Advisors at 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade were busy this past year on a new mission mentoring foreign forces in Latin America — but not always in ways Army brass wanted.
The 800-soldier unit racked up at least 60 misconduct offenses, including incidents with alcohol, drugs and adultery; a battalion commander was fired; members of one advising team are facing punishment for their behavior in Colombia; and another team’s actions in Honduras are under investigation, according to internal records and interviews conducted by Army Times.
Advisors deployed to Central and South America were told in late 2021 to behave amid a rise in sexually transmitted diseases among married and single troops, and a Colombian officer had to ask that advisors not use drugs at their hotel. Reports of advisors drinking against regulation, violating curfew and using dating apps also concerned 1st SFAB leaders, according to unit emails.
It’s an eye-popping amount of bad behavior from just one of the six SFABs created five years ago as a key initiative of then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
SFABs were championed as a novel way to build professional foreign militaries using top-notch U.S. soldiers. But it is U.S. professionalism that now concerns leaders at Security Force Assistance Command. And it comes at a time when bad behavior in Latin America could be especially risky, as left-wing parties — historically more suspicious of the U.S. military — sweep national elections in the region and China makes inroads.
The problems at 1st SFAB prompted the command to order all units to send detailed data on punishments meted out against advisors.
“Advisor misconduct remains the largest strategic and organizational risk for the SFAC,” a tasking order sent in July stated. “Recent media attention of Advisor misconduct requires proactive reporting of accurate misconduct statistics to HQDA (the Department of the Army’s Pentagon headquarters).”
The allegations corroborated through investigations include 21 offenses involving alcohol, six drug-use incidents, seven cases of adultery and six instances of counterproductive leadership, according to a 1st SFAB legal brief chronicling April 2021 through April 2022.
Given how spread out units were in places like Colombia, not every incident may have been reported or properly investigated.
“I would actually say those numbers are conservative,” said one SFAB officer. “The majority of the brigade does the right thing, but you do have a lot of teams that go over there that have some sort of issue.”
The crux of the problem, advisors told Army Times, boils down to immaturity among some of the small, 12-soldier advising teams that began fanning out across foreign countries to mentor local forces in 2020.
When 1st SFAB was founded in 2017, early missions to Afghanistan were mostly positive. But as the unit shifted to solely focus on Latin American missions, like counter-drug operations, the quality of soldiers selected to join dropped, four advisors said. That’s possibly due to the larger manpower woes across the Army, as well as the slow trickling out of experienced veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“When you bring in one bad apple, that can create 15 bad apples,” said one advisor.
Colombia, where much of the known misconduct occurred, may be a particularly sensitive situation. The longtime U.S. ally recently elected its first leftist president — Gustavo Petro, a former mayor of Bogotá and a guerrilla fighter in his youth.
“You’ve got a new president coming in who is not anti-American but certainly has less enthusiasm for this really tight mil-to-mil relationship,” said Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight for the nonprofit Washington Office on Latin America. “And if you want to give them a reason to say, ‘Hey, let’s put this on hold,’ this sort of behavior does that.”
Officials declined to make leadership, including SFAC boss Maj. Gen. Donn Hill or 1st SFAB boss Col. Chris Landers, available for interviews.
SFAC spokeswoman Lt. Col. Melody Faulkenberry said the command “is taking steps to investigate all allegations of misconduct.”
Faulkenberry confirmed some investigations are underway at 1st SFAB, but declined to say their purpose or scope. She also declined to confirm how many of the offenses detailed in the legal brief occurred among 1st SFAB advisors who were deployed, rather than at home on Fort Benning, in Georgia.
But there has certainly been some trouble overseas.
An advising team sent to Honduras remains under investigation after members violated no-drinking orders and got into an argument with other forces in-country, a senior advisor said. Another advising team in Tolemaida, Colombia, was accused by an Army spouse early this year of visiting prostitutes, staying out all night and partying, according to unit records.
The spouse shared a picture of several advisors in a Colombian family’s home without commanders’ permission, prompting a formal investigation that determined the team was leaving base without approval and drinking.
Emails also show that 1st SFAB leaders were aware of reports that advisors across the brigade had been misbehaving.
In an email to 1st SFAB team leaders this fall, a senior enlisted soldier warned that he had been hearing of undisciplined acts “across the formation.”
“We have all now been in country for about two months and I am hearing that we have advisors that have broken the GO#1 no drinking policy without approval,” Command Sgt. Maj. Christopher J. Williams wrote Oct. 24, 2021. “(W)e have advisors that have violated curfew policy, we have married advisors that have TINDER accounts, advisors that have been hitting on hotel staff and we have teams that are not following all rules and guidelines.”
