With the bankruptcy of Engesa in 1993, an uncertainty arose in Colombia regarding the readiness of their Engesa vehicles. Colombia used 128 EE-9 Cascavels and 56 EE-11 Urutus, for which the supply of spare parts was in jeopardy. The potential effects of Engesa’s bankruptcy were further aggravated by a gradual increase of FARC activity throughout the 1990s. This resulted in the development of Colombia’s very first locally designed armored vehicle, known as the Zipa. Imdicol, with the support of the Colombian Army, attempted to create what was effectively a downgraded copy of the EE-11 Urutu. They would not succeed, but would lay the basis for future Imdicol projects.
The EE-11 Urutu and Engesa’s Bankruptcy
The Urutu was Engesa’s troop transporter or armored personnel carrier (APC), designed by Engesa and the Brazilian Navy. The vehicle was designed from the ground up to be amphibious, and was approved in 1972, after successful testing in various conditions including open sea, for which it was modified with multiple snorkels, propellers, and a wave breaker.
The Urutu mounted a boomerang suspension to significantly improve its ability to traverse uneven and hilly terrain, as the wheels would always stay in contact with the ground to provide maximum traction. The APC was protected with bimetal armor, which offered improved protection over homogeneous steel armor of the same thickness. The Bimetal armor offered around 1.8 times the effective thickness of an equivalent homogeneous plate against 7.62 mm ammunition, meaning the Urutu had an effective homogeneous thickness of 21.6 mm at the front and 10.8 mm at the sides and rear against 7.62 mm fire.
Serial production began in 1973, and it managed to achieve large sales to Iraq, Libya, and most of South America. The EE-11 arrived in Colombia in 1982, as part of a deal for 128 EE-9 M4 Cascavels and 56 EE-11 M3 Urutus. The contract also included spare parts, ammunition, 17 to 22 EE-25 trucks, maintenance support, and Pilkington night vision goggles for a total contract value of US$93,328,171 US dollars (about US$270 million in 2021).
In 1990, Engesa filed for bankruptcy. Years of megalomaniac management, extreme growth, projects that went nowhere, the end of the Iraq-Iran War, the failure of the EE-T1 Osório, and the later complete disappearance of Iraq as a customer would cause the company to finally close its doors in 1993. Its assets were divided between multiple parties, such as the Brazilian government, but also smaller companies which would step in to become the new maintenance contractors for Engesa’s vehicles. These companies included Universal Ltda and Columbus International Ltda.
The Development of the Zipa
Although Colombia could have immediately contracted Universal or Columbus to continue maintaining their Engesa vehicles, it seems that they first wanted to give armored vehicle development a try themselves.
There are a couple of reasons which might explain why Colombia chose this route. The first was to obtain know-how in the country on building these types of vehicles, and like Brazil before it, in order to attempt to supply its armored forces with locally produced armored vehicles to be more independent. Another reason is that Colombia considered that they could lose EE-11 Urutus against the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo ((FARC-EP, though more commonly known simply as FARC) (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army)) in a significant enough number, and they would need replacements, of which none would be available.
The FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) is a Marxist-Leninist guerilla organization founded in 1964. The FARC can trace its roots to the PCC (Partido Comunista Colombiano, Colombian Communist Party), which was founded in 1930. The PCC established itself in Colombia as proponents of improved conditions for the working classes. The PCC effectively formed in rural territories within Colombia to enable the rural populations to defend themselves from state-sponsored violence against the working classes and small landowners (farmers). Tensions between the PCC and PLC (Partido Liberal Colombiano, Colombian Liberal Party) on the one hand and the Partido Conservador Colombiano (Colombian Conservative Party) on the other rose to a decade long civil war in 1948, known as La Violencia. By the end in 1958, the war had ended in a stalemate which had claimed the lives of 200,000 people, partially as a result of peasants from different political factions fighting each other for agricultural land.
During the 1960s, the Colombian government, backed by the United States, attempted to reclaim the rural territories which had been founded by the PCC, and in 1964 attacked the rural territory known as Marquetalia. The region was overrun by about 16,000 Colombian troops, while the total defense force of the territory, consisting of supposedly 48 men, managed to slip away. These 48 fighters founded the FARC in 1966, essentially forming a more organized military wing of the PCC. The FARC grew in numbers and eventually called themselves the FARC-EP (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army) which became more aggressive, initiating large scale operations and attacks against the Colombian Army. The FARC-EP funded their organization through kidnappings, the traffic of illegal drugs such as cocaine, and taxation in areas they controlled, among other means. Through multiple peace talks and cease-fires over the years, the FARC was eventually dissolved in 2017, although about 2,500 FARC-EP fighters are still operating against the Colombian government.
