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).
It is plain that Colombia does not invest sufficiently in this layer of its security sector. One can tell from the length of time it takes to close a criminal case in Colombia, the low percentage of serious crimes that go unsolved or even un-denounced, large pre-trial population detained in prisons, and the INPEC’s well-documented shortcomings.
The next layer out are institutions elsewhere in the state that carry out monitoring, oversight, and budgetary control. Parliaments have committees that appropriate funds, specify priority programs, and carry out oversight, inquiring about decisionmaking or wrongdoing. The people’s representatives need to ask questions about the security sector’s management, and they need permanent staff with the experience and expertise necessary to get answers to those questions.
Comptrollers and auditors must be able to evaluate expenses; detect waste, fraud, and abuse; and accumulate data to evaluate whether policies are achieving their stated goals and make recommendations. Procurators and ombudsmen must be able to weigh policies’ impact on populations’ rights and security, publishing rigorous reports and, in some cases, issuing administrative sanctions.
While this author hasn’t studied in depth these institutions’ oversight efforts in Colombia, media reports and conversations leave the strong impression that the Congress, the Contraloría, the Procuraduría, and the Defensoría could be carrying out much more aggressive oversight of security institutions than they do.
Finally, the outermost layer is those who contribute to the policymaking process, and who carry out energetic independent oversight, from outside the state. These include independent journalists who cover defense and security issues, credible NGOs, human rights defenders, drug policy advocates, environmental defenders, legal experts, retired officials, university departments, and other experts and analysts.
Colombia does have one of Latin America’s most robust and effective communities of independent journalists, and a vibrant, if threatened, civil society. It has, though, only a few non-governmental “think tanks” or other organizations that specialize in security policy. And only a few of those engage regularly with that innermost layer, the military, police, and intelligence services.
The weakness or absence of so many elements described here explains the persistence of insecurity in Colombia. Without all of its pillars strong, the building falls down. Without its layers fully developed, the shape distorts and diminishes.
Colombia may invest more than virtually all of its neighbors in security and defense, but it starves much of its security sector. The brigades may be muscular and the weapons may be modern. But the judicial system can barely manage cases, leaving a very high probability of impunity for those who commit crimes. Oversight is weak. Outside expertise is thin. The corruption that enables much organized crime festers. And vast stretches of Colombia’s national territory remain barely governed.
Right now, Colombia is approving its 2023 General Budget of the Nation. The new Petro administration is putting together its National Development Plan. As they face today’s deteriorating security situation, decision-makers must ask, before spending each scarce peso, will it go to protecting citizens? Will it improve state presence and provide public goods equitably? Will it help build a balanced, functioning security sector?
For items like forced coca eradication, fighter jets to deter imagined foreign adversaries, or “high value target” campaigns that do little more than cause armed groups to fragment, the answer is a resounding “no.” For the new government, the way forward is elsewhere.