By Erwan de Cherisey
On January 12, Haiti remembered once again the devastating earthquake that wreaked havoc six years ago, costing the life of over 100 000 people and leaving deep scars in a country that has already suffered significantly throughout history.
The year 2016 will also see the United Nation’s Mission des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en Haiti (MINUSTAH: United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti), celebrate its 12th anniversary amidst discussions over its conclusion and successive cuts in its military component.
On January 28, a new contingent of Paraguayan troops will deploy to Haiti, joining MINUSTAH as the sixth Paraguayan Engineering Company (PARENGCOY VI) while, thousands of kilometers from Haiti, Paraguay still struggles with a series of catastrophic floods provoked by excessive rains caused by the el Niño phenomenon.
As Haiti remembers the earthquake and Paraguay battles the floods, it might be a good occasion to remind people of the work accomplished by a small group of Paraguayan soldiers far away from their home country. These men and women have been helping to rebuild Haiti, showcasing in the process the professionalism and resourcefulness of the Paraguayan military engineering community, which is now heavily mobilized in the relief effort in Paraguay.
Having had the opportunity to spend several days with the PARENGCOY IV in Port au Prince in April 2014, it is now my pleasure to recount the story of this tightly knit group and some of its achievements in the battle for developing Haiti.
Port au Prince, Haiti, Tuesday April 08, 2014. A huge white Caterpillar CAT 924H tractor front loader sporting Paraguayan flags on its sides rumbles forward, its giant shovel filled with gravels which are soon deposited in the back of a an equally immaculate Ford dump truck, also adorned with large UN black letters on its body. These vehicles are being used to clear a large field adjacent to Haiti’s Capital City Guatemalan School, which is to be turned into a sports field for the school’s pupils in the near future. The work is done by men of the Paraguayan Armed Forces attached to the Paraguayan Engineers Company (PARENGCOY), the first Paraguayan independent peacekeeping unit ever and a part of the military component of the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH.
A brief history of Paraguay’s peacekeeping efforts
Paraguay is no newcomer when it comes to peacekeeping operations. As early as 1965, 184 troops of the Paraguayan Army deployed under the aegis of the Inter American Peace Force (IAPF) to the Dominican Republic, where the Paraguayan contingent was involved in security and civil-military actions, seeing some fair fighting in the process and sustaining a number of casualties as a consequence.
Paraguay has also participated steadily in UN sponsored operations since the mid-1990s, initially providing only military observers who have deployed to countries such as Congo, Liberia or Ivory Coast. In 1998, the Paraguayan military deployed a platoon of troops under Argentinean command in Cyprus, as part of the UN peacekeeping force there, the UNFICYP. Nowadays, 14 Paraguayan soldiers continue to operate in this country.
In 2004, Paraguay decided to move a step further by providing a 30 men strong platoon of troops for operations in Haiti, as part of the MINUSTAH, integrating it within the 1st Brazilian Battalion (BRABAT) based at Port au Prince. This infantry unit conducted the same duties as the rest of the BRABAT until September 2015 when it was withdrawn from MINUSTAH, patrolling in the streets of the capital of Haiti and especially in such problematic areas as the Cité Soleil slum, which is home to some 300 000 people living in conditions of extreme poverty, non-existing hygiene and scant security.
Following the devastating January 12, 2010, earthquake which wrecked most of Port au Prince, killed over 100 000 Haitian civilians (as well as over a hundred UN peacekeepers) and left even more people homeless, Paraguay decided to step up its contribution to MINUSTAH and dispatch a multirole engineering company to Haiti under its own leadership, the Paraguayan Engineering Company (PARENGCOY), which remains operational today and was on its fourth mandate at the time of my visit, in April 2014. Unlike other MINUSTAH contingents, PARENGCOY’s tours of duty last for 12 months, thus allowing its personnel to gain a unique long term experience in their assignment.
