Last Friday, when the Colombian newsmagazine Semana published still more shocking revelations about the country’s army intelligence units spying on law-abiding people, I knew I had to write something explaining all of this to an English-language audience. For a year now, there has been a steady drumbeat of revelations of malfeasance in Colombia’s U.S.-aided military—an institution of which U.S. diplomats and military officers speak with reverential tones.
Because each bit of bad news keeps getting layered on top of the last, I saw a need for a single resource to walk the reader through the whole narrative. I pulled everything I had from my database over the weekend, and sat down to write in every spare moment during the first few days of the week.
Semana, a Colombian newsmagazine that often exposes human rights wrongdoing in Colombia’s armed forces, published another scoop on May 1, 2020. Army intelligence units, it found, had been developing detailed dossiers on the personal lives of at least 130 reporters, human rights defenders, politicians, judges, and possible military whistleblowers. The list of targets includes U.S. citizens who work in Colombia as reporters for major media outlets.
This is the latest of a long series of scandals involving illegal wiretapping, hacking, surveillance, or threats from Colombia’s powerful, U.S.-backed security and intelligence forces. Though Colombia has taken modest steps toward accountability over its military, the Semana revelations show us how fragile and reversible this progress is.
The purpose of intelligence should be to foresee and help prevent threats to law-abiding people and their freedoms. In a country where a social leader is murdered every other day, such threats abound. For scarce intelligence resources to be diverted away from those threats, and channeled instead to illegal and politicized ends, is a betrayal of public trust and an attack on Colombian democracy.
Preventing a further repetition of these intelligence abuses will require Colombia’s government to take bold steps. These include holding those responsible, at the highest levels, swiftly and transparently accountable for their crimes. Because U.S. assistance may be implicated in, or at least adjacent to, the military intelligence units’ actions, how Colombia responds must have giant implications for the integrity of the bilateral relationship and the ostensible purposes of U.S. aid. Any indication that these crimes may once again end up in impunity must trigger a cutoff of U.S. aid to the units involved.
What we know about the latest revelations comes mainly from Semana and other Colombian media. We lay it out in the following narrative.
Still more revelations have emerged of Colombia’s military spying on people who are not military targets. Here’s a statement WOLA put out today. I’m working on a longer piece about all of this right now.
In an investigation published on May 1, Colombian weekly news magazine Semana reported that between February and December 2019, Colombian army intelligence units carried out illicit surveillance of more than 130 individuals, including human rights defenders, national and international journalists, politicians, labor leaders, and other members of the military.
Among those who were illegally monitored are veteran U.S. journalists, as well as partners of WOLA like rural land reform advocate César Jerez, indigenous leader Senator Feliciano Valencia, and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), a non-governmental organization that has represented families of victims illegally killed by members of the military.
The report adds more detail to a previous Semana investigation that revealed a military intelligence unit was illegally wiretapping journalists, politicians, and others, including members of the Supreme Court. Since the new report’s publication on Friday, 11 military officials have been dismissed or resigned. The Attorney General’s Office said it is investigating Gen. Nicacio Martínez, who headed the army at the time; the Inspector General’s Office is also opening an investigation.
Colombia should be devoting its intelligence resources to investigating organized crime networks and establishing a state presence in territories still essentially controlled by armed groups. Intelligence should also be used when appropriate to support investigations by the Attorney General’s Office into the killings of human rights defenders and social leaders. Instead, what the Semana reports reveal is that military intelligence is targeting reformers and the free press. The perversity of this can’t be understated.
Colombia previously lived through a major illegal wiretapping scandal in 2009, involving the now-dissolved Administrative Security Directorate (DAS). In 2014, an army intelligence unit was discovered, also by Semana, to have been hacking the communications of government peace negotiators taking part in talks with the FARC.
In order to send the message that these types of anti-democratic activities are unacceptable and will not be tolerated, it is essential that both the civilian Attorney General’s Office and Inspector General’s Office conduct thorough and independent investigations, resulting in appropriate sanctions and disciplinary procedures against those who ordered the illegal monitoring. A further purging of state intelligence units may be necessary to guarantee that history will not repeat itself again. Additionally, in order to send a message that the state is taking transparency concerns seriously, authorities should declassify and release all information illegally obtained about human rights defenders.
While important security gains were made under the 2016 peace accord, the Colombian army is currently facing significant challenges, due in part to the Duque administration’s resistance to fully implementing the accord, the lack of a negotiations process with rebel group the National Liberation Army (ELN), and an ongoing struggle to confront paramilitary successor groups. As many as 15,000 people are in more than 20 rapidly growing armed groups across the country. Colombia’s budget crunch has left the armed forces with only 15 out of 42 Black Hawk helicopters in good operating conditions. The army should not be spending scarce resources on compiling intelligence dossiers on the phone numbers, vehicles, and even the voting sites used by journalists.
Troublingly, the Semana investigation notes that Colombian army cyber-intelligence battalions have received about US$400,000 from “a foreign intelligence agency.” A military source told the magazine, “The Americans aren’t going to be happy that part of their own money, from their taxpayers as they say, has been diverted from legitimate missions like the fight against terrorism and narcotrafficking, and ending up used to dig up dirt on the lives of reporters from important media outlets in their own country.”
