, like Cartagena, Barranquilla, Santa Marta. But we have, like, three definite zones. In the northern part, it's like desert - no vegetation at all. In the mid part, you have the big cities, big ports and we have a lot of control - state control over there. And in the southern part, close to the - to Panama, you'll find similar conditions as the Pacific.
Hernando Wills Velez: So it's very - like, very unique. And basically, the maritime environment is - we have the 2,000 - 200 miles of Economic Exclusive Zone. So the Navy has to be aware of, you know, protecting that zone every time, both in the Caribbean and the Pacific. And we have, like, archipelagos - San Andres in the Caribbean and Malpelo in the Pacific. So it's quite a big area of responsibility for the Navy.
Andrew Hammond: And when you're transferring ships from the Caribbean to the Pacific, do they go through the canal or do they go around the cape?
Hernando Wills Velez: No, we go through the canal. We have very good relationship with Panama, and we have some agreements that facilitates the transit of naval ships. So basically, we just do some paperwork, and they have priority.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And tell us about the role that intelligence played in your career. So I guess at every level, it would play some role. But when did you start - first begin to think of yourself as, I'm consuming intelligence here, intelligence is informing my decision-making much more? At what point in your career did you see yourself as a consumer and user of intelligence?
Hernando Wills Velez: Well, at the beginning, like, my first assignments were on warships. So I was not really much involved in the intelligence process. But my first job in that sense was - I was the cryptographer of the ship...
Andrew Hammond: Oh, wow. OK.
Hernando Wills Velez: ...One former American destroyer. So I remember that I spent a lot of time coding and decoding all the messages of the position of the ship and information that came from the headquarters. And it was, I mean, the whole night doing that process with the special machines that we used at that time. So I started to realize how important it was to keep the secrets and somehow preserve the information. So that was - and the captain was very, very serious about that. So basically, sometimes I didn't sleep at night because I was working on this paperwork and coding and decoding. But I really start having some training on intelligence with the promotion courses. Like, the first one, when I was studying to be a lieutenant commander, there was, like, a specific area of intelligence. So we start looking about the intelligence cycle and the importance, and we did some exercises regarding that. So that was, like, the first exposure to that.
Hernando Wills Velez: Then, when I was, like, in the position of commanding officer of ships, I receive intelligence before getting underway. So normally, I have those meetings with the intelligence community before getting underway, and we also had some equipment on board that was equipment for ESM - collecting intelligence. So we had to have a strong communication with the intelligence agencies on land. So that was, like, the other part. And then when we - when I was assigned as commander of the fleets in the Pacific - and when you have such responsibility, then you start to realize that intelligence is very, very important.
Andrew Hammond: And is it something that you enjoyed? The challenge of working with intelligence, is that something that you enjoyed? Or I guess every commander would love to know everything, but there is a degree of unpredictability, and there's an information landscape that you are trying to wrestle with. Yeah, help us understand. Is that part of the job that you enjoyed, using the intelligence or working with it?
Hernando Wills Velez: Well, I always enjoy working with intelligence, but the relationship with the agencies - in this case, the naval agencies that work with me at that time - they were very dependable on the people. Sometimes you have easy people to talk with in the intelligence community, and sometimes you have difficult people to interact. So that was somehow a challenge. But I think that if you have clear your objectives and what you need, what information you need for intelligence, everything start to flow in the right way.
Andrew Hammond: But when is it you joined the Navy?
Hernando Wills Velez: Well, I joined the Navy in 1976.
Andrew Hammond: 1976.
Hernando Wills Velez: But it was five years at the Naval Academy, and then I became an officer in June 1980. So after that, I spent all the way until 2015 (laughter).
Andrew Hammond: 2015, wow. (Laughter) That's a long period of time. So during that period, you saw a lot in terms of the evolution of Colombian politics, Colombian security dynamics and also the evolution of Colombian intelligence. So those are some big things, then. But tell us - let's start off with some of the security situation that you've faced over the course of your career. So I know that the narcotraffickers and the FARC and so forth become important. Help us understand. Like, when you first entered the Navy as an active sailor, what were the main preoccupations of the Colombian Navy, and how did that shift and evolve up until the period when you left?
Hernando Wills Velez: Yeah. Well, good question.
Andrew Hammond: (Laughter) A big one.