Paraguayan engineers in Haiti
As Coronel Justo German Torres Benítez, PARENGCOY IV’s commander and a veteran of several multinational operations, including the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), explained to me in April 2014, the company’s mission is: “to provide engineering support to carry out construction projects to the benefit of the MINUSTAH strategy and the main UN initiatives in Haiti. We thus have three main duties which are to support MINUSTAH’s military units, the Haitian Government and the local authorities and assist humanitarian aid efforts with our capabilities and personnel.”
Between 2010 and 2014, MINUSTAH evolved considerably. The mission succeeded in cutting down significantly the levels of violence in the country and especially in Port au Prince, allowing for a progressive shift in the military component’s duties which moved from solely acting as a security element to taking a more active part in humanitarian and development projects. The engineering
units in particular proved to be an essential bridge between the different dimensions of the current UN mission such as maintaining the peace while developing the country and helping to guaranty the Haitian people’s human rights.
In 2014, MINUSTAH still had three engineering companies in its order of battle, one of them PARENGCOY while the remaining two were the Chilean-Ecuadorian CHICUENGCOY and the Brazilian BRAENGCOY. At the time, PARENGCOY was undoubtedly the most involved in cooperation and development projects to the benefit of the Haitian population, as well as a leader in the field of vertical construction. As Coronel Torres Benitez further explained, “while we continue to provide support to MINUSTAH’s military units, nowadays, around 90% of our efforts are centered on humanitarian, government support and civilian-military (CIMIC) work. Again, this is only possible because the security threat once dominant in Haiti has now been significantly reduced, thus making it possible to focus on the country’s development. This is a point which needs to be clearly understood by outside observers: without security there can be no development whatsoever and it should also be remembered that security in itself is an integral part of any country’s rebuilding and development.”
In April 2014, PARENGCOY IV had a strength of 82 men and women, having reduced its size in December 2013 from its original 130 strong detail. As a consequence, the unit had lost its organic security platoon and had to rely on the assistance of other UN troops to support its operations when protection was required for its engineering teams. Under its then-current organization, PARENGCOY IV comprised:
- A 24 men strong engineering platoon specializing in horizontal construction (road maintenance, ground levelling, helipad construction etc),
- Another engineering platoon dedicated to vertical construction (erection of prefabs, building construction, etc) with a total of 24 officers and NCOs on strength,
- A service and support platoon with 10 elements assigned to it and spread between a services section, a transport section and a maintenance section.
The PARENGCOY command comprised a headquarters with a general staff, complete with its 8 sections (personnel, intelligence, operations, etc) under the direct responsibility of the deputy commander whom, in turn, answered to the commander of the unit. The latter also had under his authority a level 1 hospital with a staff of 11 (which is capable of catering for minor wounds and ailments, more serious conditions being attended by the level 2 Argentinean military hospital of Port au Prince).
As part of the military component of MINUSTAH, PARENGCOY IV was ultimately under the authority of the Force Commander and its staff. The commanding entity in Paraguay which was responsible for supporting it is the Comando de Fuerzas Militares (Military Forces Command, a joint structure which heads all of Paraguay’s armed forces).
The challenge of logistics
PARENGCOY IV’s deployment was no mean feat for Paraguay, which not only provided the manpower, equipment and weaponry (FN FAL and IWI Galil assault rifles, .12 shotguns and 9mm Bersa pistols) for this unit but, also, the vital logistic support necessary for it to function properly. The initial deployment of the company, in 2010, meant dispatching dozens of 20 tons containers, over 30 assorted vehicles as well as the necessary equipment to set proper cooking, sanitary, and maintenance facilities as well as a water treatment plant, among many other things. By 2014, spare parts, certain supplies and critical equipment were sent from Asuncion under a streamlined, highly reactive and functional logistics supports scheme which, was eventually further refined to allow PARENGCOY IV to source certain materials directly through local providers in Haiti or neighboring countries within the mission area, instead of Paraguay, thus saving both time and money. As Coronel Torres Benitez explained, “implementing such an innovative and reactive logistics chain was a major challenge. It is the result of a careful analysis of the lessons learned in this field over the past years of Paraguayan presence in Haiti. We took this as a basis to consider alternatives that would give us the needed flexibility, efficiency and simplicity in our logistics chain and the resulting proposal was presented to the Military Forces Command in Paraguay, in 2013. Soon after, we were green lit to move ahead and turn the project into a reality. We have been very fortunate to receive the full support of the higher hierarchy, especially from our current Commander Military Forces, General Jorge Francisco Ramírez Gómez. We are satisfied that our logistics support system is fully operational and the best proof of this are the sterling marks PARENGCOY has received in its two latest UN inspections.”