Development of the Zipa began somewhere in 1993, although initial steps might have been taken as early as 1990, with the beginning of Engesa’s bankruptcy. It was developed by Imdicol with support of the Intendencia General del Ejército (Army Quartermaster General’s Office), Brigada de Apoyo Logístico (Logistics Support Brigade), la Dirección de Armamento (Directorate of Armaments), Escuela de Caballería (Cavalry School), and the Batallón de Mantenimiento (Maintenance Battalion). The goal was to create a locally designed and manufactured vehicle to replace the EE-11 Urutu from service. About 70% of the Zipa was locally produced and 30% was imported. Most electrical and mechanical components were adapted from off-the-shelf heavy duty truck components. The steel used for the Zipa’s armor was homogenous instead of the Urutu’s bimetal. A number of components were said to have been repurposed from a destroyed Cascavel.
An EE-9 Cascavel had been destroyed not too long before the development of the Zipa began, by an IED of the ELN guerilla (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, National Liberation Army). The perpetrators, who were captured a couple of weeks later, stated that they had stolen 50 kg of dynamite from a mine before the attack. If the full 50 kg was used during the attack is unknown, but if it was, the Cascavel came out of the explosion relatively well off, which might suggest that it drove at a sufficient distance to not be a complete write off. The registration of the EE-9 was ‘EJC-1-2042’ of the Grupo de Caballería Mecanizado N.1 (First Mechanized Cavalry Group).
It is said that a range of components were repurposed from the EE-9 Cascavel for the Zipa. Which components were used exactly is unknown, but it is likely that these included systems of the driver, the engine, suspension components, the ET-7,62 turret, and potentially, a semi-restored boomerang suspension.
A single prototype was completed some time before May 29th 1993. The Zipa was presented at the 5th Expomilitar, a military exhibition, at Corferias. There, the prototype was baptized a ‘Zipa’ by a car designer named Eduardo Fajardo, who worked with Imdicol. The author of this article was unable to find any exact information about Eduardo Fajardo, but the name Fajardo is a frequent name that comes up in relation with Imdicol (suggesting its a family business and Eduardo might have been one of the first CEO’s), and the current CEO is Victor Hugo Fajardo. This suggests that Eduardo Fajardo might have been the CEO of Imdicol at the time.
The Zipa was extensively tested, which ended in unsatisfactory results. The vehicle was too heavy for its suspension, the engine did not have enough torque to overcome slopes and the vehicle was underpowered in general. It was not amphibious, which was initially planned, nor were the wheels suitable for the type of vehicle. The suspension system itself was also said to not have been suitable and used too many components from commercial vehicles.
Interestingly, the vehicle appears to mount a boomerang suspension, but according to an ex-volunteer at the Colombian Army who drove the Zipa in June 1994, the suspension did not function like a boomerang suspension. It is possible that the Zipa never had a boomerang suspension, but mounted a suspension to look like one, or that the boomerang was damaged to such a point that it was only salvageable without its boomerang feature working. The ex-volunteer also noted that the vehicle had good speed, but that the overall quality of the workmanship was poor.
Little is known about Imdicol, except that it was founded at some point between 1983 and 1985. Considering the recurring name of Fajardo, it is likely that the company is a family business. The first project of Imdicol was the modernisation of 16 Colombian Army M8 Greyhounds, by remotorising them with a Detroit Diesel engine and Alison automatic transmission, and arming the vehicles with a M55 quad .50 machine gun turret.
After this, the company seems to have gotten enough experience to try and take on the development of the Zipa. After the Zipa, the company would develop a range of wheeled armored vehicles, and is now a company focussed on equipment and armored vehicles for special police forces.