Williams also warned in the emails that there had been a rise in STDs among married and unmarried troops since his soldiers started missions in Central and South America, “and it is in mostly advisors that have been deployed.”
Then there was an incident in which a Colombian officer asked Williams to ensure his troops did not use drugs at a hotel or a nearby military base.
“‘I am not judging your Soldiers, but could you make sure that if your Soldiers want to smoke marijuana or do hallucinogen drugs please ask them not to do them on Canton Norte or in the Hotel,’” the Colombian said, according to Williams’ email.
“That was extremely embarrassing that a (Colombian) would ask that I ensure we don’t do illegal drugs when illegal drugs are forbidden in the Army,” Williams wrote in his email.
Several troops who spoke with Army Times said they were aware of rumors that advisors had used drugs, including cocaine, overseas. Faulkenberry said the SFAC is aware of the allegations, but “has no credible evidence of such activities occurring.”
The issues Williams was trying to tackle existed before his battalion rotated into Latin America and were brigade-wide, several advisors said.
“Williams was trying,” an advisor who served with him added. “But it was really hard to crack down because we were so spread out throughout the country.”
Colombia has long been an anchor for U.S. policy in Latin America. This spring, the White House designated Colombia a major non-NATO ally, a label that “lays the groundwork for us to work together even more closely,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at the time.
Petro’s recent election as Colombia’s first leftist leader likely won’t herald any seismic shifts in that relationship. But even prior to his ascension, Colombian lawmakers questioned the purpose of SFAB deployments.
In 2020, the Colombian Defense Ministry had to answer to the Colombian Congress about who would supervise the SFAB teams and what operations they’d be carrying out.
“The senator who had asked for that (Iván Cepeda) is a leader of the incoming governing party,” said Isacson, of the Washington Office on Latin America. “So, Iván is on this and he’s a very big critic of the SFAB. He’s about to become more powerful.”
Colombia has hosted misbehaving Americans before. In 2015, the Justice Department reported that DEA agents in the country had “sex parties” with prostitutes hired by drug cartels. And the Secret Service, along with some U.S. military personnel, suffered a similar scandal in Colombia in 2012.
“We’re getting a reputation here,” said Isacson. “This is a military that the United States claims they want to help professionalize, and they’re doing it with all these examples of really unprofessional behavior.”
Milley and other Army leaders championed SFABs as a way to provide professional advisors to train foreign partners so regular infantry, armor and aviation units could perform traditional duties elsewhere. The effort raised some eyebrows, since training foreign forces has typically been a role relegated to Army Green Berets, who have also had their share of scandals in Latin America.
“Special Forces is very good at training tactical-type units. They’re very good at accompanying tactical-type units,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said in 2020. “But SFABs build a professional military force, which is different. How do you do logistics. How do you maintain vehicles. How do you build a professional military.”
After a maiden deployment advising Afghan forces in 2018, the SFABs began preparing to go elsewhere in the world. By 2020, each SFAB was assigned to a different U.S. combatant command with distinct geographic areas of responsibility. Soldiers from 1st SFAB were tasked to U.S. Southern Command.
From the start, 1st SFAB had a counter-drug mission.
Advisors were dispatched to locations designated by Colombia as “priority areas,” SOUTHCOM officials said at the time, and helped with logistics, intelligence and information sharing.
Advisors in SOUTHCOM have received praise for their counter-drug work, said Faulkenberry, the SFAC spokeswoman. She pointed to the establishment of a new Colombian military unit that synchronizes counter-drug efforts across the country.
“Early last year, former Colombian President Iván Duque specifically acknowledged the value of our military partnership and thanked 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade advisors for their contributions following the Colombian Counter Narcotics Trans-National Threats Division activation ceremony,” Faulkenberry said.
Teams from 1st SFAB were particularly focused on increasing coca eradication, according to a U.S. Combined Arms Center report from April 2021.
“The biggest challenge faced by Colombian partners was the flow of intelligence and receipt of targeting-related products. Specifically, units lacked updated imagery of their AO, making planning efforts difficult,” the report reads.
Advisors coached Colombian troops to stop using old Google imagery for planning missions and helped them access updated imagery. They also taught Colombian troops to “conduct historical analysis of cocaine yields, adjust eradication goals by unit and area, and allocate forces appropriately for the next calendar year,” the report reads.
“Moreover, other South and Central American countries took notice, submitting their own requests for advisor teams,” the report added. “The increase in advisor capabilities across South and Central America allows 1st SFAB to focus advising efforts in both the source and transit zones of narcotics operations.”
However, not all was well.
“Due to a political environment questioning the legality of our presence and pending Colombian congressional approval, advisor teams were told to cease activities within weeks of arrival to the outstations,” the 1st SFAB report reads. “Teams constantly competed with negative social media posts, tweets, and articles. They remained focused even after receiving threats by known in-country bad actors.”