Hernando Wills Velez: Yeah. But, you know, Colombia is a country with a lot of difficulties, and we have a history of violence since ever. We have a lot of civil wars. And the last big one was at the beginning of the 20th century. And when I got out of the Naval Academy, the main effort in the country was to confront the insurgencies that - they were aiming to take power by using arms and intimidating all the population. So that was, like, the big concentration of effort. But our forces at that time were not, like, well prepared, and the intelligence was not that good at that time.
Hernando Wills Velez: With time, we started to realize how important it was to professionalize our military forces, our national police and, basically, intelligence. And those things were coming together basically with the support of international partners, like the United States. We received a lot of support on that. And then there was, like, something that happened in our country after the fall of the Berlin Wall because these insurgencies - normally, they were supported by communism. And after that, they needed more financing. So basically, they jump into narcotrafficking. And that was a big challenge for the security forces because we have both things at the same time. We have, at that time, to somehow diversify the efforts and somehow concentrate efforts within the national police for the citizens' security and narcotraffic. The military forces were more concentrated on the big structures of the terrorist groups. And in the case of the Navy, we were more oriented to, like, structures in the border areas, like border rivers and, of course, narcotraffic at sea and in the rivers. So that was, like, somehow the specifics of its service. And the intelligence services started to specialize in those areas, too, basically that was. And we - basically, we receive a lot of support from the U.S., from other countries, too - the U.K. and so on - specific things related to narcotraffic. But we realize how important it was to have a professional intelligence and a professional military and security forces.
Andrew Hammond: And when you say professional, do you mean making things more systematized - making more processes, more structures, more predictable and reliable means of gathering and funneling information? Is that what you mean? Rather than - help us understand what you mean a little bit more.
Hernando Wills Velez: We progress a lot in the organization of the intelligence. And that was a key point, because before that, we used to have people working on intelligence, giving information that was not that reliable. And after this process of professionalization, I guess, we started with intelligence schools in the services. Let's say the Army had the first intelligence school in 1985, and the Navy was around 1995, 10 years after, and so was the Air Force. But now we have those intelligence schools with a lot of support, and you have better people well-prepared and with a good sense of what were they doing and what they need to deliver.
Hernando Wills Velez: And because of that, then we realized it was very important to have the best people on intelligence, but they were somehow left aside. Let's say you have an infantry officer from the Army working in intelligence. Somehow he was out of his field of competence. So what we did, we create the specialties of intelligence in the forces. The Army did it in 1992. So now you have intelligence officers as artillery officers. So they have their path - or their career path - very clear so they can dedicate to that. In the Navy, we did that in 2006, and also the Air Force. So now if you want to go to the intelligence community, you will have a career path, and you have training, education, opportunities, and you can be all the way up to be general, to be admiral, and to be the head of your service. So that was very important, and that increased the quality of the people and the results.
Andrew Hammond: And because of the geographical challenges that you mentioned - I guess intelligence plays an even more important role because of those challenges, right?
Hernando Wills Velez: Yes. Yes. Basically, it's - everything's always changing. You know, and I can tell you on the Navy side, what we did was we created special intelligence groups all over the country with some, like, areas of responsibility - Pacific, the Caribbean, the eastern part, the southern part. And those groups were very strong in human intelligence and technical intelligence and analysis. They were concentrated on that portion of the country. But one of the good things that we did, and we did with all services, was the sharing information - try to collaborate with everyone. Sometimes that is not easy. The services - sometimes they have, you know, to preserve, you know, their results. But basically, I think that we achieved that. We achieved that sharing of information. And sometimes these,- for instance, the narcotraffic situation have shifts. These guys concentrate some time, like, in the Pacific coast. In that part, they normally use different methods to traffic, you know, the drug goes south to other countries, or they go in semisubmersibles. Sometimes they could use, like, fast boats - go fast - fishing boats, aircraft. Sometimes they shift to the Caribbean. Sometimes they do both. So the sharing of information between these intelligence centers, it's very important and has been very important for that - and also international.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And who are some of your major intelligence partners in the region? I know you mentioned the relationship with the United States is extremely important, but the region where you are, who are some of your major partners? Or in your position, who were some of the other intelligence services from different countries that you communicated with?
