Adam Isacson

Defense, security, borders, migration, and human rights in Latin America and the United States. May not reflect my employer’s consensus view.


At Crisis and Opportunity: Unraveling Colombia’s Collapsing Coca Markets

Here’s an analysis I’ve been working on, bit by bit, for the past several weeks.

The market in Colombia for coca, the plant whose leaves can be used to produce cocaine, is in a state of historic collapse, bringing with it an acute humanitarian crisis in already impoverished rural territories. The unusually sharp and prolonged drop in coca prices has several causes. WOLA has identified 12 possible explanations, some more compelling than others.

Regardless of the reason, the crisis is sure to be temporary as world cocaine demand remains robust. The Colombian government, and partner and donor governments including the United States, should take maximum advantage of this window of opportunity before it closes. The humanitarian crisis offers a chance for Colombia to fill vacuums of civilian government presence in territories where insecurity, armed groups, and now hunger are all too common.

Read on—in English or Spanish, HTML or PDF—at WOLA’s website.

In Colombia, attacks on human rights defenders, social leaders, and ex-combatants are gradually declining

Two sources point to a welcome, though still woefully insufficient, decline in the number of human rights defenders and social leaders being killed in Colombia.

During the first half of 2023:

  • According to Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo), 92 social leaders and human rights defenders were killed between January and June 2023. That is down 19 percent from the 114 killings that the Defensoría counted between January and June 2022.
  • According to the count kept by the independent journalism site La Silla Vacía, 77 social leaders were murdered in the first six months of 2023. That is down 25 percent from the first half of 2022.

The United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia, which produces quarterly reports on implementation of aspects of the 2016 peace accord, also found a downward trend in murders of demobilized former members of the FARC guerrilla group. In its latest report, the Mission counts 18 ex-combatants killed between January 1 and June 26, 2023, roughly 30 percent behind the pace of 2022, and the trend has been declining since 2020.

From UN document: Since the signing of the Peace Agreement, the Mission has verified:

11 Women
54 Afro-Colombians
35 Indigenous



Twelve former combatants (all men) were killed during this period in Caquetá, Cauca, Chocó, Guaviare, Huila, Meta, Putumayo and Valle del Cauca.

2017: 33
2018: 65
2019: 78
2020: 75
2021: 55
2022: 50
2023: 18

This is all good news, though Colombia is still far from zero.

Why is it happening? Some credit may go to the nearly year-old government of Gustavo Petro, which has extended many of the country’s armed groups an opportunity to negotiate peace or demobilization, which gives them an incentive to improve their behavior toward non-combatants.

In the case of attacks on former FARC combatants, the demobilization process happened six years ago now, so “people just getting on with their lives” is something of a factor. Still, the UN warns that “persisting violence continues to jeopardize the process.” Indeed, imminent threats from FARC “dissidents” is forcing the relocation of sites for demobilized guerrillas in Vistahermosa and Mesetas, Meta, a few hours’ drive south of Bogotá.

Colombia in the 2024 Foreign Aid Bill

As of yesterday, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have completed work on the 2024 State and Foreign Operations appropriations bill—more colloquially, the “foreign aid bill.” The Republican-majority House appropriators approved their bill on July 12, and Senate appropriators approved theirs on July 20.

Here’s a very top-level overview of Colombia provisions in the 2023 foreign aid budget, what the Biden administration requested of Congress in March, and the House and Senate bills as they’ve emerged from committee.

U.S. Assistance to Colombia in the State/Foreign Operations Appropriation

2023 lawBiden Administration RequestHouse Appropriations Committee (bill / report)Senate Appropriations Committee (bill / report)
Total amount
(Omits Venezuela migrant aid, Defense Department aid, some smaller accounts)
$496 million$444.025 million“Deferred”$487.375 million
USAID Economic Support Funds$153 million$122 million Unspecified, except $25 million for “Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Communities” and $15 million for “Human rights”
USAID Development Assistance$95 million$103 million Unspecified, except $15 million for “Colombia biodiversity”
International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement$175 million$160 million  
Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining, and Related Programs$21 million$10 million  
Foreign Military Financing$38.5 million$38 million $28.025 million
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights$3 million  $3 million
Human rights conditions on military and some police aid20% of FMF; 5% of INCLE for Colombia’s National PoliceNoneNone20% of FMF; 5% of INCLE for Colombia’s National Police

The next steps after this:

  • Both houses must approve their bills (changes to Colombia provisions are unlikely).
  • A “conference committee” must resolve differences.
  • Once that revised and combined bill is approved, it gets sent to the President for signature, often combined with several other budget bills into a single “omnibus” bill.