That U.S. assistance may be even tangentially related to this military activity is extremely alarming. These revelations, which cap a year of human rights and corruption scandals in the army, demand a thorough reappraisal of U.S. military assistance to Colombia, with full participation of congressional oversight personnel. Congress should move to freeze U.S. military aid to Colombia at the first indication that the Colombian army is pushing to have this behavior tried in the military court system, failing to cooperate with civilian investigators, using delaying tactics, or otherwise stonewalling efforts to hold accountable those responsible.
Journalists, human rights defenders and military whistleblowers should not be treated as “internal enemies.” These advocates are doing important and valid work to advance peace and uphold democratic practices, at a crucial moment for Colombia’s security. The military should recognize this work as legal and legitimate, and as essential for helping the armed forces do its job better, at a time when it risks being hobbled by corruption and poor leadership.
After nearly 30 years of movement away from military rule and toward civilian democracy, Latin America’s armed forces are again playing larger, more political roles. The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the trend, with the danger that having soldiers on the streets may again become “normalized” throughout the region.
Joining me to talk about this is Gregory Weeks, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Weeks doesn’t see a return to 1970s-style military regimes anytime soon—but he is not optimistic about civil-military relations in the region.
On February 25 the Colombia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released its annual report on the human rights situation in Colombia. It is a very useful document, full of hard-to-obtain statistics. It also makes some reasoned, high-credibility judgments about controversial topics like implementation of the peace accord and government efforts to protect threatened social leaders.
The Colombian Government didn’t like the report. President Iván Duque criticized “imprecisions” and “not telling the truth” about the government’s performance in implementing the FARC peace accord’s rural provisions, adding that the report’s recommendation that the National Police pass from the Defense Ministry to the Interior Ministry was an “infringement of sovereignty.” High Counselor for Stabilization Emilio Archila, who is charged with implementing many peace accord commitments, said “I have no problem with being told that things are being done badly, but blunders [chambonadas] like this don’t lead to anything.”
This is not the first time that Colombia’s government and the OHCHR have had public disagreements since the office’s establishment in 1996. This won’t be the last time, either. The Office’s injection of inconvenient facts and perspectives into the high-level debate shows why its continued presence in Colombia, with a strong mandate, is so important.
Here are some highlights from the report:
On attacks on social leaders and human rights defenders
In 2019, OHCHR documented 108 killings of human rights defenders, including 15 women and two LGBTI defenders.
The Timely Action Plan initiated by the Ministry of Interior in December 2018 was developed to improve such coordination. To increase the effectiveness of this Plan, broader and more sustained participation of regional authorities and civil society should be prioritized.
Killings of women human rights defenders increased by almost 50 per cent in 2019 compared to 2018.
Of the 108 killings documented by OHCHR, 75 per cent occurred in rural areas; 86 per cent in municipalities with a multidimensional poverty index above the national average; 91 per cent in municipalities where the homicide rate indicates the existence of endemic violence; and 98 per cent in municipalities with the presence of illicit economies and ELN, other violent groups and criminal groups. Fifty-five per cent of these cases occurred in four departments: Antioquia, Arauca, Cauca and Caquetá. The sectors most affected continued to be those defending the rights of communities and ethnic groups, amounting to 65 per cent of all killings and sustaining a trend documented by OHCHR since 2016.
OHCHR continued to document attacks against representatives of Community Action Councils (JACs). 16 Especially in rural areas, JACs serve as the main body for communities’ political participation and the promotion of development and human rights initiatives. While noting a significant reduction from 2018, when it verified 46 cases, OHCHR documented 30 killings of representatives of JACs in 2019.
On the government’s response to these attacks
OHCHR appreciated the efforts of the Office of the Attorney General to investigate the cases it reported and noted some progress in 55 per cent of these cases, all of which occurred between 2016 and 2019. However, challenges persisted in the prosecution of intellectual authors of attacks against human rights defenders. The accused had been convicted in 16 per cent of the cases; 20 per cent were at trial stage; indictments had been issued in 7 per cent of cases; and a valid arrest warrant had been delivered in 11 per cent of cases.
The National Commission on Security Guarantees should be more regularly convened in order to fulfill its full role pursuant to the Peace Agreement, particularly concerning the dismantlement of criminal groups that succeeded the paramilitary organizations and were often responsible for killings of human rights defenders.
The Intersectoral Commission for Rapid Response to Early Warnings (CIPRAT) should sharpen its focus on human rights defenders, especially by defining coordinated and concrete measures to implement actions based on recommendations of the Ombudsman’s early warning system.
The Ministry of Interior’s National Protection Unit (UNP) made significant efforts to respond to the extraordinarily high demand for individual protection measures. Still, measures granted were not always adequate for the rural contexts in which most human rights defenders were killed. In 2019, six human rights defenders were killed in rural areas of Cauca, Chocó, Nariño and Risaralda despite protection measures. Prevention and early warning should be prioritized over temporary, individual and reactive protection measures, which do not address the structural causes behind the attacks.
