British combat hovercraft 'a game changer' in Colombia

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Media captionThe British-made hovercraft helping Colombian soldiers take on drug traffickers and rebel forces

Colombia has begun deploying British-made combat hovercraft in one of its most troubled provinces to fight rebels and drug traffickers.

The first pair of Griffon 2000 hovercraft have begun operations with the navy deep in the rivers of the Amazon rainforest in Putumayo province that borders Peru and Ecuador. Colombian military commanders believe the craft could mark a breakthrough in Latin America's longest-running insurgency.

On the broad, sluggish surface of the Rio Putumayo nothing stirs in the noonday heat.

On the opposite bank stands an empty palm thatch hut, overshadowed by the towering jungle, and at the water's edge a row of rusting letters spells Ejercito del Peru - 'The Army of Peru'.

This is where Colombia meets Peru, the river forming a long, twisting and distinctly porous border between the two countries.

Image copyright Frank Gardner
Image caption John Carlos Florez says that, until now, the navy could only operate for half the year
Image copyright Frank Gardner
Image caption Rural life on the Rio Putumayo

A few miles to the west lie Ecuador and the secret jungle supply routes used by both insurgents and drug traffickers. This is the beating heart of the world's coca-growing region, the epicentre of the multi-billion dollar illicit cocaine industry.

More than 200,000 people have been killed in the government's 50-year war with leftist insurgents and associated drug traffickers and there have been abuses committed on both sides.

Despite progress made at peace talks under way in Havana between the government and the Farc, there is no ceasefire until a deal is signed.

Image copyright Frank Gardner
Image caption Most of Colombia’s population is concentrated in the cities. Much of the violence occurs in the rural south

The main rebel group, the Farc, started out in 1964 as an ideological revolt against greedy landowners and the vast inequalities in wealth that still exist in Colombia.

But, in recent years the insurgency has become less and less political and ever more mired in the lucrative international drugs trade, financing its operations through kidnapping, extortion and cross-border trafficking in both raw coca paste and refined cocaine.

"The Farc has become the biggest cartel in Colombia," says one presidential adviser.

But their numbers are declining - down to an estimated 7,000 from a high of 21,000 - and peace talks in Havana are inching towards a final deal that aims to get most of its fighters demobilised and absorbed into the civilian population.

I put it to Colombia's defence minister, Juan Carlos Pinzon, that if this happens then surely many ex-fighters will be tempted simply to switch allegiance to smaller, criminal drug cartels.

"We have to be realistic" he admits. "And we should expect, as we have seen in the past, that some crimes and some criminal bands might pop up, might appear in some areas, trying to keep the crime business".

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Media captionColombian soldier show Frank Gardner how they clear the mines laid by drug traffickers

Until the ink is on the paper of a final peace deal, the fight goes on. So what difference will these hovercraft make?

Put simply, the Colombian Navy is hoping they will allow them to access parts of the river that have previously been beyond their reach for months at a time, giving the rebels free rein over whole swathes of territory.

"Up until now we've only been able to operate for half the year," says John Carlos Florez, commander of Colombia's Naval Force South. "From October to January we can't move because the river levels drop so far our boats hit the rocks.

"But these hovercraft don't need high water so now we can cut off the rebels' supply lines".

Image copyright Frank Gardner
Image caption Fighting Colombia’s 50-year insurgency has cost more than 200,000 lives
Image copyright Frank Gardner
Image caption Sunday afternoon friendly match in Puerto Leguizamo. Residents say security outside the town is ‘terrible’

Not surprisingly, the navy pilots who drive them are brimming with enthusiasm. Most had never seen a hovercraft until they were sent up to Cartagena three months ago to begin their training.

As the early morning sun sparkled on the river, I perched on the running board of one of the craft, wincing as my arms were bitten repeatedly by tiny black sand flies, and asked a pilot, Lt Diego Palma, what they are like to drive.

"It's very exciting, sailing this. Because the hull lifts above the surface, you can go at an incredible speed over grass, sandbanks and shallow water," he told me.

"For me, it's my girl. I call her Carolina. I have to take good care of her, because she's my new toy".

These hovercraft are huge, green, noisy and fast. They also bristle with weaponry and can carry 14 sailors and marines at speeds of up to 35 knots.

Riding aboard one up a narrow creek, the jungle pressing in on both sides, I did notice a few dark looks from the local fishermen in their longboats.

Even at slow cruising speed the wash from the hovercraft threatened to tip over their narrow wooden dugouts and I can't imagine the fish are exactly thrilled either.

They will take some getting used to in this part of the Amazon. But the Colombian navy is no doubt: they see the British-made hovercraft as a new landmark towards their eventual goal of ending the long drawn-out insurgency.

Photographs by Frank Gardner

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