New Invamer poll in Colombia

Chart of Invamer's time series of presidential approval/disapproval ratings, going back to 1994. Shows Petro now at 40% approval and 51% disapproval.

It’s been rare over the past 10 years for Colombia’s Invamer poll to show a president with a higher approval than disapproval rating. One such moment, the first months of Gustavo Petro’s presidency, has ended for now.

Colombia’s Blu Radio has the entire 112-page PDF of the poll’s results, with long time series. Also interesting:

Colombia’s National Police remain underwater.

Time series shows Colombia's police first being more unfavorable than favorable circa 2016, then decidedly so after mid-2020. Latest is 42% favorable, 50% unfavorable.

The Prosecutor-General’s office continues to enjoy little trust under Francisco Barbosa’s leadership.

Fiscalía General:

Current approval: 26&
Current disapproval: 61%

Support for granting TPS to Venezuelan refugees remains low, but is higher than ever.

Support: 41%, Oppose: 56%

A 19-point margin of support for the ELN peace talks—but it was a 41-point margin in August.

February: 56% agree with the government having restarted ELN talks, 37% disagree. In August it was 69-28.

Sad to say, this would be a break with the past

“One of the principles” of the Bogotá-Washington relationship, Colombia’s ambassador to the United States says, “is to attack drug trafficking head-on ‘but not the communities that need greater opportunities.’

Sadly, that principle has hardly been observed in the past, as the U.S. government contributed a rough average of half a billion dollars per year into Colombia’s drug war so far this century. It’s been observed partially at best.

Colombia’s new coca policy: “the devil is in the details,” which aren’t clear yet

This translated fragment of a January 31 column in the Colombian daily El Espectador, from María Alejandra Vélez of the University of the Andes’ Center for Security and Drugs Studies (CESED), is a succinct, accurate 2-minute overview of where coca eradication policy stands in Colombia right now, six months into Gustavo Petro’s administration.

Consistent with his campaign discourse, his first announcements, which lack details, aim at not persecuting growers, which includes lowering the tempo of forced eradication and considering a territorial transformation program, which includes gradual substitution once other economies generate income that allows a dignified life for coca growers. He reserved eradication for 20,000 hectares of “industrial” growers, who, as in any market, have already vertically integrated into the market: they cultivate in large tracts, process and market. It remains to be seen if we can identify who they are and where they are.

To stop persecuting small coca growers, 52.7% of whose households live in multidimensional poverty, according to the baseline of households that enrolled in the PNIS, seems obvious to me. Waiting for voluntary eradication to happen when they are already producing and generating income in other economies, too.

Now, the devil is in the details and these are what we should be concerned to know. For example, is there enough funding to attend to the territorial transformation of 200,000 or more families? Will there be a census and registration of small growers according to the size and number of plots? What happens with growers who have several plots? Where will the interventions be focused? For what period of time will the households that stop growing coca be accompanied? How will they be protected from the violence to which armed groups and criminal organizations subject them? How are they going to regain the trust of leaders and their communities to become involved in the policy after decades of non-compliance? What are the plans to prevent the expansion of crops and, in particular, their expansion in environmentally important areas? What types of economies other than coca are viable in ethnic and environmentally strategic territories? How does this whole narrative tie in with Total Peace? Do we have the international leadership necessary to stop chasing coca and talk about a regulatory path for cocaine? How will we measure the success of the new drug policy? Will we be able to convince the Biden administration and other U.S. institutions of the need to focus on solving rural development problems instead of eradication?

That last question is critical for our work here in Washington. Will the Biden administration go along with a counter-drug strategy that relies far less on forced eradication of small farmers’ coca plants?

My sense is that yes, they might. But only if they can be reassured that the Petro government is following a detailed, funded, well-thought-out plan. One that can answer many of the questions in Vélez’s final paragraph here.

Unfortunately, as she notes, the Petro government’s plans so far “lack details.” And that could start complicating the bilateral relationship.

“It would be better for the government to respond, quickly”: interview in Colombia’s El Espectador

On Wednesday, appearing before reporters in Washington after meeting with U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, Colombia’s chief prosecutor Francisco Barbosa strongly criticized President Gustavo Petro’s intention to lift arrest warrants for organized crime leaders entering into demobilization negotiations. Barbosa, who heads a separate branch of government and is close to Petro’s conservative predecessor Iván Duque, said that Petro’s planned talks with criminal groups were tantamount to declaring a ceasefire with Pablo Escobar.

At the Colombian daily El Espectador, journalist Cecilia Orozco asked me several questions about the episode. The interview text appears in today’s edition.