OHCHR highlights the need to increase collective protection measures. Such measures constitute a prevention mechanism, inasmuch as they seek to address risks faced by communities and organizations through the coordination of different authorities to advance human rights guarantees. Whereas the 2019 budget for collective protection measures represented merely 0.22 per cent of the budget of UNP, the implementation of collective protection measures was often hampered by coordination issues between national, departmental and municipal institutions.
On the military and human rights
OHCHR documented 15 cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life in Antioquia, Arauca, Bogotá, Cauca, Guaviare, Meta, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Santander and Valle del Cauca. This was the highest number of such cases OHCHR recorded since 2016. In 13 cases, the deaths appeared to have been caused by unnecessary and/or disproportionate use of force. According to information documented by OHCHR, in 11 cases the deaths occurred in military operations related to public security involving anti-narcotics and law enforcement activities. In six cases, the deaths were preceded by law enforcement activities that potentially could have allowed for the arrest of the suspects and thus avoided their killing. In one case, OHCHR observed that weak command and control appeared to result in the killing and attempted enforced disappearance of one person. The military was allegedly responsible in 10 cases and the police in four, while there was alleged joint responsibility for one killing. In all 15 cases, the Office of the Attorney General initiated investigations, but these did not appear to follow the Minnesota Protocol.
OHCHR documented cases of alleged arbitrary deprivation of life by members of the military and police. In following up on these cases, OHCHR was concerned that the military criminal justice system continued to request jurisdiction over such investigations. In some instances, the Office of the Attorney General even referred cases to the military justice system. In the case of El Tandil, Nariño, the Office of the Attorney General did not take the necessary actions to retain the case within its jurisdiction.
On blurring the lines between military and police
OHCHR observed an increased resort to the military to respond to situations of violence and insecurity. Despite existing protocols, norms and public policies regulating the participation of the military in situations related to public security, these were not fully applied in a range of settings, such as in rural areas in Arauca, Antioquia, Caquetá, Cauca, Córdoba, Cesar, Chocó, Meta, Nariño and Norte de Santander. Nor were they fully applied in urban centres, such as Convención, Medellín, Santa Marta and Valledupar, where the military conducted anti-narcotics operations and other law enforcement activities. Military training, equipment and the nature of military duties are inappropriate in such circumstances. According to police statistics, homicides increased in municipalities in Arauca, Norte de Cauca, Catatumbo and Sur de Córdoba, despite an increased military presence.
On 15 September, the General Command of the Colombian Armed Forces’ announcement establishing anti-riot squads composed of professional soldiers raised questions concerning Colombia’s respect for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ guidance related to the responsibility of the police, rather than the military, to maintain public order.
In line with the need to strengthen the police’s institutional capacity, OHCHR recommends transferring oversight of the police to the Ministry of Interior.
On “stabilization” and establishing state presence in ungoverned territories
Efforts to establish a comprehensive State presence, particularly of civilian authorities, including the Office of the Attorney General and the police have been insufficient, especially in rural areas. The five Strategic Zones for Comprehensive Intervention established by the Government through Decree 2278 of 2019 were created to address this vacuum. However, OHCHR observed that State presence in these areas has remained predominantly military and that the pace of establishing a stronger presence of civilian authorities was slow.
The Office of the Attorney General is present in almost half of Colombia’s municipalities. Nevertheless, it continued to face difficulties to reach rural areas, especially in Antioquia, Arauca, Amazonas, Caquetá, Cauca, Chocó, Guaviare, Huila, Meta, Nariño and Vaupés, greatly affecting its capacity to guarantee access to justice for all.
In 2018, 16 PDETs were formulated with high levels of community participation, including indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombian communities. While this generated significant hope for the effective implementation of PDETs, during the reporting period, OHCHR observed few advances and minimal coordination with other relevant programmes, such as the Collective Reparation Plan contained in the Victims and Land Restitution Law and the Comprehensive National Programme for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (PNIS).
[T]he Comprehensive Rural Reform should be supported by an adequate budget to fully implement all of the plans, entities and mechanisms established in the Peace Agreement, rather than a limited focus on PDETs. However, the 2020 budget was reduced for all the institutions responsible for implementing the Comprehensive Rural Reform.
On illicit crop eradication and substitution
Police continued to recruit civilians to eradicate illicit crops. This practice exposes civilians to loss of life or injury due to the presence of anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnance among the crops. Between January and November, 24 civilians and 8 antinarcotics police officers were affected by such devices in Tumaco, Nariño, while eradicating illicit crops.
OHCHR highlights the recent determination, in a joint report by the Government and United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC), that 95 per cent of families participating in PNIS fulfilled the voluntary eradication requirement, whereas 0.4 per cent returned to the cultivation of illicit crops.
The Historical Memory Project at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice invited me to be on a panel this morning about the “military-industrial complex” in Latin America today.