Hernando Wills Velez: The most important are, as you mentioned, the United States and the U.K. because with them, we have training and information sharing. With other countries in the region - you know, our partners in Central America, in the Caribbean, also in - and also south - we have very strong communication for share information and share intelligence. We have basically, like, bilateral agreements with friendly countries in the region, and that's how we manage the situation. But basically, it's only sharing information. If you talk about training and technical stuff - only with the U.S. and sometimes with the U.K.
Hernando Wills Velez: But right now, there's something interesting happening. Because of all this knowledge that our military forces have acquire over the years, now we are training our neighbors in the region - basically, some countries in South America, the Caribbean and Central America. So we are training those guys in military tactics and also in basics of intelligence.
Andrew Hammond: I'm just thinking, as well, you know, the - yeah, the maritime environment in Colombia - I'm just thinking about it. As the head of the Navy, it must be quite interesting and challenging because you're - you've got this land bridge, and then you've got some of your forces here and some of your forces there - the Caribbean and then the Pacific - and then you've got all the waterways. So where would you - where were you based? Where was your headquarters? Was it on the isthmus that led from Central America into South America so that you were in the center? Or - yeah, help me understand that.
Hernando Wills Velez: Yeah. Well, the Navy is organized, basically, in four naval forces, we call them - naval forces Caribbean, naval force Pacific. We have an eastern naval force, which is, like, a riverine naval force in the border - in the eastern border of Colombia, with the Orinoco River and Meta River, all these rivers. Then we have the southern naval force, which is bordered with Brazil, Ecuador and Peru - the Amazon River and the Putumayo River. So we have cover all the - we call it 360 degrees of our borders. So you have, like, a big command in each one of those.
Hernando Wills Velez: Then you have the chief of operations of the Navy, who is in charge of these four forces. And the headquarters are in Bogota. And above him is the chief of the Navy. So basically, the headquarters are located in Bogota. We have something like a small Pentagon over there with all the forces - the minister of defense. And the central command is over there. But all these forces, they have the autonomy and the means, the assets to do their own operations. What we do, like, in the headquarters is to take a look at the big picture and try to reallocate some assets. Maybe you need to move some more ships to the Pacific coast or back forth. It depends. But each force has its own assets, its own personnel.
Hernando Wills Velez: And this very interesting thing about the Colombian Navy - and I think that that's the point of my career when I was really involved with intelligence - is all of these forces, naval forces, they have land responsibility. They have aerial - AOR (ph) - in land, too. So all of a sudden, you are the commander of a Pacific fleet. But you also have two Marine brigades and six or seven Marine battalions working on land, protecting all the population in that part. So that's, like, you have the maritime operations, you have the rivers and you have the land operations. And that's where intelligence, in my point of view, came right on top to help us, you know, solve those kind of problems.
Andrew Hammond: We'll be right back after this.
Andrew Hammond: And during this period, when you're in the Navy as well, this is the classic period when everyone thinks of the narcotraffickers and the war on drugs. This is a kind of classic period in the United States - the Reagan era, the war on drugs and George H.W. Bush and Colombia. This is the time of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel and the Cali cartel. So this all happens during your career. Tell us what it was like to be you looking out on this evolving war on drugs and on narcotraffickers.
Hernando Wills Velez: It was a tough time. I agree. I remember when Pablo Escobar was killed by the Colombian security forces. It was - at that time, I was working as the aide-de-camp of the Colombian president. So it was interesting to see how the efforts were conducted. We used to have, like, a search bloc to do that specific task with the Medellin cartel. All the forces were involved in, you know, different aspects, but that was led by the national police. So it was - like, at that time, the country was really in trouble.
Hernando Wills Velez: But after that, we start, like, gaining control of the country with - I would say that with much bigger support to the forces, with, like, a comprehensive strategy. Basically, the government at that time put together the strategy with the forces, with the police and with the whole state doing things in the same direction. We used to have that separate. So I think that that was the key point to turn over the situation in the country.
Hernando Wills Velez: But you're right. It was really hard. We lost a lot of people in that narcotrafficking war. But after that - after those events, anyway - we still have narcotraffic right now. It's very hard in the sense that a lot of people is killed because of that. There are some people putting money in, and you will find a lot of violence. So I think that our people, our military and our police are very committed to continue this fight.
Andrew Hammond: And help us understand the role that you think intelligence played in the war against the narcotraffickers. How did intelligence help the Navy, the Marines or the government get the upper hand? I know that's something that continues to this day, but during the high-water mark of Medellin and Cali, how did the - how did intelligence help you and your job over the years?