The machinery operated by the company came directly from Paraguay’s Army Engineering Command and was shipped by boat all the way to Port au Prince, in 2010, but for a Doozan excavator which was provided by the UN. In 2014, PARENGCOY IV had 11 engineering vehicles on strength: a pair of D6 Caterpillar Bulldozers, two CAT Front Loaders 924H and 930T, a couple of Caterpillar graders, two Finnish made Valmet industrial tractors, a Caterpillar rough terrain front loader forklift tractor, a single CAT 236B2 light tractor front loader and the afore mentioned UN owned Doozan excavator. Other vehicles in service included four multipurpose Ford Cargo 1717e trucks used for moving personnel and cargo, a pair of Ford Cargo 1717e and a Hino dump trucks, a Ford Cargo 1717e recovery truck, a REO M35 6×6 water truck, an M35 fuel truck, a cargo M35, a Hino 268 maintenance truck and a Scania 112 and a Ford Cargo truck tractors destined to move the tracked bulldozers and excavator over roads and long distances. A number of Mitsubishi and Ford Ranger pickups were also available for light transport and liaison to the different work areas of PARENGCOY IV in Port au Prince and outside. Finally, the hospital had its own dedicated ambulance.
PARENGCOY IV was the first contingent to deploy with the new Paraguayan military combat uniform whose design had been finalized in 2013. It has a completely new cut, based on the US Army Combat Uniform and is produced in a new, patented, pixelated camo pattern, whose design took into account the specificities of the country’s environment and vegetation. The uniform is manufactured by the Paraguayan company Textiles Pilar and now equips the entire Paraguayan Army. PARENGCOY IV’s personnel was also provided with US made Wellco desert boots and ESS protective sunglasses among other items.
Capabilities and fields of work in Haiti
At the time of my visit to PARENGCOY, in early April 2014, the unit was working simultaneously on a variety of sites, in Port au Prince and the coastal city of Jacmel, east of the capital. A four man team was in the process of concluding the installation of a number of prefabricated offices at the Haitian Ministry of Justice which would offer better working conditions to its employees. The Port au Prince orphanage of Bon Zami, run by an American couple and home to 21 children and young adolescents was being provided with a brand new block of sanitarian facilities, with four Paraguayan engineers working intensively to finalize the construction of a three showers/three toilets building after having first installed a septic tank. All the while, in Jacmel, a seven strong team from PARENGCOY was putting the finishing touches to the expansion of the Saint Michel local hospital, having erected three new prefabs. As mentioned at the beginning of this article the Paraguayan contingent was also lending a hand to the GUAMPCOY by providing men and machinery to clean a field adjacent to the Guatemala School, to be transformed later into a sports field for the children. PARENGCOY also conducted routine maintenance work within Camp Charlie (and its own base too), the main UN military facility in Haiti, renovating the interior walls, clearing the grounds, etc.
Just then, the company was also starting work on two new fronts in Cap Haitien, in Northern Haiti, one of them at the Zeus Universal orphanage, home to some 300 children, in cooperation with the Peruvian Company (PECOY), with the aim of building two new dormitories and an outer wall as well as leveling the ground on which the orphanage was sited. The idea was to conduct such a work as a Quick Impact Project (QIP), a UN concept designed to carry out humanitarian efforts on a short timeline with a limited amount of funding (usually less than 100 000 USD) with the aim of providing rapid benefits to the local population. Besides this particular project, PARENGCOY was also getting involved in the refection of a physiotherapy rehabilitation center.