I explained that the “M.-I.C.” is not a term I use very often these days. Instead, I worry about “militarization”: the region’s armed forces playing an ever greater role in the political sphere, taking on responsibilities that civilians should be able to fulfill.
A president—usually one with low approval ratings—announces a politically risky or unpopular move, often a crackdown on social protests or dissent. To give the announcement more weight and menace, the president issues it while surrounded by uniformed military officers. The subtext is “the military is with me on this”—even if the message is a political one that doesn’t fall within the military’s responsibilities.
It’s part of a larger trend of “the pendulum… swinging back, fast, in the militaries’ direction. It probably won’t go so far back that Latin America re-enters an age of military juntas holding total power. It’s hard, though, to see where or how far it will go.”
Latin America may not be headed back to the age of coups. But it might not be democracy, either. This piece looks at five worrying trends, including an unhelpful U.S. role. Read it here.
The Colombian newsmagazine Semana, known over the years for excellent investigative reporting, came under fire in May for sitting on a story about the new high command’s demand that military officers produce higher “body counts,” which the New York Times instead picked up as a front-page bombshell. Since then, Semana has come roaring back with a series of alarming revelations—most of them based on information leaked from military officers themselves—about corruption within the armed forces, evasion of accountability for human rights abuse, and a general pullback from promising post-conflict reforms.
Semana’s latest revelation about out-of-control behavior in the Colombian military is a shocker. Part two of a two-part series, published October 27, details the military’s April 22 killing of Dimar Torres, a farmer and former FARC militia member, in the conflictive and strategic Catatumbo region, near the Venezuela border. About 167 demobilized FARC members have been killed since the November 2016 peace accord’s signing, but Torres is the only demobilized fighter known to have been killed by the armed forces.
The killing of Torres, a father-to-be who cared for his elderly parents, was big news in Colombia at the time. Word of the military’s responsibility got out because residents of his village, in the municipality of Convención about 10 minutes from a 40-man army post, had seen soldiers searching a worried-looking Torres at a checkpoint, and later heard shots fired. A contingent of villagers found soldiers digging a large hole near the grounds of the base. Then they found his body on the ground, shot four times. The community members took videos of their search and of their confrontation with the soldiers, which were widely shared on social media. (Thank heaven for smartphones.)
At the time, the Colombian defense sector’s response was contradictory: both hopeful and worrisome. Civilian authorities began investigating Corporal Daniel Eduardo Gómez Robledo, the alleged killer. General Diego Luis Villegas, the commander of the “Vulcan Task Force” charged with securing Catatumbo, went to Torres’s home village and said the right thing. “Not just any civilian was killed, a member of the community was killed, members of the armed forces killed him. That’s why the commander should come and show his face. I regret it in my soul. In the name of the 4,000 men I have the honor to command, I ask your forgiveness.”
(Gen. Villegas, by the way, is a complicated individual. He faces a currently suspended arrest warrant for commanding a unit that committed a “false positive” extrajudicial killing of a mentally disabled man in 2008, which makes it odd that he would have been put in charge of military operations in a high-stakes territory like Catatumbo, which has a strong presence of the ELN, FARC dissidents, and the EPL, a local splinter guerrilla group. In August, Semanarevealed that in a January meeting Gen. Villegas had said, “The Army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is over.… If we need to carry out hits, we’ll be hitmen, and if the problem is money, then there’s money for that.”)
The apology and the prosecutorial moves were good. But other responses were not. Colombia’s independent Noticias Uno network revealed an audio in which a fellow general insulted Villegas for asking forgiveness: “If you’re so upset, then retire and go join the guerrillas, so the military forces can have the honor of chasing you down and getting you out of there.”
Worse, Colombia’s maximum security authority after the president, Defense Minister Guillermo Botero—who has come under much criticism for irresponsible statements in the past—upheld the story offered by Corporal Gómez, the alleged killer of Dimar Torres. “This corporal affirms that he found this person [Torres] and that this person tried to take his gun away.” “I don’t see the motive in causing a homicide of a person whom the corporal doesn’t know, whom he surely hadn’t seen in his life.” “If there was a homicide, then there must have been some motive for it.”
And now this week Semana has reported, with extensive proof from prosecutorial investigations, that this was not a case of a rogue corporal. It goes up to the lieutenant colonel in charge of his entire battalion. And Defense Minister Botero is on the wrong side of the truth.
The armed forces’ Vulcan Task Force, commanded by Gen. Villegas and responsible for security operations in Catatumbo, was established in early 2018. It has eight battalions with about 500 personnel in each. One of these eight, the 11th Land Operations Battalion, was commanded earlier this year by Lt. Col. Jorge Armando Pérez Amézquita.
At the beginning of April, three weeks before Dimar Torres’s murder, troops in the 11th Battalion were carrying out an operation to protect the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline, a frequent target of guerrilla bombings. During this operation, near Torres’s home village, a soldier stepped on a landmine or hidden explosive device, which killed him.
Semana reports that the soldier’s death enraged Lt. Col. Pérez, the battalion commander. The senior officer ordered his subordinates to get revenge, even if it means breaking the law. “I don’t need to report anything. What I need is to get revenge for the death of the soldier, we have to kill,” he allegedly said, based on soldiers’ testimonies to Colombia’s prosecutor’s office (Fiscalía).