The Zipa in Detail
The Zipa was 6.3 meters (20.6 feet) long, 2.7 meters (8.86 feet) wide, and 2.4 meters (7.87 feet) high, and weighed 10 tonnes empty and 12 tonnes (11-13.2 US tons) combat-loaded. The Zipa had a crew of 2, a driver and a commander, and could transport between 14 to 16 soldiers. This is a significant number, as the Urutu could transport 10 soldiers. It is likely that the Zipa was in actuality meant to transport just 12 soldiers instead. This has to do with the relatively minor length increase and the amount of portholes on the sides of both vehicles. The Colombian EE-11 M3 Urutus had 5 portholes on each side for the ten soldiers. This porthole design was continued on the Zipa, but the Zipa had 6 portholes on each side, signifying the possibility of carrying 12 soldiers instead of 14 to 16.
|6.3 meters (20.6 feet)
|6.1 meters (20 feet) long
|2.7 meters (8.86 feet)
|2.59 meters (8.5 feet)
|2.4 meters (7.87 feet)
|2.4 meters (7.87 feet) ET-7,62 commander’s turret
|10 tonnes empty and 12 tonnes (11-13.2 US tons) combat-loaded
|12.6 tonnes (13.9 US tons) combat-loaded
Hull and Armor
The hull of the Zipa was manufactured from homogenous steel plates at more or less the same angles of the Urutu, so about 70º from vertical for the upper front plate and 30º from vertical for the lower front plate. The armor of the Zipa is unknown, but considering its overall dimensions and weight are close to the Urutu, it is likely to be around the same thickness. This would mean about 12 mm (0.5 inch) of armor at the front and 6 mm (0.25 inch) on the sides and rear. It is important to note that the Urutu used bimetal armor instead of homogeneous armor like the Zipa. This means that, against 7.62 mm bullets, the Urutu would have an effective armor of about 21.6 mm (0.85 inch) and 10.8 mm (0.43 inch) while the Zipa would have an effective armor of 12 mm (0.5 inch) and 6 mm (0.25 inch). As such, the Urutu provided more effective armor for about the same weight compared to the Zipa.
The Zipa sported two sets of lights which were integrated in the hull, with a black-out marker and headlight on each side. A large part of the right upper front plate is occupied by a large hatch which gives access to the engine. On the left is the driver’s station, with a foldable windscreen and a driver’s vision structure, sharing many design features with the Urutu.
In addition, the vehicle was outfitted with a side mirror on each side. The Zipa had two doors on each side of the hull and also incorporated 6 portholes on each side so that the soldiers could shoot from the inside of the vehicle. The vehicle had its exhaust on the right side of the vehicle, with the pipe going all the way to the penultimate rearmost porthole. It also seems to have either a siren or horn installed on the front right side of the vehicle.
The rear of the Zipa seems to have two rear lights on each side integrated in the hull, and a large door in the middle for the passengers. The door offers a large sight for the troops to look outside and also an additional porthole. The door design seems to have been based on the Urutu door as well.
The hull top design also seems to be a direct copy of the EE-11 Urutu. Although no direct pictures of the top of the Zipa exist, based on pictures from the outside and interior, the vehicle has 4 large hatches for the soldiers on the top rear of the vehicle. In between these hatches, on each side, was also a ventilation cover. The commanders’ ET-7,62 turret, either taken from a EE-9 Cascavel or a Colombian copy, was installed on the left front side of the hull top. On the right were 4 extra ventilation slides. In front of the ET 7,62 turret was the driver’s rotating hatch. The interior rear of the vehicle is very much like the Urutu, with two sets of benches on both sides of the vehicle.
The engine which powered the Zipa is unknown. Based on a picture of the engine, it is somewhat likely that a Detroit Diesel 6V53 210 hp@2,800 rpm engine was used. This theory is further supported by the engine used in Colombia’s Urutus and Cascavels, which were also Detroit 6V53 engines, and due to the various components of the wrecked EE-9 that were integrated in the Zipa. What is at least clear is that the Zipa used a V-style engine. The transmission is also unknown, but is stated as an Imdicol 6×6 transmission by multiple sources. It could also have been an Allison MT-643 which was used on the Urutus and Cascavels and might have been salvaged from the destroyed Cascavel, and on later vehicles built by Imdicol.
It can be concluded that, if the Detroit engine was used, the mobility issues of the Zipa were not to blame on the engine. The same engine was used on the Urutu and Cascavel, so it is much more likely that the components in between engine and the final drives were the problem instead. It is possible that the drive and suspension components were also salvaged from the EE-9 Cascavel, of which some might have been damaged, like the boomerang suspension, potentially explaining the mobility issues.
The Zipa is said to have been able to drive 100 km/h (62 mph) on roads and had an operational range of 600 km (373 miles). It had 6 wheels which may have been run-flat or bulletproof, although sources disagree on this matter. If they were bulletproof, the wheels were supposedly filled with a gelatinlike substance. It is likely that the suspension installed was either a restored version from the destroyed Cascavel, thus losing its boomerang ability, that it was a concept suspension, or that it was a different type of walking beam suspension. The suspension used springs and leaf springs for shock breaking.