In a bid to further expand the company’s capabilities, the PARENGCOY command had decided to have some of its personnel trained in well drilling, in order to be able to carry out such work to the benefit of the Haitian people. This is an essential capability given that one of the UN priorities is currently to reduce the threat of the ever present cholera epidemic, by providing local communities with access to clean drinking water. As part of such a campaign, PARENGCOY was also frequently involved in water distribution CIMIC operations, thanks to its in-house water treatment facility.
Training before deploying
The preparation of the personnel destined to serve in PARENGCOY prior to its deployment to Haiti is a critical process which is fully acknowledged and understood by the Paraguayan military leadership.
Deploying a contingent from Paraguay to Haiti is a three steps process which begins with personnel selection, followed by pre-deployment training and, finally, the deployment to the mission area. All personnel (from all three branches of the military: Army, Navy and Air Force) wishing to be selected to join the unit must first complete the Peacekeeping Operation Course which is conducted at the Centro Conjunto para Operaciones de Paz (CECOPAZ: Combined Center for Peace Operations), in the vicinity of the capital city of Asuncion and includes lectures on the situation in Haiti, the aim of the current UN mission, the rules of engagement (RoE), etc. Some of the applicants are sent abroad for this, to Brazil’s Centro Conjunto de Operações de Paz do Brasil (CCOPAB).
CECOPAZ was established on October 8, 2001, in order to provide the Paraguayan military with its own capability to train personnel for deployment in peacekeeping operations. Before this, the Paraguayan troops sent on assignment with the UN had to prepare abroad, mainly in Argentina or Brazil.
Once the personnel have taken this course they can proceed through selection to try and join the PARENGCOY contingent and train for the upcoming deployment. The entire process is under the responsibility of the commander designated by the Military Forces Command and its Peace Operations Department.
In early 2013, taking into account the experience and lessons learned during the previous deployments, PARENGCOY IV’s operational command designed a new personnel selection process intended to further improve the quality of the men and women destined to serve in the unit. The aim was to make sure that the selected personnel have the professionalism and dignity necessary to be a part of an international operation in which they are representing Paraguay thus acting as de facto ambassadors of their country within a multinational coalition. The selection process in itself is divided into a number of phases which include a personal evaluation of each officer and NCO aimed at assessing the degree of qualification for the mission, each individual’s motivation and interest in the duties he will be expected to perform and a psychological analysis. All applicants were thoroughly reviewed, with each subunit commander or section chief being personally involved in the selection and evaluation process of his subordinates.
The pre-deployment period, which follows selection, is dedicated to the induction of the men and women which will form the company and their familiarization with the mission equipment and duties to be fulfilled once in Haiti. Specialist training courses are conducted, with some of the personnel being sent abroad. In March 2013, a number of NCOs received field training on the use of construction machinery with the Brazilian Army while others were schooled in the water treatment process, also in Brazil. Some weeks later, a platoon of officers and NCOs travelled to Nepal to attend the Army’s Birendra Peace Operations Training Centre (BPOTC) peacekeeping exercise Shanti-Prayas 2. Command and Control courses were also provided by the Massachusetts National Guard for the benefit of PARENGCOY future staff officers. Overall the aim of the pre-deployment phase is to simulate as accurately as possible the engineering and more generally all facets of the military work that the company will have to conduct in Haiti as well as the environment in which it will be operating.
The final step in this preparation is a two weeks exercise done in northern Paraguay, in remote areas where the company’s training is put into practice. In 2013, PARENGCOY IV carried out works such as grading 15 km of untarred road in Yby-yau, an isolated rural community while conducting select construction works, such as house and facilities repairs, which left the locals quite a bit surprised (and thoroughly grateful), the latter being unaware that their country’s Army is capable and eager to carry out such civil development operations.
