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Dense jungle surrounds the Payamino River, an important waterway in Ecuador. This river, along with countless others in the eastern provinces of Ecuador, serve as a lifeline for local communities, the Ecuadorian military and illegal armed groups.
Recognizing the importance of Riverine operations, the U.S. Military Group in Ecuador, in partnership with the Ecuadorian Army, began training together in October to enhance the capabilities of jungle units to control the rivers in their zones.
"In the dense jungle environment the rivers serve as lines of communication for groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia to conduct logistical support and illicit trafficking," said U.S. Army Maj. Michael L. Burgoyne, a foreign area officer with U.S. Military Group Ecuador.
At the request of the Ecuadorian government, the Ecuadorian Army and the U.S. Military Group have been working together since 2007 to create, train and deploy small boat units in jungle terrain and along the border with Colombia.
In a recent three-week course, held in Coca, soldiers from the Ecuadorian 4th Division "Amazonas" mastered formations, Riverine patrolling, insertions, extractions and battle drills. During the course, the term "River Rats" was used to describe the Ecuadorian soldiers who will take their knowledge to the northern border with Colombia and the deepest reaches of the Ecuadorian Amazon.
The training received enhanced the ability of the Ecuadorian Army to deploy their contingency of more than 40 boats and three Riverine battalions consisting of more than 550 personnel. These soldiers will be able to access remote outposts often only accessible by boat or helicopter, thereby preventing FARC units from establishing camps in Ecuador and preventing the flow of illegal drugs through the border.
The relationships built and sustained with multi-national partners in the Central and South American region through exercises, professional and military exchanges help in preserving peace and stability in the region. Since the Ecuadorian soldiers understand the U.S. commitment to the region, the two-year program has been successful in turning Soldiers into "River Rats."
"A big watch and cool knife get you only so far. Once they're convinced you're serious about their concerns (social, environmental and political) they take you seriously," said Marty Martinez, a retired U.S. Navy Special Boat Unit member and Navy Small Craft Instruction and Technical Training School instructor.
But the learning was a two-way street.
"I was able to learn a great deal about how the Ecuadorians maintain remote jungle outposts and patrol in a very unforgiving environment," said Burgoyne.
These types of training exercises are a major component of the U.S. Army's regional engagement efforts and afford the opportunity to train servicemembers while providing needed services to communities throughout the region.
In conjunction with Vector Watercraft, a U.S.-based company, the U.S. Military Group also provided equipment upgrades to the Ecuadorian Army Riverine Program. As part of the program, the Ecuadorians have received numerous new and refitted patrol boats. These boats are equipped with water-jet engines and do not have the limitations of the outboard motors currently in use. With these new craft, the Ecuadorians can work in even the shallowest rivers to accomplish their mission.
Besides creating an opportunity for the armed forces of Ecuador and U.S. Army counterparts to work side by side and learn from one another, this training also offered the opportunity for the Ecuadorian Army to share this training to all their units along their numerous waterways.
"We're very excited about the Riverine program," said Lt. Col. Paul Lemke, U.S. Army section chief in Ecuador. "This is a great opportunity to work with our Ecuadorian partners to enhance their ability to secure their own territory and promote regional stability. The importance of rivers in these areas cannot be understated: they are the highways of the jungle."