Image of El Espectador page with my interview, at

Here is an English translation.

“Prosecutor Barbosa’s statement was bombastic and political”: Adam Isacson

The Director for Defense Oversight of the influential organization WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America) analyzes the impact and “political” direction of Francisco Barbosa’s strong statements against Petro’s “total peace” strategy, during his recent visit to U.S. government officials. He believes that they caused serious damage and that the attorney general “did not think about the consequences of his position.”

Cecilia Orozco Tascón

Q: The statements made by prosecutor Francisco Barbosa in the United States evidence his drastic change of behavior: from being criticized for his closeness to the Duque government, whose president nominated him for the position, to being confrontational, in a high volume, with the Petro government. How do you analyze this situation, which confronts the president of the Republic with the head of the investigative body?

A: One thing I admire about the Colombian political system is that it made the attorney general a separate branch of the government. That is usually a good thing. In the United States, the prosecutor is part of the executive branch and answers to the President. Donald Trump seems to have broken the law on many occasions, but he had very little to fear of his hand-picked prosecutors, Jeff Sessions—whom he fired—and William Barr, investigating. The only thing that prevents a U.S. president from using prosecutors as instruments to attack his political adversaries, in reality, are norms and customs, not the Constitution.

Q: In the Colombian case, the method of electing the prosecutor (by the Supreme Court, but from a shortlist chosen by the president) vitiates his independence, as has been demonstrated when their terms coincide. Not as in the current case, when the nominating president leaves and a different one arrives….

A: As I said, having an attorney general truly independent of the president is good, because it is a check on presidential power. But it can be bad for governance: the more power is divided, the greater the likelihood of gridlock and paralysis. That seems to be happening in an issue central to the security of Colombians: the government’s peace negotiations. When Juan Manuel Santos started the talks with the FARC, he had already appointed a prosecutor, Eduardo Montealegre, favorable to the Peace Agreement. It seems that Gustavo Petro will not have, for the time being, one that supports him in this crucial matter.

Q: Upon exiting his visits to the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney, Barbosa told the media one of the most aggressive phrases ever made by a prosecutor with respect to the incumbent government: “Never before has a bilateral ceasefire been made with drug trafficking organizations. It is like making a bilateral ceasefire with Pablo Escobar or the Cali cartel”. What do you think of this statement?

A: Barbosa’s statement is concerning, because it is the clearest indication we have seen that he intends to use the Attorney General’s Office to oppose the government’s peace strategy. It seems to leave no room for negotiation. He also seems to have said it for media purposes, perhaps without thinking about the consequences of his position. I do not know if President Petro and the prosecutor have talked about the legal aspects of the peace policy. My perception is that they have not had a substantive discussion. So I also don’t know, for sure, whether Barbosa is expressing frustration after difficult talks or shooting arrows in public before those talks get underway.

Q: The two are supposed to meet tomorrow, Monday; but it is not unlikely that the overtly unfriendly tone and content of the prosecutor’s statement may prevent the appointment from taking place.

A: In addition to that consequence (should it happen), Barbosa’s statement is inaccurate: Cesar Gaviria’s government made a deal with Pablo Escobar that gave him a luxurious “house arrest”, in the so-called Catedral one-man prison. There, he was “guarded” by his own people and lived under his own rules. That really looked like a form of bilateral ceasefire.

Q: Do the Attorney General’s inflammatory statements impact the Colombian Government’s relations with the U.S. Government?

A: Absolutely. They have a big impact on U.S.-Colombia relations. The Biden administration generally supports the idea of negotiating peace with armed groups, but that support is not unconditional. One of the most skeptical agencies in Washington is the Justice Department, where prosecutors fear losing the ability to extradite major criminals. With his public statement, Barbosa has just fueled that skepticism in a big way.

Q: I suppose the impact will be greater because his statements were made in the framework of an official visit to Prosecutor Garland and the Justice Department. Is that so?

A: Yes. Barbosa and Merrick Garland have already met several times and have developed a cooperative relationship. The Colombian prosecutor may be taking advantage of that relationship to scare the Biden administration about a Petro government policy that is still in formation. While it is true that the Prosecutor’s Office is an autonomous entity, this does not mean that it can carry out a separate foreign policy. Barbosa can certainly express his concerns to his counterparts, particularly on how to advance a line of cooperation if some extraditions are put on hold. But airing differences over some aspects of domestic foreign policy, using vague and deliberately provocative words, suggests that Colombia has two contradictory foreign policies.

Q: Should the Colombian government counter the damage done by Barbosa now or wait for the waters to calm down before sending its Minister of Justice, Minister of Foreign Affairs or activating its ambassador to give its own version?