Corporal Gómez, the accused killer, told the Lieutenant-Colonel that he believed Dimar Torres was responsible for the landmine. Without any evidence, he reported that Torres, the farmer and demobilized guerrilla, was an explosives expert with the ELN guerrillas.
Lt. Col. Pérez, Corporal Gómez, and other soldiers formed a WhatsApp group called “Dimar Torres” to coordinate their surveillance of the ex-guerrilla and their plans to execute him extrajudicially. “We don’t have to capture this man, we have to kill him so he doesn’t get fat in jail,” Lt. Col. Pérez wrote to this WhatsApp group, whose texts are now in prosecutors’ possession. The group shows that the soldiers were closely tracking Dimar Torres’s movements and routines, posting photos, over the last three weeks of his life. “All this without a judicial order,” Semana notes.
On the afternoon of April 22, Corporal Gómez told 2nd Lieutenant John Javier Blanco, the commander of the small military post near Torres’s village, “I’m going to kill Dimar.” Within hours, he and perhaps others had intercepted Torres’s motorcycle and shot him to death.
Later, Corporal Gómez radioed Lt. Col. Pérez to tell him he had killed Dimar Torres. The Lieutenant-Colonel ordered him not to say such things on the radio, but to use WhatsApp instead. “What did the son of a bitch say?” Lt. Col. Pérez asked the group. He went on to order the corporal to keep a close eye on the other members of Dimar Torres’s community, who had confronted the soldiers and found the body: “Check up on them, because they’re next,” he wrote menacingly.
The Lieutenant-Colonel also instructed Corporal Gómez to use radio communications to give a false story about what happened. This false narrative, in which Torres supposedly tried to wrest Corporal Gómez’s weapon from him, was amplified and repeated by Defense Minister Botero’s statements before the press.
Today, Lt. Col. Jorge Armando Pérez Amézquita stands accused by civilian prosecutors for the crime of homicide of a protected person. But the case is moving slowly: his lawyers’ delaying tactics are working.
Lt. Col. Pérez’s lawyers filed a motion to move his case to the military justice system, which is only supposed to judge “acts of service” and has a terrible record of failing to punish human rights violations. While the civilian and military courts work out their jurisdictional dispute, Lt. Col. Pérez and other soldiers accused of killing Dimar Pérez are at large, out of preventive detention.
Semana’s revelations about the Dimar Torres case could hardly be more alarming, for at least three reasons. First, they show a military that had been making important human rights progress reverting, brutally, to old behaviors. Second, this plan to victimize a former guerrilla will give pause to thousands of other guerrillas who willingly disarmed, many of whom may abandon the peace process if they feel vulnerable to attack from the very armed forces that are supposed to protect them. Third, this episode happened in Catatumbo, one of Colombia’s most violent, ungoverned, and strategic regions, where winning a deeply distrustful population’s confidence should be the government’s number-one mission. Overcoming distrust is why Gen. Villegas’s visit to Torres’s community, where he publicly recognized responsibility for the killing, was so crucially important.
That something as monstrous as the plot against Dimar Torres could take place and remain covered up demands accountability from Colombia’s highest defense authorities. Nonetheless, as Semana reports, “Minister [of Defense] Guillermo Botero remains in his post, and his declarations about Dimar’s case weren’t the object of any disciplinary measure.… The Defense chief hasn’t retracted his statements, nor has he apologized to Dimar’s family for his declarations.” In June, opposition legislators sought to censure Botero for these and other statements, but lacked the votes to do so.
“This isn’t the moment to speak of Minister Botero’s renunciation,” President Iván Duque said after Semana published these revelations. So Colombia’s defense sector, badly adrift at the moment, continues to be led by Guillermo Botero, an archconservative who has called for crackdowns on peaceful protest, downplayed the seriousness of a wave of social leader killings, and absurdly blamed the post-conflict transitional justice system for a failure to arrest recidivist guerrilla leaders.
This week, Botero remains under fire for events in the tumultuous department of Cauca, in southwestern Colombia. First, community members in Corinto municipality alleged that the Army tortured and killed local campesino leader Flower Jair Trompeta; Botero caused outrage by claiming, before an investigation could take place, that Trompeta died in “a military operation.”
Then, on October 29 in Tacueyó municipality, assailants—probably FARC dissidents—massacred an indigenous leader and her unarmed guards. This incident shone a light on the Defense Ministry’s failure to consult with Cauca’s indigenous communities about their protection. Botero and others in the Duque government have insisted that the military be given free rein to patrol indigenous reserves, but these communities have strong memories of soldiers being accompanied by paramilitaries and want another arrangement. Instead of consulting, Botero’s Defense Ministry has left these communities badly unprotected in a zone where several armed and criminal groups operate.