Despite 1st SFAB’s efforts, cocaine production in Colombia was near record levels in 2021. And Colombia’s new leftist president has promised to rethink drug policy to promote development rather than coca eradication.
“The new defense minister who is about to come in is one of Latin America’s best known anti-corruption crusaders,” Isacson said. “This is going to be the big fight of the next year. … So, you’re really focusing on breaking links with organized crime, doing a lot of counterintelligence about your own people, fighting corruption on your forces.”
‘Big boy rules’
Three advisors with whom Army Times spoke said their early time with 1st SFAB was positive.
“What drew me in was the big boy rules — not needing to be told how to do something or when to do it, which, in the end, bit 1st SFAB in the ass,” one advisor said.
Small teams spread out over a large area, far from the command flagpole, can be difficult to manage. And although SFABs are supposed to be comprised of experienced soldiers, lower-ranking troops could still attend the Military Advisory Training Academy at Fort Benning and automatically promote to sergeant under certain circumstances.
“Many of the NCOs in the SFAB are young. They’re wild still,” one advisor said. “Your senior NCOs in the SFAB, it’s a smaller number than you’d think.”
Advisors are also under General Order #1 while deployed to SOUTHCOM, meaning drinking, except under specific circumstances, is off-limits.
“People are going to say they were trying to build camaraderie by going out drinking, but 90% of the partner forces want to go home at the end of the day,” an advisor said. “As a U.S. soldier in South America, you’re going to want to go out and explore, but your partner forces, they live there. It’s nothing new to them.”
Accusations of married troops using Tinder accounts and dating overseas also abounded at the unit, according to sworn statements compiled as part of an ongoing investigation and the emails.
“It can compromise a mission,” an advisor said. “You don’t know where these women are from or who they know, if they even support us. It can cause a lot of problems internally that shouldn’t be there.”
The division-level SFAC has been probing 1st SFAB, Faulkenberry confirmed. But she declined to share the exact nature of the investigations.
“We cannot comment on open investigations, however, earlier in the year the SFAC completed an investigation into a battalion commander’s leadership which resulted in their relief due to loss of trust and confidence in their ability to command,” Faulkenberry said.
She declined to say which battalion commander was relieved and why, other than it was for counterproductive leadership. Sources in the unit said it was 1st SFAB’s 2nd Battalion commander, Lt. Col. Joshua W. Brown, who declined a request for comment. His battalion owned the advising team that was removed from Colombia.
Advisors said the command needs to do a better job vetting personnel to ensure they’re mature enough to head overseas. Some changes to how the SFAC assesses and selects advisors were already implemented this spring, according to Faulkenberry.
“In March 2022, we increased the length of our Assessment and Selection course and added performance elements to more comprehensively assess Advisor candidates,” Faulkenberry said. “Some of the additions include proficiency exams, ethical assessments, physical tests, peer reviews, board interviews and cadre observational feedback.”
SFABs are, at the end of the day, a small part of the larger effort by the U.S. to keep its influence up among its southern neighbors. But there’s some anxiety within SOUTHCOM that its influence is slipping, or at least facing competition.
China has made economic investment overseas a priority through its Belt and Road Initiative. Latin America, though not the primary theater of the approaching U.S.-China showdown, is nevertheless an important area to watch.
“China is playing chess; they have a long term view,” SOUTHCOM boss Gen. Laura Richardson said July 20. “They are setting the theater. … When I show a map of the region where 21 of 31 countries have signed on to the Belt and Road Initiative, it covers almost the entire region.”
Colombia is not a member of the Belt and Road Initiative, but it has flirted with joining, and Chinese firms have already scored big contracts in the country, including a regional railway and 5G infrastructure projects.
After the coronavirus pandemic devastated regional economies, that type of investment, rather than military training, is particularly useful. Then there’s Colombia’s recent swing to the left, which echoes similar electoral outcomes in Peru, Chile and Honduras — and potentially Brazil soon.
“You have leaders coming in who might not be as interested in that sort of high profile level of (U.S. military) cooperation,” Isacson said. “Even if they’re happy to have exercises and exchanges and small courses and stuff, 100 (SFAB) guys in your country for four months is super high profile and it can be controversial if your ruling coalition includes people who are on the left or people who are historically suspicious of U.S. meddling.”
Several of the advisors Army Times spoke with were pleased to see the SFAC taking a hard look at all the brigades by requesting data and carrying out investigations. Others worried that the desire to preserve the SFAB mission would come first, and any problems found by internal investigations would be papered over.
“I think you need an outside agency, to be honest,” one advisor said. “Is anything major going to happen? No. Remember, this is a premier unit. It’s got to keep going.”
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.