A: It would be better for the government to respond, quickly, by sending its own messages and officials to Washington to counter the prosecutor’s narrative before it grows stronger.

Q: On the other hand, since Barbosa’s statements were delivered immediately after his appointment with Garland, could it be inferred that the Colombian official is repeating the opinion of the U.S. Attorney and the Justice Department regarding Petro’s total peace policy?

A: It is likely that Barbosa has heard Justice Department officials, including perhaps Garland, express strong objections to the suspension of extraditions of organized crime members. But I doubt very much that Merrick Garland, who is known for his restraint and moderation, would encourage Barbosa to express those concerns using the provocative language he did.

Q: Barbosa also stated that the decrees issued after the approval of the total peace law should be reviewed, but he says this after Congress approved, two months ago, a law authorizing the president to “carry out all acts tending to engage in rapprochement with organized armed criminal structures.” However, when the law was debated, the prosecutor was not present. It seems an inconsistency.

A: I do not know why the attorney general did not play a more active role at the time the law was being discussed. In this case, however, he can probably defend himself by saying that he and Petro disagree in their interpretations of that law and the powers that it grants to the president.

Q: The strongest controversy arises over the government’s request to suspend, temporarily, arrest warrants for members of criminal gangs. It makes sense, but the Congress also approved a paragraph which reads that “once a dialogue process is initiated (…) the corresponding judicial authorities will suspend the arrest warrants (…) against the members (…) of the armed structures that show willingness.” According to your experience, is this legislative decision unacceptable abroad?

A: A temporary suspension of arrest warrants is not synonymous with impunity. It is a practical and logistical measure to allow negotiations to take place. It is clear that these negotiations must not lead to an agreement that grants impunity for war crimes or crimes against humanity, or that dishonors these individuals’ countless victims. They have an obligation to confess their role in fostering criminality through drug trafficking, the undermining of institutions and the rule of law, the damage they have done to the environment, and their violation of the rights of Indigenous communities, women, and other historically marginalized groups. But, I repeat, a temporary suspension of detentions should not be interpreted as an impunity agreement. And extradition to the United States, which only punishes their drug trafficking activity, delays accountability to their victims in Colombia.

Q: Precisely, and referring to the extradition issue, some of those who have been announced as spokesmen for the criminal groups are requested for extradition. Does the simultaneous request for suspension of arrest and extradition disturb the U.S. government?

A: This is a transcendental issue for the U.S. government. Its prosecutors and diplomats place great importance on the extradition agreement with Colombia. Alvaro Uribe and former prosecutor Mario Iguarán received many messages of serious concern from their counterparts in the United States during the Justice and Peace negotiations with paramilitary groups. And Uribe ended up extraditing many of the AUC leaders. Juan Manuel Santos was also made aware of U.S. concerns when negotiating with the FARC, as demonstrated by the 2018 Jesús Santrich episode. Concern about suspending extradition is probably the biggest obstacle to the U.S. government’s more decisive support for peace negotiations. Moreover, if prosecutors, military and police representing the security sector in Colombia do not agree with full peace, they themselves will communicate their displeasure to their counterparts in the United States. That will raise red flags in Washington. But this phenomenon is not new.

Q: In your analysis of the Colombian situation, were the prosecutor’s statements made in a legal sense or, rather, in a political context, taking into account that his term ends this year and that he is a close friend of Duque, a pro-Uribe enemy of both the Santos Peace Accord and this government?

A: Being so vague, bombastic and based on the interpretation of a strategy that is still under discussion, Barbosa’s statement was a political act. It was not a technical legal analysis, but a statement of opposition to the Petro government’s negotiation framework and an alignment with its political opponents. Incidentally, Barbosa, Duque and other conservative Colombians have an advantage over the Petro government in Washington: many of them studied or worked in the United States and maintain old relationships with local elites. They maintain much easier and more fluid communication with U.S. leaders. When they want to make a political statement here, they will be heard, as just happened with Barbosa.

Q: So it would be pragmatic for the Petro government to move by sending more officials well connected to the Biden administration. Or is it not strategic to do so at this time in light of the blow that Barbosa dealt him?

A: Given the impact that the United States can have on the development of the overall peace policy, it would be important for the Petro administration to be present in Washington and engage in early dialogue with U.S. officials who have an impact on Colombia policy. At the moment there is, in my opinion, an asymmetry of information in the United States between the messages of Petro’s opponents and those of his government.

