“We applaud the Biden Administration’s support for the historic 2016 Peace Accord, and we encourage the State Department and USAID to use the new government’s commitment to fully implement the accord as an opportunity to increase investment and reenergize areas of weak implementation.”
“Buying planes in the midst of a crisis like the one we’re experiencing is the highest degree of irresponsibility for a leader,” candidate Gustavo Petro said in 2021.
Now, in a reversal, President Petro will purchase 16 fighter jets, choosing between the U.S. F-16, Sweden’s Gripen, and France’s Rafale.
Each will cost dozens of millions of dollars. Colombia has few threat scenarios for which fighter jets would be of use.
What will get cut to pay for this? Peace accord implementation?
Tuve una muy interesante discusión hoy, aquí en Washington en el programa Foro Interamericano de la Voz de América, con Néstor Osuna, el ministro de justicia de #Colombia. Hablamos sobre la política antidrogas y la política exterior de EEUU.
Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista alias “Gabino” joined Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla group at its founding, in 1964, when he was 14 years old. By 1998, when longtime ELN leader Manuel Pérez, a Spanish priest, passed away (Colombian guerrillas often die of old age), Rodríguez replaced him.
He went on to be the guerrilla group’s nominal leader until 2021, though he has been living in Cuba since 2018. He moved to Havana, suffering ill health, to join negotiators in a peace process that collapsed in early 2019, when the ELN detonated a truck bomb at the police cadets’ school in Bogotá.
Now, “Gabino” is serving as an advisor to the ELN negotiators in a peace negotiation that formally launched in Venezuela this week. It’s not clear that he will be helpful, as the Colombian daily El Espectador observes:
Despite attempts at dialogue, experts describe Gabino as not open to dialogue, stubborn, and elusive. He has been tried in absentia for his participation in multiple crimes, including the Machuca massacre in 1998, in which the Eln bombed an oil pipeline in Antioquia and left 84 people dead, and the mass kidnapping at the La Maria church in Cali in 1999, considered the largest ever committed in the country.
Nicolás Rodríguez Batista is an ideologue, a spotlight-shunning leader who believed in using violence to achieve political ends. He failed, and now spends his twilight moments in another country. One wonders whether he believes it was worth it—though ultimately, he never knew any other reality.
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).Read More
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli interviewed on the Intercept’s “Deconstructed” podcast, June 24.
- “A fresh start for Colombia … and for US policy?” by Adam Isacson at Responsible Statecraft, June 22.
- “Colombia Made History. The U.S. Should Join it,” by Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, June 20.
- “Colombia’s politics are changing dramatically. U.S. policy must change too,” by Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli and Adam Isacson, June 16.
- “While Eyes Focus on Colombia’s Presidential Elections, Abuses Continue,” by Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, June 9.
- “Colombia, ‘aliado principal de Estados Unidos’: ¿qué significa?” by Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli at Razón Pública, June 5.
- “¿Cómo será la relación del próximo presidente con Estados Unidos?” by Adam Isacson at Razón Pública, June 5.
- “Colombia Elections: ‘The Next President is Either Going to Effectively Kill the Peace Accord or Save it,” by Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli and Adam Isacson, May 30.
- “Colombia’s High-Stakes Presidential Elections: What You Need to Know,” by Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, May 25.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.