Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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Colombia

How Colombia’s lopsided approach to security makes Colombians less safe

Here’s the original English of an article I wrote for the Colombian analysis website Razón Pública, which they published on September 19. They had asked me to explain why Colombia faces persistently high levels of violence and insecurity, despite maintaining some of the region’s largest security forces and outspending their neighbors on security.

The answer, I argue, lies mainly in Colombia’s unbalanced approach: if you envision an entire “security sector,” Colombia has really only developed a part of it: the part that carries guns and wears uniforms.

Here’s the text:

Colombia invests robustly in its military, police, and intelligence forces. But it doesn’t invest enough in the security of its citizens. The distinction is important, because the results are tragically evident.

Colombia’s 2023 budget will include about 48 trillion pesos for its Defense Ministry. That’s about 12 percent of the General Budget of the Republic, and just a bit less than 4 percent of Colombia’s gross domestic product.

That is a lot of money. This World Bank page sorts 165 countries in the world for which data exists by percentage of GDP spent on “gasto militar,” from most to least. Scroll down from the top, and Colombia (3.38 percent in 2020) is the first country in the Americas to appear on the list. After the United States, Colombia has the largest Army and the second-largest armed forces in the Western Hemisphere.

Despite that, Colombia is no more secure than its neighbors. According to the annual “round-up” of homicide rates compiled by InsightCrime, Colombia had the Americas’ sixth-highest rate in 2021 (26.8 per 100,000 inhabitants; 27.7 according to the Defense Ministry), similar to that of Mexico, significantly higher than Brazil, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and far higher than Chile or Peru. If Colombia were a major city in the United States—a country with its own violent crime crisis—the entire country would be approximately in tenth place, well ahead of Chicago or Washington.

The government of Iván Duque left security trends moving in the wrong direction. It put most of its energy into taking down “high value targets” or cabecillas of armed groups, and killed or captured many. But between 2017 and 2021, homicides increased 15 percent, massacres and massacre victims more than doubled, and victims of mass internal displacements increased 322 percent. Colombia remains the world’s most dangerous country in which to be a human rights or environmental defender. The first six weeks of Gustavo Petro’s government has been similarly dire, with 18 massacres and the senseless killing of 8 police officers in San Luis, Huila.

What explains this mismatch between robust security expenditure and rampant insecurity? The answer lies in the lopsided and unbalanced nature of Colombia’s security investments. This expresses itself in two broad ways.

First, too much remains undone in addressing the Colombian state’s remarkable weakness in much of national territory, from the agricultural frontier to poor urban neighborhoods. The problem of state absence and territorial abandonment is historic, chronic, and covered well elsewhere. But efforts to address it remain slow and underfunded.

Six years ago, the FARC-government peace accord included an ambitious plan to address the state’s historic absence and begin providing public goods where almost none exist. Chapter 1 of this document (“comprehensive rural reform”) sought to increase state presence in neglected rural areas through Territorially Focused Development Programs (PDETs), sectoral investment plans, a multipurpose cadaster, a Lands Fund, and other initiatives.

Frustratingly, implementation of this chapter is running badly behind. The July report by a group of legislators monitoring accord implementation found that the Duque government met just 1.2 percent of what should be done each year to meet commitments for land distribution through the Lands Fund, 13.1 percent of yearly targets for land formalization, 51.7 percent of targets for the cadaster, and—most troublingly—only 37.3 percent of resources needed to implement the PDETs and stabilize state presence in territory.

The Petro government’s pledges to revive peace accord implementation are encouraging, and the ongoing regional dialogues are a step in the right direction. But much remains to be done to build state presence in ungoverned areas, as the situation has improved little in the six years since the FARC left the scene.

Second, Colombia has focused heavily on strengthening its security forces, but insufficiently on strengthening its security sector. If one regards “security” as just soldiers, police, and intelligence services, one will fail, ultimately, to enforce laws and protect citizens. What must be built up is a larger sector that requires resources, skilled personnel, independence, protection, and political backing.

Think of this “security sector” as a Parthenon-like building with many pillars, or perhaps as a shape made up of concentric layers.

The innermost layer is what most people think about when they envision “security”: highly trained people who are the only individuals in society authorized to use force or—with judicial authorization—to infringe civil liberties. They include soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, special operations forces, police, detectives, spies, and similar.

This is the part of its security sector on which Colombia has invested the most: the uniformed part of its Defense Ministry. Even here, though, there are serious unmet needs, like rural policing, rapid response capacity, de-escalatory crowd control, and other aspects of citizen protection. These get de-proritized in favor of forced coca eradication, “high-value targeting,” aerial bombardments, and other actions emblematic of the previous government’s focus on what it called “símbolos del mal.”