Turret and Armament
The Zipa mounted what seems to be a copy of Engesa’s ET-7,62 commander’s cupola or used the ET-7,62 from the destroyed EE-9. The ET-7,62 was armored with 8 mm bimetal steel plates (which would most likely be turned into homogenous steel for the Colombian version if it was a copy), and had a turret ring of 0.68 meters.
It had 3 periscopes and could be armed with a 7.62 mm machine gun. The Zipa was supposed to be armed with a 12.7 mm machine gun (most likely an M2 Browning Heavy Machine Gun). The machine guns could be fired remotely from the inside of the vehicle if needed. The turret would also be outfitted with two pairs of smoke launchers. The cupola was accessed through a large hatch that more or less constituted the entire rear and side of the turret. The periscopes supposedly used VN Infrared Systems as night sights. It is unknown if this was also the case for the driver.
When the vehicle was completed in 1993 and subsequently tested, a number of issues regarding its mobility came to light. If this had to do with the engine, according to Colombian sourcing, could be somewhat questioned if the engine happened to be a Detroit 6V53. It is also interesting if the ET-7,62 turret was actually copied, or taken from the destroyed EE-9, and if the boomerang suspension was salvaged from the same EE-9 and repaired to be mounted on the Zipa as a temporary suspension. If this is the case, it would also be very likely that components such as the transmission and engine could also have been used from this Cascavel to save costs and development time.
The Zipa project seems to have been abandoned after these trials. It is very likely that, by the end of the trials, the situation around Engesa’s bankruptcy had been stabilized and that companies such as Universal Ltda and Columbus Ltda had managed to cement themselves as the new maintenance and refurbishment companies of the Engesa vehicles.
It is very likely that the Colombians started running the numbers and figured out that maintaining the Urutu was cheaper than building their own APC and that they may not have lost as many Urutu against the FARC as initially predicted. In addition, even if all the mobility issues were solved by Imdicol by using more heavy-duty components, the Zipa would still be an inferior vehicle to the Urutu. The Zipa would only be able to compete with the Urutu if Imdicol started using bimetal armor instead of homogeneous steel and if the vehicle would get amphibious capabilities. If the Zipa had kept using homogeneous armor and the vehicle went into service, the Colombians would effectively be replacing the Urutu with worse vehicles.
The Zipa project was canceled and the vehicle remains at the Escuela de Caballería (Cavalry School), where it was used as an instruction vehicle, but is now part of the museum. It seems that, somewhere after June 2019, the Zipa was painted in a desert livery.
The project was luckily not a waste of resources, as the overall design was adapted in Imdicol’s next project, known as the Aymara. Two Aymara were built and are still in use. Interestingly, the Aymara was co-developed with Columbus Ltda, and both Columbus and Universal would end up doing either maintenance or refurbishments for the Colombian vehicles.
In the end, Colombia’s first attempt to build an armored vehicle had failed. The concept of the Zipa was not terrible, as it was almost an identical copy of the Urutu. The main issue was the components used to build the Zipa. The suspension components were not fit for a vehicle of this weight, and the usage of homogeneous steel meant that the Zipa was less armored than the Urutu it was meant to replace.
These factors and the costs of acquiring new vehicles versus maintaining old vehicles with the rise of Columbus and Universal, seems to have been deciding factors to not go forward with the Zipa and keep using the Urutues instead. As such, the Zipa project came to a close and Imdicol went on to develop the Aymara.
|6.3 meters (20.6 feet) x 2.7 meters (8.86 feet) x 2.4 meters (7.87 feet)
|12 tonnes (13.2 US tons)
|2+12-16 (Driver, commander, 12 to 16 soldiers)
|Unknown, might be a Detroit 6V53 210 hp diesel engine
|100 km/h (62 mph)
|600 km (373 miles)
|12.7 mm heavy machine gun
|Unknown, likely to be similar to the Urutu but homogeneous instead of bimetal
Special thanks to Rodolfo Alberto Riascos Rodrigues, the ex-volunteer who drove the Zipa in 1994. His information and experience has been invaluable to tell the story of the Zipa.
Blindados no Brasil – Expedito Carlos Stephani Bastos
Personal correspondence with Rodolfo Alberto Riascos Rodrigues