Q: In another part of his statements, Barbosa pointed out that “there is a concern about the cessation of hostilities with drug traffickers because it is an unprecedented figure”. President Lopez Obrador desisted from pursuing the shadowy Sinaloa cartel for not facing dangers for the civilian population of the city of Culiacán, he said. Did the U.S. veto Mexico for that?

A: U.S. officials did communicate their displeasure, forcefully and privately, to the Mexican government. But, with respect to the point you make, there is a better parallel in the informal contacts that U.S. agents have with organized crime figures about the terms of their eventual surrender: it is not uncommon for offers of reduced sentences to be made in exchange for providing useful information. Plea bargaining can begin before an arrest is made. The difference is that it is less formal and without suspension of arrest warrants.

Q: You have been a student of the Colombian conflict for several years. So, how do you analyze the situation of political tension felt in the country since the left-wing opposition won the elections and became the incumbent government?

A: It is not new to see a Latin American democracy, in a historically unequal country, elect a leftist political movement after generations of control by conservative elites, and then see other conservative state powers seeking to block that leftist leader. Sometimes (as happened with Salvador Allende) the conservatives win the contest with tragic results. Sometimes (Hugo Chavez’s case) the leftist movement succeeds in eliminating all checks on its power, which also brings bad results. But at other times (Lula, Bachelet, Mujica), the leftist movement manages to govern in spite of its conservative opponents while strengthening democratic institutions. Colombia is in the first months of a similar dynamic. Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez seem to realize that they have to act quickly to make a noticeable change in people’s lives, otherwise Colombian voters will go back to supporting right-wing candidates in 2026.

Q: True: people are impatient and critics are very insistent…

A: The government often seems overwhelmed by all the items on its agenda. Some policies, such as “total peace,” seem improvised: there is not enough communication about the content of the plan, too much seems to be done through tweets, and official agencies are still hiring key personnel.

Q: From your point of view as a foreign analyst, what is the greatest success and the greatest failure of the “total peace” project?

A: We still don’t really know, as I said, what total peace is; at least not in detail. I can only speculate about its successes and failures: the greatest success, so far, is to have created the hope that Colombia’s historic cycles of violence can be broken without needing to do so on the battlefield. If the Petro government manages to demobilize most of the country’s armed groups without firing a shot, through persuasion, compromise, and negotiation, it would be transformative. The biggest failure, for the moment, is the lack of clarity about what would happen afterwards, if total peace were to succeed. If the vacuum of state presence in the territories continues as it did with Santos, the effort will not be worth it. Why eliminate a group of armed group leaders from the scene so that new ones can replace them because the state did not arrive?

[Sidebar:] Legal opinion of former Justice Minister Yesid Reyes on arrest warrants:

“In my opinion, Prosecutor Barbosa is wrong when he says that there is no legal framework that allows lifting the arrest warrants that exist against members of organized armed structures of high impact crime. Law 2272 of 2022 expressly establishes that possibility, on a temporary basis, referring only to the authorized spokespersons of such organizations and only to bring them to justice. On the other hand, I find legitimate his concern about the decrees that ordered the cessation of hostilities against these criminal structures to install, with them, dialogue tables aimed at seeking their submission: this cessation of hostilities prohibits offensive military operations and police operations against these groups, which means that their members can only be captured if the authorities encounter them by chance. In practice, this leads to a de facto suspension of the arrest warrants against all their members, not just their authorized spokespersons, and not only for the 15 days requested by the Government, but until June 30, 2023. And with the vague purpose of setting up dialogue tables”.

Q: Do you think it is possible that the current right-wing opposition in Colombia, which has been quite active and rude, will try to move from legitimate criticism of the Petro government, to conspiracies and revolts as happened in Peru?

A: There will always be a desire to limit Petro’s ability to govern, if not to remove him. When he was mayor of Bogota, one remembers what the Internal Affairs Chief Alejandro Ordonez intended to do. But, for now, I don’t think it is likely that they will try to topple the President. Petro has been more strategic than Pedro Castillo, who was hapless, unpopular, and disorganized. Setting aside the corruption allegations against him, Castillo was chaotic, passing through dozens of ministers; and he seemed unable to communicate a vision while the opposition dominated Congress. In contrast, Petro began by building a working majority in Congress and reached out to opponents, including Alvaro Uribe. He is also a much better communicator—despite some unfortunate uses of Twitter—and his approval rating remains close to 50 percent. As long as these trends continue, Petro need not worry about conspiracies.

34 members of Congress send a letter on Colombia

“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.”

Read the full letter here.

“The highest degree of irresponsibility”

“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?

Video en español de hoy

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.

An entire life in the ELN, now an “advisor.”

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.

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.

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