Hernando Wills Velez: Well, basically, I was mentioning that with the professionalization of intelligence, we have this very strong group of people - and very committed to do that - that they were trained, and they were prepared to work in something that we call structures. Who is in charge of this network? Well, our people is helping with the second level, third level. So they start working, you know, and gathering information, gathering intelligence, making analysis.
Hernando Wills Velez: So they - at some point, they gain the expertise to really understand what was going on, you know, and who was the boss and how was the dynamic of the illicit business. And with that, it was much easier for the forces - the action forces to move in. But without that work of intelligence, it would be almost impossible to do things, because, as you know, these guys, the criminal people, they are always protected by civilians. They bribe a lot of people. So I think that the intelligence - like, the jump in intelligence was when we had the capacity to really understand the structure or the criminal structures. And after that, we can go in and target those guys.
Andrew Hammond: And I believe that in - like, in some countries, the Marines are seen as being less corruptible than the Army. Is that also the case in Colombia? Like, let's keep this within the Navy or the Marines because they're less infiltrated by people that are colliding with narcotraffickers and so forth. Is that the case, or is that not really the case?
Hernando Wills Velez: No. I don't see, like, a big difference in within the services in Colombia. The main point is that we have the national police, which is part of the ministry of defense. It is a strange thing. A lot of people don't understand why, but it's because of our history. And I think for now, it's good to have the national police in the ministry of defense. And the national police, they are the ones who are like, interacting with the population every day. They are always there. And then we have the military forces, which is another, like, different things as compared to other countries because in Colombia, the military is allowed to conduct operations within the country to protect the people. So basically, that put us, like, in a very sensitive situation because we are conducting military operations within the country. And this is a tricky thing because sometimes people don't like that, people like that. But we have to. This is a fact. We need to do that. The Army is more involved, like, in the whole territory of Colombia. The Marines are smaller than the Army, and, well, and they only have, like, the coastal parts of the Pacific Coast in this case. And the Navy is basically at sea - so less interaction with the people. So maybe that gives that sense because the Navy is a little bit out of that. And the Air Force is flying, and they don't have that kind of interaction with the civilians. So maybe that's the reason that the people believe that - that it's because of the of the amount of people.
Andrew Hammond: Help us understand. You've already mentioned them, but crystallize for our listeners some of the unique intelligence challenges that Colombia faces. So if there's people to listen to this podcast and maybe they've been involved in the world of intelligence - but help them understand, well, you probably have never faced this, or, here are some of the things that I've faced that you probably haven't. Is there any particular intelligence challenges that Colombia faces or being in the Colombian navy?
Hernando Wills Velez: I think that intelligence is always challenging. I can give you an example. When I was in the Pacific Coast, I was the commander of that fleet. And we started - what are we doing here? What do we need to do? Basically, protect the people, protect the civilians, protect the neighborhoods and everything. And I remember that I have at that time around 16 to 20 illegal structures over there - FARC, France, ELN, narcotraffic and criminal gangs in that part. So we - and then I have a meeting with the intelligence people who say, OK, we need to know. Where are these guys? What are they doing? Who are they? Who joins? Who leave? That - what are their operational capabilities? And what are their objectives?
Hernando Wills Velez: Once I had that, we were - like, on these meetings, then we establish our strategy because we have the information. So we start strengthening the presence in every municipality to protect the people and doing operations as far as the neighborhoods as we can with intelligence, basically to have these people away from the municipalities. But we could not do that if we don't have that information of intelligence. And that intelligence was dynamic, always evolving day by day, day by day.
Hernando Wills Velez: What are the challenges here? Human intelligence, for me, was the big challenge because you need to put people on land. And those were, like, very extreme areas, very far away, weak communications. So that was a big challenge, you know, to have those connections and establish, like, those relationships with the locals in every time. I think that was one of the biggest. But without the intelligence information, we cannot do anything because otherwise it was just being there, waiting for some attack on our troops. Overtaking those challenges, I think that the intelligence in my time over there did great.
Andrew Hammond: And just thinking about your time being the commander of the Pacific Fleet and being the head of the Navy and some of the other jobs that you've had, which one did you enjoy the most? - because I guess every one had different challenges. I guess in an intelligence sense, like, when you were commander of a ship or when you were head of the Pacific Fleet or head of the Navy, was one of them more gratifying than the other? - because some, you're more involved in strategy and plans. In some of the others, you're more on the operational side. You're involved - like, help me understand. If you could go back to one right now for a year, which one would you go back to - or none of them, maybe?
