Learning the Lancero Way: U.S. Helped Develop Elite Colombian Training
Much as Rangers have helped lead the way for the U.S. Army since World War II, for over 60 years the Colombian army has relied on graduates of its Lancero School—Escuela de Lanceros—to set the example for others to follow during intense, enduring internal conflicts with powerful armed groups.
The similarities do not stop there. As foundational leadership schools focused on forging capable small-unit leaders, the U.S. Army Ranger School and the Lancero School share common origins, traditions and goals. The Lancero School also represents a success story enabled through decades of consistent U.S. Army investment.
The U.S. government’s recent investments in Colombia’s armed forces are well known. From 2000 until 2016, the U.S. provided over $10 billion to support the Colombian military through Plan Colombia. The primary aims of Plan Colombia were to combat drug trafficking, neutralize insurgent groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, facilitate professionalization of the Colombian military, and provide stability necessary for internal development. Plan Colombia ended in the wake of peace accords with FARC, but neither Colombia’s strategic importance nor the challenges it faces have diminished.
When tensions flared with Venezuela in 2019, for example, every viable U.S. course of action to influence the situation involved Colombia and its military. Meanwhile, internal and external challenges to Colombia’s security continue to grow. Over 1.4 million recently displaced Venezuelans wander throughout Colombia, posing unprecedented challenges to Colombian society and the government’s support networks. This past summer, the credibility of the 2016 peace accords came into question after two senior FARC leaders quit their high-ranking posts in the Colombian government, withdrew to undisclosed locations and vowed to continue armed conflict. In contested regions, gunfights and skirmishes with armed groups remain daily events for the Colombian army.
Less well known than Plan Colombia is that the U.S. Army’s relationship with its Colombian counterparts stretches back decades. Close partnerships between the U.S. and Colombian armies were forged during the Korean War, when Colombia was the only South American nation to support the U.N. mission, deploying about 20% of its army’s manpower. In those years, Colombia was plagued by a brutal civil conflict, La Violencia, which claimed more than 200,000 lives between 1946 and 1964.
Soon after the Korean War, the then-president of Colombia, Lt. Gen. Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, asked the U.S. Army Mission in Colombia for help in designing a type of Ranger school to build leaders capable of ending La Violencia and providing peace and stability to the Colombian people.
School From Scratch
The U.S. Army chose then-Capt. Ralph Puckett, assigned to Puerto Rico’s 65th Infantry Regimental Combat Team, to fulfill the Colombian president’s request. Puckett brought with him combat experience as a Ranger company commander in the Korean War as well as successful work organizing Ranger School and NCO courses in Puerto Rico.
“There was no concept, no mission statement, no objectives, no program of instruction, no nothing,” said Puckett, now a retired colonel. When he traveled to Colombia in late 1955, neither the U.S. nor the Colombian army had planned for or invested much in his mission.
Puckett said he was told “the Colombians needed a training course similar to the U.S. Army Ranger School to develop Colombian junior officers and NCOs capable of leading operations in the jungles and mountains to destroy the guerrillas and bandits causing havoc in Colombia.”
Collaborating with four Colombian lieutenants, all recent graduates of the U.S. Army Airborne and Ranger schools, within 12 months Puckett helped the Colombian army conduct a pilot Lancero course in 1956. “During my year in Colombia,” Puckett said, “I was significantly involved in practically every decision concerning the school, [including] establishment of the mission, manning, equipment, location, program of instruction, graduation requirements, supplies, and selection of Lancero name, distinctive badge, slogan … everything.”
Later that year, then-Lt. (later Gen.) John Galvin succeeded Puckett at the Lancero School. Galvin’s work over the next two years was essential in consolidating Puckett’s efforts.
Today, Colombian leaders widely recognize Puckett’s unique contribution to the Colombian army. Brig. Gen. Raúl Hernando Flórez Cuervo, then commander of Tolemaida Military Base, echoed the opinion of many Colombian leaders when he said, “Since its creation in the 1950s, the Lancero School has been one of the foremost combat multipliers in the Colombian army.”
Flórez said Puckett’s “design and structuring of the Lancero School, just as he had done in the same decade with the Ranger School in the U.S., laid the foundations for the Colombian army to develop officers and leaders able to manage risk and endowed with sufficient situational awareness, tactical expertise and decision-making qualities. Puckett’s example and sponsorship of the Lancero School inspire the greatest possible gratitude and respect from all our Lancero leaders.”