The next layer out consists of civilians charged with day-to-day management of these institutions. These are officials in the defense and public security ministries, ideally a solid core of people who understand threat analysis, planning, defense budget management, rules of evidence and police procedure, human rights, and similar. These institutions also include independent inspectors-general, who handle internal affairs and charges of misconduct, and who alert and accompany judicial authorities when personnel violate laws, engage in corruption, or abuse human rights.

Colombia has had civilian defense ministers for more than 30 years, and mayors share command over police, though in a sometimes confusing fashion. Still, it is hard to argue that Colombia has installed strong capacity and expertise within the civilian part of the state to manage defense issues, which remain largely left up to men (specifically, men) in uniform. Inspectors-general have faced intense institutional pressure during the times when they have truly sought to fulfill their offices’ mission.

The next layer out is another branch of government: judicial authorities, who are there to hold the security forces criminally accountable when necessary, but are especially central to investigating and punishing all criminal activity that threatens’ citizens’ safety. They include prosecutors, judges, investigators and detectives, and the prison system (or, where appropriate, those administering non-carceral alternatives).

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“A purely military approach has proved not to work”

Asked by Spain’s El País how Colombia’s new government can take on the country’s armed and criminal groups, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ representative in Colombia, Juliette de Rivero, urges a move away from the hunt for “high value targets.” Instead, she calls for more government presence in long-abandoned territories, and more protection of the population.

The devil is in the details, of course, but this is a succinct declaration of principles for a better security strategy. De Rivero goes on to point out that much of what is needed was already foreseen in Colombia’s 2016 peace accord.

Q. In your report you say that the previous government’s strategy of attacking armed group leaders was not effective. The current one has said that they still do not have clear “high value targets”. They are going to have to keep looking for the commanders, what should they do differently this time?

A. For us, the first objective has to be to protect the civilian population. In other words, the military and state strategy must have as its objective the population and their protection, because they are really exposed to such a high level of violence that this should be the first objective. Second, it must be a comprehensive strategy, not only military, and it must be accompanied by the entire state apparatus to resolve the underlying issues. To advance in resolving the land issue, to consolidate what was started with the Territorially Focused Development Programs [PDET]. Alternatives must also be created to illicit economies and the state must be more present and stronger in those places. Local authorities are very weak compared to armed groups, so they have to be consolidated as much as the other branches of the state, such as the judicial apparatus, the prosecutors’ offices, etc. We believe that this is the set of things that can begin to provide an answer, but a purely military approach has proved not to work.

Colombia’s weak peso

I just paid $46.59 per night to stay in the Holiday Inn right in the middle of Bogotá’s business district. A perfectly quiet, clean chain hotel with fast internet, hot water, and free breakfast.

The Colombian peso is so weak right now: in part because the dollar is strong everywhere, but in part because investors had a little freakout after Colombians elected a “leftist” president.

On this last trip, I found myself tipping cab drivers 50% (tips aren’t usually a thing in taxis) because the rides were so cheap (like $7 for a half-hour trip) that they barely seemed enough to cover the gas.

Some photos from yesterday’s presidential inauguration in Colombia

It was an honor to be in the audience at yesterday’s swearing-in of President Gustavo Petro and Vice President Francia Márquez. Here is a Flickr album of 40 photos taken with my little point-and-shoot camera, which has a decent zoom lens.

Some of them came out well. Feel free to use them with attribution.

And here’s me during the break in the action while we waited for them to bring out Bolívar’s sword.

At Razón Pública: Iván Velásquez, ministro de Defensa: por qué y para qué

The Colombian publication Razón Pública today published a new piece by me about the defense and security challenges the country is facing, six days before it swears in a new president. That president will be the first leftist politician in Colombia’s modern history, and his choice to lead the Defense Ministry, Iván Velásquez, is one of Latin America’s best-known anti-corruption fighters.

I argue here that Velásquez is a good choice because he at least stands a credible chance of making progress on three urgent security priorities:

  • Combating corruption within the officer corps;
  • Increasing government presence in abandoned marginal rural areas where armed groups and coca thrive; and
  • Deeply reforming and civilianizing the police.

We’ll be adapting some of the language in this column for a WOLA commentary later this week, which will have an English version.

WOLA Podcast: “What happens with the Petro government could become a model for engaging with the region”

My WOLA colleague Gimena Sánchez was in Colombia for the June 19 election that brought a left candidate to power there for the first time in nearly anyone’s lifetime. We recorded a podcast about it on Friday, and here it is. Here’s the blurb from WOLA’s podcast site.

Colombia’s June 19 presidential election had a historic result: the first left-of-center government in the country’s modern history. Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla who demobilized over 30 years ago, will be sworn in to the presidency on August 7. His running mate, Afro-Colombian social movement leader and environmental defender Francia Márquez, will be Colombia’s next vice president.