Hernando Wills Velez: I think I have three. I mean, the first one is being the commanding officer of a frigate was, like, you know, the top because when you join the Navy, that's your main objective - be at command of one of these kind of ships. And because when you are in such position and you go underway, I mean, you are the boss. You are handling the ship. Everything depends on you. So I think that was a very, very amazing experience. The other one, on the operational side, I really think that was my time in the in the Pacific fleet. It was 2010 and 2011. We were, like, one of the peaks of the confrontation in narcotraffic, FARC, terrorist groups. So we were very active. It was a day-by-day operations planning, intelligence, changing - arranging the troops, moving troops around, asking for support. So it was - I was there two years, and it was like one day. I mean, it was very, very demanding. But I really enjoyed that, those years in the Pacific fleet. And of course, when you receive the call from the president that you are going to be the head of the Navy, it's, well, basically the biggest honor of your life, of your career. But the work is different. I mean, it's more strategic, more politics. You are involved in a lot of decisions for the whole country. So you are not, like, in the operational part, thinking and doing what you really think is going to have to be done. Here you are in another level of strategic thinking and, you know, assessments and things like that.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And help us understand a little bit more as well - one thing that I was just thinking when we were speaking was, as a consumer of intelligence, like, in your career, you were - as the head of the Navy or the Pacific fleet, you were consuming intelligence. What one piece of advice would you like to give to people that are producing it? So quite often the producers are told to bear in mind what the consumer wants. What advice would you give to them?
Hernando Wills Velez: Well, I think that the best advice is - I would say that the truth - I mean, it is basic for everything in life and in intelligence, too, because sometimes you can find a situation where the intelligence - to tell you that you are - that they have the information and they are doing good, sometimes they tend to give you information that is not confirmed, or it's real true. My advice is don't do that. I mean, always, you know, confirm the information. And if you do that, if they do that, they will gain the support and the trust of the commander. And this is a key point. This is a key point here, because, I mean, I used to trust - whatever it takes. My chief of intelligence when I was in the Pacific coast - I had no doubts because he was always telling me the truth and confirmed information. If you lose that trust, that will be terrible. So that will be, like, my advice to them.
Andrew Hammond: And we have an exhibit opening up at the museum soon on Operacion Jacque. So tell our listeners a little bit more about that. Just summarize what Jacque was, and help us understand what you were doing when this operation happened.
Hernando Wills Velez: OK. Well, it was a masterpiece operation. Basically, I didn't - I was not involved in that operation. It was - at that time, I was starting my job as commander of the Colombian Coast Guard. So I was more, like, in the in the narcotraffic and the sea life, at-sea kind of job. But this was - we called it the perfect operation because there was no guns. I mean, no one shot was used. And these guys were able to liberate these hostages, including three Americans that were there.
Hernando Wills Velez: So this was a typical, I would say, intelligence with the stratagem thinking of our people. It was a bright idea. It began with the intelligence community in the army. Basically, they are very well trained and very good people with a lot of initiative. So they came up with this idea. They presented to the chain of command, and they agree. And they came up with that. Basically, they - what they did was make this guy think that their operators were really talking, and they were change the forces in Colombia. But I'm sure that in the seminar there will be some really good explanation of that. A lot of people that actually participated in that operation will be here. So that will be real good to - you know, to talk to them. And although this was, like, a Colombian operation, a lot of things behind came from the training and the support of the U.S. intelligence community - basically, information sharing, training, education and everything. I was not involved in that operation. It was very secret at that time, you know, with the operators and the higher commanders of the army at that time.
Andrew Hammond: And just for our listeners, it's the far-left-wing insurgent movement - they kidnap some Americans and some Colombians. And basically, it's a rescue mission to get them out of that situation. And one of the Colombians that was rescued includes a current presidential candidate. Is that an OK summary, do you think?
Hernando Wills Velez: Yes. Right now, that's a good summary. I mean, basically, that is a rescue operation with - and there was important people over there.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And just for our listeners, help them visualize where in the country this was. Where did Operacion Jaque happen? Was it like, the northeast, the southwest?