A look at the future
By 2014, following four years of presence in Haiti, PARENGCOY’s contribution to MINUSTAH and the rebuilding of Haiti could only be considered a complete success. The company’s excellent work is the single best example to illustrate the Paraguayan Armed Forces’ commitment to improving world peace and stability. Then MINUSTAH Force Commander, the late Lieutenant General Jose Luiz Jaborandy Junior was adamant that the Paraguayan engineers were a unit he was extremely satisfied to be able to rely on and Colonel Torres Benítez proudly explained to me in April 2014 that after four months of presence in the country, all the planned works involving PARENGCOY IV were proceeding either on or ahead of schedule. The unit, which concluded its tour of operations in Haiti in January 2015, was a highly efficient and flexible outfit thanks, in no small part, to its extensive and thorough training. The Paraguayan forces in Haiti then and today are characterized by their great professionalism, discipline and swift work efficiency when carrying out the duties entrusted upon them by MINUSTAH. Most of the projects they carry out in Haiti are conducted by small teams of less than ten individuals who manage to perform their task with great diligence despite their limited manpower. All men and women in PARENGCOY are deeply committed to their mission and enthusiastic about the opportunity to be in Haiti. As Lieutenant David Mendoza Benítez explained in 2014: “here, in Haiti, we learn something new every day. Being part of MINUSTAH allows us to work in an operational environment which is quite different from what we see in Paraguay. This is a chance to gain valuable experience which can then be put to the best use when we return to Paraguay at the end of the year”.
The words of the internationally acclaimed Paraguayan guitarist Berta Rojas when visiting the unit in late April 2014 are without a doubt the best prize for the men and women of PARENGCOY: the recognition of the value of their work by one of their own fellow Paraguayan: “to see troops from my country coming to Haiti to put their knowledge, their competence and all their will to help the Haitian people and improve its living conditions is something I’m deeply proud of”.
PARENGCOY’s experience has allowed Paraguay to gain firsthand understanding and experience of working in a UN peacekeeping operation under its own banner and authority. Now, as PARENGCOY VI is about to deploy and with MINUSTAH’s future unclear, the Paraguayan military is evaluating options regarding its continuing participation in peacekeeping operations. As explained by Colonel Edgar Noceda Figueredo, military adviser to the Paraguayan UN delegation in New York, the possibility of redeploying PARENGCOY to a new mission such as the MINUSMA in Mali or, more likely, the MINUSCA in the Central African Republic is being seriously considered. Of course, it would most likely be necessary to have the unit’s numbers expanded and additional equipment would be required as well, a potential issue due to the limited budget currently available. To overcome this difficulty, Paraguay is looking at the possibility of a joint deployment with another Latin-American country such as Uruguay, with whose Ministry of Defense a Memorandum of Understanding has been signed on the matter.
Deseo agradecer a las Señoras Martin y Boutaud de la Combe del CPIO MINUSTAH y al Teniente Coronel Silva MPIO MINUSTAH por su invaluable apoyo en este reportaje, al Coronel Justo Germán Torres Benítez y a todos los oficiales, en especial al Teniente David Mendoza Benítez y suboficiales de la PARENGCOY por su gran hospitalidad, disponibilidad y gentileza durante toda mi estancia en Haití. Por fin, quiero dedicar este artículo a la memoria del Teniente General José Luiz Jaborandy Junior, Comandante de Fuerzas Militares MINUSTAH quien me recibió tan amablemente en Abril 2014. Gracias!
 The Inter-American Peace Force (IAPF) operated in a bid to stop the bloodshed caused by a brutal civil war which had prompted the United States to occupy the country and request the support of the OAS to stabilize it. The IAPF was led by Brazil and remained in place until 1967.
 Such as military policemen from the Guatemalan MP Company (GUAMPCOY) or soldiers from the neighboring Peruvian Infantry Company (PERCOY)