How can a defense minister hang on for so long after presiding over so many backward steps for Colombia’s armed forces? Guillermo Botero survives, the investigative journalism website La Silla Vacíacontends, because he is “a chess piece” for former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe, the founder and most prominent member of President Iván Duque’s political party. As long as he has the hard-right former president’s favor, Guillermo Botero appears safe in his office regardless of questions of competence, and apparently President Duque can’t do much about it.
Here’s an English translation of a column I wrote for the Colombian political analysis website Razón Pública, which it posted today. It voices strong concerns about Colombia’s military, especially its army, which has been showing signs of institutional backsliding all year.
The Colombian Army’s Very Bad Year
Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America
The ties between the U.S. government and Colombia’s armed forces “are like the heart of this [bilateral] relationship,” said outgoing U.S. ambassador Kevin Whitaker, in his last interview with the Colombian daily El Tiempo. “They are very dear to us and very professional. There are elements of the Police and the Armed Forces that have a 21st-century character and are among the best in the world.”
Let’s leave aside how troubling it is that an ambassador in any country might say that the military relationship is more central than the diplomatic, commercial, or cultural relationships. Is the latter part of Whitaker’s statement true? Have Colombia’s armed forces—especially its army, which makes up 84 percent of all military personnel—become a professional twenty-first century force, among the world’s elite?
For much of this decade, Colombia’s military seemed to be headed in that direction. Accusations of extrajudicial executions and other serious human rights violations plummeted after 2008. High-ranking officers participated honorably in the peace talks with the FARC, and about 2,000 current and former soldiers agreed to participate in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. The armed forces developed a forward-looking new doctrine as they sought to adapt to a future, for the first time in decades, without a large-scale national-level insurgency. NATO agreed to include Colombia as a “global partner.” A new, post-“false positives” generation of mid-level officers, with years of training in much-improved military colleges, appeared to place a much higher value on human rights, international humanitarian law, and measuring results through territorial legitimacy. While some concerns persisted, especially allegations of espionage against participants in the peace process, the overall trajectory had been positive.
Then came 2019, which has been an annus horribilis for Colombia’s Army. The high command that new President Iván Duque put into place came under immediate attack from human rights groups for their past proximity to “false positive” killings a decade earlier. The ultraconservative new defense minister made repeated statements minimizing the severity of killings of social leaders and calling for crackdowns on social protests. And then, scandals started to hit.
On May 18, the New York Times revealed that, at the beginning of the year, the Army’s new high command had taken a leap backward in time, bringing back “body counts” as a principal measure of commanders’ effectiveness. After years of seeking to measure progress by measures of security and state presence in territories from which government had long been absent, the new commanders decided to seek something simpler. Unit commanders were instead required to sign forms committing themselves to a doubling of “afectaciones”—armed-group members killed or captured—in their areas of operations. While this signaled a return to a long-discredited territorial stabilization strategy, it also raised major human rights concerns about creating incentives for “false positives.” Already, Colombian media had been gathering reports about increased abuses, and abusive behavior, at the hands of military personnel in 2019.
July saw the Army buffeted by corruption scandals, including selling permits to carry weapons and misuse of funds meant for fuel and other needs. The scandals, mostly revealed by Semana magazine, have so far led to the firing of five Army generals, one of them imprisoned, and the jailing of nine more soldiers. One of the generals fired under a cloud of corruption allegations was the Army’s number-two commander, Gen. Adelmo Fajardo. Semana columnist María Jimena Duzán, meanwhile, revealed that Gen. Fajardo allegedly arranged to have his favored staff sergeants approved for officer training, even though they were not the most qualified candidates.
Non-commissioned officers, “the base of the Army, are furious,” Duzán reported. “There is a sense that too many generals are occupied more with benefiting from the perks of power than with serving the country, and that good soldiers and good officers are being left without power in the hierarchy, defeated not by a strategic enemy, but because they don’t want to participate in the feast of corruption.”
Duzán reveals something important here. The scandals that have buffeted Colombia’s Army this year have not originated from the work of human rights defenders or reporters. In all cases, the source of the information has been outraged members of the Army. That is new. Fifteen or twenty years ago, when the Army stood accused of working with paramilitary groups or committing extrajudicial executions, the sources were almost always victims, witnesses, or prosecutorial investigators. Now, the chief source is whistleblowers from within the institution: officers and soldiers who love the Army, believe that it has made important progress, and are deeply worried about the direction it is taking under current leadership.
On the other side is the “old guard,” at times allied with powerful retired officers, who opposed peace negotiations, resisted recent reforms, and who apparently believe that the key to victory is to lift commanders from the apparent burdens of accountability. Emblematic of that attitude is a January quote, revealed by Semana, and attributed to Gen. Diego Villegas, the commander of the military task force responsible for the conflictive Catatumbo region:
The Army of speaking English, of protocols, of human rights is over. What we have to do here is takedowns. And if we have to ally ourselves with the Pelusos [the EPL guerrillas] we will ally with them—we already talk to them—in order to fight the ELN. If we need to carry out hits, we’ll be hitmen, and if the problem is money, then there’s money for that.