Hernando Wills Velez: It was the southeast, more or less, part of the country. But that's a huge area, anyway. So - because Colombia, you tend to think that it's a small country, but it's not. I mean, it's - if you compare, we are like France, Spain and Portugal together. So it's quite big. It's smaller than the United States, but it is a big extension.
Andrew Hammond: Can you help us understand some of the other ways in which the United States intelligence community has helped to build up the Colombian intelligence services? We've spoke about this previously - the training, the intelligence and some of the other things. What kind of things did you see that helped the professionalization of Colombian intelligence?
Hernando Wills Velez: Well, I would say that, first of all, the structure - they help us to - how to structure the intelligence, how to organize the intelligence sections and special groups and things like that. They gave us advice on that, although the decisions were made by Colombians. But we received that advice. This is the better way to organize intelligence services, a service like the chief, these kind of groups, the human intelligence, technical intelligence. Now we are working in cyber intelligence and things like that. So we got that - basically that advice. And after that, we came with our own organization. But I think that was a key point. The other thing was with all this support, I think that our commanders, at the higher level, they started to realize the importance of the people. And that's why we went all through this career path thing and the selection of the best people to go to intelligence, which is very, very important.
Hernando Wills Velez: And finally, two things - the other was the trust. I think that it was really important to - when we worked to - with the U.S., is to establish these trust mechanisms to finally share information. Sometimes, that trust is, like, in front of each other. You have to know each other, not only, you know, by communications or a phone call. So they need to join, to meet each other. And we start creating this kind of trust. And after that came the information sharing. So that was like the sequence.
Hernando Wills Velez: And another big part was the technological equipment that we were trained to operate and we operate with the U.S. Basically, that was the key point to somehow position the Colombian intelligence as being a well - worldwide recognized as a very good intelligence, especially - we have now, like, an intelligence law. We didn't have that before. So we are sure that we - or our intelligence community complies with all the international standards, human rights and all the laws that are available for this kind of specific job.
Andrew Hammond: Wow. And help us understand the Colombian intelligence landscape. So we don't need to talk about every agency or whatever, but how many are there? You know, in the United States, there's 17, and then the office of the Director of National Intelligence, and there's the NRO and the NGA that are doing satellites. And so we don't need to go into all of them, but just give us a sense of some of the major military ones and some of the major civilian intelligence agencies.
Hernando Wills Velez: Well, there is a lot. We have the military. Every service has its intel organization, which is expanding every day. I was mentioning that right now we have the cyber intel in every service working on that. The national police will have that, too. We have the director of national intelligence, which is a big, big agency. We have, like, government agencies dedicated to work with illegal financing. So they are there. They share information with other intelligence agencies. The Air Force, of course, is working very strong in satellites and things like that with cooperation - or international cooperation. And basically that's the intel community that we have - could be between 12 and 15 agencies.
Andrew Hammond: And what's the equivalent of, like, the CIA and the FBI or MI6 and MI5? Do you have a foreign human intelligence service?
Hernando Wills Velez: See; we don't have, like, that kind of missions, basically. Our intelligence, as far as I know at this point, is concentrated in national security, more in the internal part since we still have a lot of challenges to democracy, challenges - internal challenges with the dissidents, with terrorist groups, narcotraffic, criminal gangs. So our intelligence services are more concentrated in this - in our intelligence situation.
Andrew Hammond: And staying on the topic of intelligence, was there ever any - yeah. Was there ever any moments in your career when you had to make a judgment call based on intelligence that you were like, oh, this is a gamble? - because the intelligence you get is never, this horse is definitely going to win the race. It's, this is the one we think is going to win the race, or, here's the top two contenders. So there's lots of gray areas, and there's lots of places where you're making a judgment call or you're taking a gamble, effectively. So is there a particular situation that you're able to talk about, even on a more general level, where you were in a tough spot and intelligence either helped you or it was gray and you weren't sure what to do with it?
Hernando Wills Velez: Well, I mean, when you're, like, conducting military operations in the middle of a struggle like the one we had, it was always challenging. It was almost impossible to have the perfect intelligence information. But I can tell you, like, an anecdote that happened to me. We were, like, ready to make a big operation against a FARC camp with a lot of people, very key people inside, leaders of that. So we have good intelligence it was in the middle of the jungle. So we were ready. Basically, we were ready to deliver the operation. And at the last minute, one of our intelligence guys was around there. He gave us some, like, additional information that was timely that there were some people around that were not part of that group.