WOLA’s director for the Andes, Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, was in Colombia on election day, and has a lot to share about what she saw and heard. She and host Adam Isacson talk about what made Petro’s victory possible—including high levels of popular discontent. They discuss the political transition so far, the immediate challenges of governability and tax revenue, implications for implementing Colombia’s 2016 peace accord, and hope for greater participation of women, Afro-descendant, Indigenous, and LGBTI Colombians.

The discussion covers areas of potential disagreement with a U.S. government that has long made Colombia its largest aid recipient, including drug policy, trade, and Venezuela policy. Sánchez and Isacson also discuss new areas of potential U.S.-Colombian cooperation, including judicial strengthening and implementation of peace accord commitments that could stabilize long-ungoverned territories.

Links to recent WOLA analysis of Colombia’s elections:

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Social leaders in Colombia: the crisis is not abating

The UN verification mission in Colombia counted 56 killings of human rights defenders and social leaders in just 3 months, from March 26 to June 27. (All but seven remain to be verified.)

That’s three homicides every five days. In the nearly five years and four months before this latest quarterly reporting period, the UN Mission counted about one homicide very four days.

For people who want to participate non-violently in local politics, the pace of death is not slowing.

The image is from the infographic report accompanying the UN Mission’s latest quarterly report on the peace process. The press release summarizing that report is here.

Recent writing…

You may be wondering what’s the point of maintaining a personal website, if you don’t even use it to post links to things you’ve created at the moment they go public. You’d have a good point.

My only defense is something along the lines of “deadlines meetings too much happening in the news when do I sleep.” That’s a poor defense, though, because it only takes a couple of minutes to post things here, I enjoy maintaining this space, and I want it to be a useful resource.

So here’s what’s come out lately:

The Tragedy in Texas Was Avoidable, Just Like Hundreds of Other Migrant Deaths on U.S. Soil This Year: (posted June 28) As we absorbed the horror of the mass death of migrants in a cargo container in Texas, we published this commentary explaining the larger context: 2022 was already on its way to being a record year for grisly and preventable deaths of migrants on U.S. soil along the border. It’s a result of policies put in place by people in our federal government who have—I don’t know how else to put it—a really cavalier attitude about the deaths of people who’ve committed no crimes.

From rebel to president: Colombia’s new leftist leader: An hourlong English unpacking of Colombia’s election result on BBC’s “Real Story” program, with journalist Catalina Lobo-Guerrero and Oscar Guardiola-Rivera of Birkbeck, University of London.

Migration and the Summit of the Americas: (posted June 23) a podcast I hosted with three WOLA colleagues. Between myself, VP for Programs Maureen Meyer, Mexico and Migrant Rights Program Director Stephanie Brewer, and Program Assistant Lesly Tejada, since March we’ve done field research in four of the nine sectors into which the U.S. Border Patrol divides the U.S.-Mexico border, we’ve been to the Mexico-Guatemala border, and we’ve attended the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, where migration was a big topic. Here, we talk about all of that.

A fresh start for Colombia … and for US policy? (posted to the Quincy Institute Responsible Statecraft site June 22) In the wake of Gustavo Petro’s presidential election victory in Colombia, a preview of areas where the U.S. government could work with him (peace implementation, environment, ethnic and women’s rights, anticorruption) and where there may be a collision course (drugs, Venezuela, trade, the military “special relationship”).

Colombia’s politics are changing dramatically. U.S. policy must change too. (posted June 16) Posted in the runup to Colombia’s momentous presidential election, a look at what the implications might be for U.S. policy toward a country President Biden views as a “keystone.”

OK, in the end, this post actually took me a while to write, especially on a Saturday afternoon when there’s a lot going on around the house. Still, I resolve to do a better job of sharing recent work when it comes out.

The Wrong Man at the Wrong Time

After about 2 1/2 years, the commander of Colombia’s army, Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro, is leaving. This is not a bad thing. His exit is long overdue.

Why overdue? I can’t speak to the corruption allegations President-Elect Gustavo Petro hints at here, in a June 25 interview with Colombia’s Cambio magazine.

Rather, Gen. Zapateiro has been most problematic because of his public messaging on human rights and civil-military relations.

The General posted this charming tweet, a video of slithering snakes, the day after Colombia’s transitional justice tribunal (the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, JEP) published findings that the armed forces had killed 6,402 civilians between 2002 and 2008, falsely counting most victims as armed-group members killed in combat.

The investigators and JEP personnel denouncing “false positives,” you see, were reptiles.

Here’s the General, at one of the most intense moments of Colombia’s 2021 National Strike protests, calling the feared ESMAD riot police “heroes in black,” urging them to “keep working in the same manner that you have been.” At the time, the ESMAD were killing many protesters, and maiming dozens more.