We must hope that this quote is false, or at least that the number of “old guard” officers who really think this way is small. We must also hope that the high command—Defense Minister Guillermo Botero, Army Chief Gen. Nicacio Martínez—is not inclined toward the “old guard.” If they are, and if this faction is large, then Ambassador Whitaker’s sunny portrayal of today’s Colombian military is a sad caricature.
The high command’s handling of these scandals gives us even greater reason for worry. Instead of pledging to clean house, protect whistleblowers, and demand the most honorable behavior of all officers, the Army’s counter-intelligence apparatus has been deployed on an internal campaign of polygraphs, surveillance, and interrogations to identify those who have leaked to the press. Gen. Martínez, the army chief, has denied knowledge of what Semana calls “Operación Silencio,” but the Procuraduría has unearthed evidence that his denials are false: that the General in fact ordered the witch hunt. The Army’s botched damage control effort has done harm to the institution’s credibility at a critical moment.
And this is a critical moment. The number of armed groups, and armed group members, continues to proliferate in regions of former FARC influence. Homicides increased for the first time in six years in 2018, and if they are slightly down in 2019, as a new report from the Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation points out, it is only because criminal groups have secured dominance in some zones, or made accords with competitors in other zones. If Colombia’s security forces were achieving important security gains, it is likely that public opinion would overlook some of these scandals. But they are not making gains. “We see a paralysis of the military forces with regard to security at the territorial level,” the Foundation’s Ariel Ávila noted, citing ongoing scandals and strategic drift under President Duque and Defense Minister Botero.
Much can be done about this, immediately. While the Duque/Uribe government will always have a conservative high command, it is possible for that high command to be simultaneously conservative, competent, and institutionally forward-looking. Such officers must be identified and promoted.
It is meanwhile imperative that whistleblowers within the armed forces be given maximum protections. They are our best source of “early warning” about the institution’s direction. Colombia’s Congress, courts, and Public Ministry must maintain their protection from retaliation as a high priority.
And finally, the U.S. government, the Colombian Army’s most important international counterpart, must do more than just sing the Army’s praises. It must keep its eyes wide open and voice concerns about backsliding, whether publicly or privately, in strong terms. The U.S. Congress must maintain conditions in foreign aid law that freeze some assistance pending progress on human rights. These are the best ways to ensure that Colombia’s armed forces can once again move toward Ambassador Whitaker’s idealistic description of them.
Many thanks to Mexico’s Universidad Iberoamericana, who along with several other groups organized a May 21-22 conference in Mexico City on the need for civilians to be in charge of security, at a time when it is militarizing throughout Latin America.
They asked me to give a talk about citizen security and the military’s involvement, region-wide. And they gave me 45 minutes to do it. And then they produced this high-quality video, showing all 77 of my slides and sign language for the hearing-impaired. Very impressive.
I think I did a decent job here. The video is in Spanish, with optional closed-caption subtitles (again, very impressive).
There seems to be something about men in uniform that populists just can’t resist. It’s impossible to miss that Mexican generals find themselves in the middle of this mess, just as U.S. generals face a similar fate: their troops deployed to the border and facing the possibility of Trump declaring a fake national emergency to divert funds and Defense Department personnel for a useless wall.… Enamored of men in fatigues, hungry for the automatic discipline of military hierarchy, they reliably break down the democratic norms needed to keep the military apolitical and under civilian control.
Every so often, I look back at a commentary I wrote for the Center for International Policy about Venezuela in September 1999, just before my 29th birthday. Today, it only exists on the Internet Archive. I made the same argument that Toro and Bosworth are making. Months into Hugo Chávez’s first year in office, I was worried about how the new populist leader was distorting the military’s role in Venezuela’s democracy.
Much has been made of Chávez’s populist politics and fiery rhetoric, with many observers speculating that the former paratrooper is leading a slow-motion coup, doing away with forty-one years of flawed democracy and ushering in a military dictatorship by popular acclaim. Actually, Chávez’s strong-armed – yet so far legal – effort to write the country’s twenty-seventh constitution poses little threat to Venezuela’s democracy, which desperately needs reform anyway.
The real threat lies in the president’s vision for the Venezuelan military. In just seven months in power, Chávez has enormously increased the armed forces’ role in government and society.
… President Chávez’s changes in the military are popular, but among all of his reform efforts they are the most likely route to dictatorship. They are the aspect of Chávez’s program that needs to be watched most closely by Venezuelans, by the media and by the international community.
I look back on that piece not only because I still agree with every word. Now that Venezuela is a full-blown dictatorship with military officers occupying many top positions, that article is also a source of anxiety for me. I wonder what would be different today if I’d stuck with this issue and made Venezuelan militarization a top priority for my work, instead of a back-burner trend on which I checkedineverysooften.
I didn’t throw myself into this issue because at that exact moment—September 1999—the Clinton and Pastrana administrations were drawing up “Plan Colombia,” the largest U.S. military aid program in the history of Latin America. Monitoring and trying to change that strategy would take up the majority of my time over the next 10 years. In September 1999, Colombia was also in the first months of a peace process with the FARC. And the funding climate for Venezuela civil-military relations work was bleak: it would have been hard to afford plane tickets to Caracas, much less devote hours per week to the issue.