Hernando Wills Velez: So - well, and before that, we always have something that we call the legal adviser. For every operation, that's one thing that the Colombian military always do. We have a legal operational adviser working with the commander. So every target has to be validated as a legitimate target. So after all the planning, I called this guy. And he told me, OK, this is a legitimate target - no problem. Go ahead. And I got that information right before.
Hernando Wills Velez: So we gather again decision-making people, and I made the decision to abort the operation because of that information, and I think it was a good call. We did the operation in other way, I mean, with other kind of approach. But if you combine good and timely intelligence with the legal aspects of those operations, you can make good calls. And in this case, we minimized the collateral damage that could happen on that one. So it was a struggle, but I did it, and I think it was the right decision.
Andrew Hammond: And I was also wondering, during the course of your career, did you ever - being aide de camp to the president, being the head of the Navy or the head of the Coast Guard, did you ever - I don't know. You know, these narco-organizations and terrorist organizations, by their very nature, are violent. Did you - yeah. What was it like for you at a personal level? Did you constantly have to have security guards with you? Or - yeah. Help us understand the kind of more human part of it because just on the surface, it all sounds - oh wow, you know, the head of the Navy, the head of this. But it affects your day-to-day life as well, right?
Hernando Wills Velez: Yes. Yes. Basically, in Colombia, we have, like, a critical situation in that sense. So when you get to those kind of jobs, general or admiral, you will have some kind of security provided by the force. We receive a lot of information about your movements and things like that. So you have to be aware. It's not that you just go walking and go to a restaurant. It's almost impossible. But you have the ways to provide your own security. But it's tricky. It's tricky for the family. Sometimes your kids go to university, and you don't know what's going to happen there. But I think that we learn how to deal with those challenges. But we do have security and intelligence. And the bad guys, sometimes they - if they want to do something bad, I mean, they find the information and they can act against one of us - I don't know. But, yes, it affects very much the personal life.
Andrew Hammond: And just to bring everything to a close - am I right in thinking that your father was in the Korean War?
Hernando Wills Velez: Oh, yes, yes. Thank you, thank you for mentioning that. Yeah, well, you know, Colombia was - I think we're the only country - or Latin American country - that heeded the call of the United Nations and the United States to go and participate in the Korean War. Basically, we did it with an army battalion and three Navy frigates. But there was, like, a rotation - one at a time. And in one of those frigates, my father served as a weapons officer.
Hernando Wills Velez: It was interesting. I mean, I guess they were - well, he mentioned me several times that they did naval gunfire support, support of landing, targeting, land escort and patrol - all these areas. And it was very tense always, like, in a combat situation. And they used to go to Sasabu in Japan for training and for replenishment. So there were - there were the good times over there. But, yes, it was - he always speak about that time.
Hernando Wills Velez: And I think that was very important for Colombia. We still have a very strong relationship with Korea - a lot of cooperation with them, and they respect Colombia very much.
Andrew Hammond: Was he your inspiration to join the Navy? Was he a career Navy man or was he just in for a - was he in for a shorter period of time?
Hernando Wills Velez: No, actually, he went almost all the way through.
Andrew Hammond: Oh, really?
Hernando Wills Velez: He retired when he was a vice admiral. And he was the second commander of the Navy at that time. So...
Andrew Hammond: So you beat your dad?
Hernando Wills Velez: Huh?
Andrew Hammond: You beat your dad? You got to the top job?
Hernando Wills Velez: Oh, yeah. Yes, yes, yes. But - well, I guess - I used to, you know, see him, you know, going on the ships and the white uniform that always calls the attention of everybody. And then when the time was right, I just signed for the Navy. And - but I didn't thought that it was - that I was going to stay for so long. It was - is like, you know, year by year. And if you enjoy what you're doing and you like what you're doing, the time is nothing.
Andrew Hammond: Well, thanks ever so much for sharing your story with me. It's been a real pleasure to speak to you.
Hernando Wills Velez: Oh, Andrew, thank you very much for having me here. And - I mean, it's a pleasure, and I hope that all these interviews will deliver all the objectives that you're willing.
Andrew Hammond: Thank you.
Hernando Wills Velez: Thank you very much.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast." Go to our webpage, where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter @INTLspycast and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter @spyhistorian.
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