Impact on Two Nations
In the U.S. Army, Puckett’s contributions to leadership development remain legendary, especially his efforts in the first small group that developed the Ranger School as it is known today. Ranger School has become a foundational leadership course for the infantry branch and for the 75th Ranger Regiment, and remains of considerable importance to Special Forces and all combat arms branches.
In the Colombian army, Puckett’s efforts took a similar trajectory. The Lancero Course is a prerequisite for Colombian special operations unit leaders, and Lanceros remain the standard-bearers for professional leadership throughout the Colombian armed forces.
Owing in large part to a common heritage, the Colombian army’s Lancero culture is remarkably similar to Ranger culture in the U.S. Army. The Lancero School has shaped the Colombian army—and with it the Colombian nation’s destiny—much as Ranger School has shaped the U.S. Army. This shared history notwithstanding, few U.S. soldiers and leaders know much, if anything, about the Lancero School’s past and present.
Since the pioneering work of Puckett and Galvin, the U.S. has continued to invest in the Lancero School’s development. Those first exchanges eventually transformed into a Military Personnel Exchange Program (MPEP) position, in which a U.S. officer spends one or two years at the Lancero School as a guest instructor and liaison. As part of the exchange, Colombian officers are usually stationed at U.S. Army training schools in the U.S.
In 2019, a new MPEP exchange began directly between the Lancero School and the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade, which runs the U.S. Army’s Airborne and Ranger schools. For the first time, the U.S. has a Colombian officer embedded with the Ranger School and an officer from the Ranger School at the Lancero School.
Now, as the U.S. Army turns its attention to large-scale ground combat operations, it has lacked the opportunity to train in South American jungle conditions since the dismantling of the Army’s Jungle Operations Training Center in Panama in 1999. While the 25th Infantry Division’s Jungle Operations Training Course in Hawaii has made great strides in correcting this deficiency, opportunities are still needed to train for the unique conditions in South America.
This want of experience and training in such environments became especially significant given recent tensions between the U.S. and Venezuela. As the U.S. prepares for tomorrow’s challenges, it must increase its readiness and ability to intervene in nations and areas with jungle or jungle-like terrain.
As a former battalion commander in the Vietnam War, Puckett believes the U.S. would be remiss to overlook jungle training as a core competence for soldiers and leaders.
The good news is that the U.S. does not have to look far to find more opportunities for excellent jungle training in challenging and authentic South American terrain. For almost 60 years, America has been investing in the Lancero School. The Lancero School receives U.S. students in its yearly international course, which begins every September. Also, the school is willing and able to create shorter, tailor-made, jungle training courses at its training centers, which it does on request for U.S. units, Colombian soldiers and international partners. The Lancero School is looking to establish a jungle training “Center of Excellence” at its base, Fuerte Amazonas II in Leticia, where the Amazon River marks the borders between Colombia, Peru and Brazil.
In addition to training over 1,800 Colombian conscripts yearly, the Lancero School trains over 600 students in its flagship Lancero course, which lasts about 80 days. Like Ranger School, the course is divided into three phases: an introductory phase at Tolemaida focused on squad-level tactics, a mountain phase focused on platoon-level operations conducted in the 3,500–4,000-meter-high mountains north of Bogota, and a 25-day jungle phase at Fuerte Amazonas II.
Most participants are junior Colombian officers or midlevel NCOs. The Lancero course’s many obstacle courses and physical events are notorious, but the course’s focus is on operational planning. Thirty days of evaluated patrols at the squad and platoon levels give junior leaders the skills needed to plan and execute small-unit missions in Colombia’s challenging terrain.
Sgt. Maj. David Briseño, operations sergeant major at the 75th Ranger Regiment, was the distinguished honor graduate of the International Lancero Course in 2003. He views the course as an “extraordinary investment in human capital.” For him, the course was “life-changing,” and its effects on his career and his leadership “everlasting.”
In Colombia, Briseño learned to push to his uttermost limits and strive to live up to the Lancero School’s motto: “Para los Lanceros no existe la palabra imposible!” or “For the Lanceros, the word ‘impossible’ does not exist!”
With proper leader engagement and investment from the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, increased collaboration with the Lanceros would not only help prepare U.S. soldiers for conflict in a variety of terrain and situations, but it also would forge stronger institutional ties with the United States’ closest ally and partner in Latin America.