But still. While I worked to limit the Bush administration’s damage in Colombia, right next door Venezuela’s regime was dismantling democracy and civil-military relations through a gradual but inexorable string of baby steps, many of them too small even to get attention in the United States. While I was consistently critical, I didn’t host events and delegations, write reports, or lobby Congress.
Now that we’ve got several authoritarians around the region pursuing similar models (including Donald Trump), I wonder what I could’ve done differently, what difference it would’ve made, and how to apply those lessons today.
All credit here goes to the Chile-based Latinobarómetro polling organization, which carries out an annual public-opinion survey in most of Latin America and the Caribbean. The 2018 poll (PDF) is a fascinating read.
For an upcoming presentation, I wanted to know what the poll said about how Latin Americans are viewing the three government institutions that have the most to do with defense and security: the military, the police, and the justice system. When citizens are asked whether they trust these institutions, the poll shows a huge variation across countries.
Also interesting is the gap, in percentage points, between trust in the armed forces and trust in the police.
Perhaps it makes sense that the police, which are in more regular contact with the population, would be consistently lower. But this is a big problem, because it feeds calls to send the military into the streets to perform crimefighting roles that should be up to civilians.
López Obrador aseguró que la Policía Federal, así como la ministerial federal, son “un verdadero desastre”, pues en el caso de la primera, hay 40 mil elementos, pero sólo la mitad son operativos, sin cuarteles y operan como “una especie de volanta que llega a las entidades, se hospeda en hoteles”
Incluye en sus artículos la desaparición gradual de la Policía Federal, convierte a los militares en auxiliares del Ministerio Público Federal, lo que significa que podría encomendárseles la ejecución de órdenes de aprehensión, de cateo, o de cualquier índole que obtengan los fiscales
Hay tareas que hoy realiza la PF que sería demencial trasladar a un cuerpo militar. Por ejemplo, retirar bloqueos en carreteras. ¿Quiere el gobierno de AMLO enviar a soldados y marinos contra manifestantes?
Con una votación de 9 ministros a favor y uno en contra, la Suprema Corte de Justicia de la Nación (SCJN) declaró oficialmente la inconstitucionalidad de la Ley de Seguridad Interior (LSI) con la cual se buscaba regular la participación de las fuerzas armadas en tareas de seguridad
El plan apuesta por una salida abiertamente militar a los dilemas de seguridad pública. Se plantea la creación de un cuerpo militar (la Guardia Nacional), ubicado administrativamente en la SEDENA, para atender de manera permanente asuntos de policía
Busca modificar la Constitución para permitir que elementos de las fuerzas armadas, adscritos a la Guardia Nacional anunciada por Andrés Manuel López Obrador, puedan, de forma permanente, patrullar calles, prevenir delitos, e incluso detener personas
Excesos de formalismos legales; el no reconocimiento de algunas de las víctimas de ejecuciones extrajudiciales; y el reiterado mensaje del excomandante de las Fuerzas Militares de declararse inocente, se destacaron
María Jimena Duzán, “Sin Pudor” (Semana (Colombia), September 17, 2018).
Sin sonrojarse, Montoya quiere convencernos de que los responsables de los falsos positivos fueron unos cuantos soldados rasos, que actuaron como una rueda suelta y que asesinaron a miles de colombianos sin que sus comandantes se hubiesen dado cuenta
Documentos en poder de Plaza Pública demuestran que hubo una orden de patrullar los alrededores de la comisión y las embajadas de Estados Unidos y México, así como las sedes de la Corte de Constitucionalidad, el Ministerio Público y la Corte Suprema de Justicia
“The army has to obey civilian rule and the Constitution, and the authentic interpreter of the Constitution is the Constitutional Court. So, what the army is saying regarding the court is what is right”
“Aquí lo único que se debe de tratar es la seguridad de los campesinos que ya no van a vender a los delincuentes, sino al gobierno, para hacer la morfina que se usa para atender el dolor en los pacientes”
Es muy delicado involucrar a las fuerzas armadas en funciones de policía. Buena parte de las violaciones a los derechos humanos que la milicia ha cometido son resultado, en mucho, de su acción en tareas de seguridad pública
La comisión especial recién anunciada para investigar la desaparición de los 43 estudiantes de la normal de Ayotzinapa no tiene como línea de investigación al ejército mexicano, anticipó hoy Alejandro Encinas, anunciado como próximo subsecretario de Gobernación
Las corporaciones policiales y el mismo Ejército forman parte de los ejecutores de estas acciones violentas que tienen como móvil destruir un proyecto educativo que ha sido la cuna de la conciencia social
“Un general de apellido Báez (…) dice que va a dar un golpe de Estado en octubre. Lo grita a los cuatro vientos (…). Francisco Báez, borrachón, muy borrachón él, está metido en todas las conspiraciones”, declaró Maduro
Brown, a Democrat, initially held out but his eventual commitment of 400 troops brought the total to about 2,400 for all four border states, above the low end of Trump’s target of sending 2,000 to 4,000