Following a March 2022 raid in which soldiers likely killed at least 4 non-combatants, the General said, “This isn’t the first operation in which pregnant women and minors get killed.”

When candidate Petro, on Twitter, accused officers of colluding w/ the neo-paramilitary Gulf Clan, the General made a highly irregular foray into electoral politics, reviving an accusation that Petro had taken a cash bribe (charges were dropped in 2021).

Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro sent damaging messages on human rights. His public statements made the armed forces appear improperly aligned with a specific political ideology.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s insecurity measures worsened, and armed groups proliferated. So no, I won’t miss him.

Adding up the pro-Petro coalition in Colombia’s new Congress

Surprisingly (to me, anyway), the congressional delegations of three of Colombia’s mainstream political parties have lined up in support of the left government of President-Elect Gustavo Petro.

By my best count—which could be off by a bit, and is subject to constant change—Gustavo Petro’s pro-government coalition now includes 78 of 108 senators, and 135 of 188 House members. Here, I added yellow highlights to graphics created by El Tiempo to show, as best as I can approximate, what the incoming President’s majorities look like:

The Liberal Party, led by former president César Gaviria, announced its support for the incoming government on June 22, joining the Green Party, Petro’s Pacto Histórico, Comunes (the former FARC), at least 9 of the 16 legislators representing special temporary districts for victims, a result of the peace accord, and some smaller parties.

On June 25, 14 senators and 25 House members from the Conservative Party signed a declaration reading, “We will not be an opposition party, and we declare our support for the legislative agenda that the incoming government proposes.”

On June 26, the “La U” party—which backed every sitting government since its creation in 2005—declared its decision “to be part of the government’s parliamentary coalition.”

Cambio Radical, another traditional center-right party, has yet to declare that it will back Petro’s government, but it has not closed the door.

The only large party now clearly in opposition to Petro’s incoming government is the far-right Centro Democrático of ex-president Álvaro Uribe and outgoing President Iván Duque. Petro and Uribe are likely to meet this week.

Colombia: I hope someone’s taking notes

If you have the time—say, an extra hour or two per day—this week is an amazing moment to start chronicling the Gustavo Petro presidency in Colombia. Whatever you think of Petro and his coalition, it’s a historic break, and it’s going to be an epic, roller-coaster narrative.

Who are the main characters in this drama and what motivates them? Where is there friction within the coalition? How might daily life and power relations change in Latin America’s third most-populous country? Who is being given a voice who never had it before? How does the conservative traditionalist bloc resist? Where will the armed forces come down? How do the United States and other foreign powers respond, and why? What mistakes do Petro and his coalition commit, and why? Do they cling to their ideals or does power corrupt? What will this four-year story tell us about politics and human relations at this moment of economic, racial, climate, and justice crisis in our hemisphere? In the world?

Sounds expansive, I know, but what a huge and dramatic story. If you were ever looking for a subject for a book, a blog, a podcast series, a video product, or a combination of all of the above and more, this is a big one, and now is when to start taking copious notes.

Act I (Petro’s and Francia’s campaign and the conditions that made possible a left victory in Colombia) has just ended. But Act II just started this week, and now is the time to jump aboard, for anyone who has the time and inclination to interpret this story.

I haven’t aged a bit

A colleague at the Institute for Policy Studies sent me this photo from October 2007, when Colombian President-Elect Gustavo Petro won the organization’s Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award.

The last polls are done in Colombia

It’s illegal in Colombia to publish new poll data less than 7 days before an election. The final round of the country’s presidential election is next Sunday, so this is it.

La Silla Vacía maintains a weighted poll of polls, sort of 538 style. It shows Gustavo Petro and Rodolfo Hernandez within 0.7 points of each other. And we’re not going to see any more polling after this.

With this close of a vote, and this much uncertainty, the looming question for the evening of the 19th and the days immediately afterward is: will the loser and his base of supporters concede? Or will the second half of June be a scary time of anger, fear, and disorder in Colombia?

If Petro wins by a razor-slim margin and Rodolfo Hernández rejects it: Hernández has picked up support from some wealthy and far-right elements who don’t have a history of playing by the rules. Though the political bosses, landowners and others who supported paramilitarism 15-20 years ago probably can’t force non-recognition of a Petro victory, they can spend the succeeding weeks and months making much of the country ungovernable and violent if they don’t accept the outcome. There also appears to be white-hot hatred of Petro in some corners of the military, and while I don’t foresee unconstitutional saber-rattling during the days following the election, I can’t dismiss the possibility either.

If Hernández wins by a razor-slim margin and Gustavo Petro rejects it: Petro’s supporters include core participants in last year’s national strike, which paralyzed the country for two months. They can control the streets again. And don’t expect Colombia’s National Police to obey proper use of force standards when they respond: they have little record of doing that in the past.

The second half of June could be really complicated.

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