Improving Security Policy in Colombia
Latin America Briefing N°23
29 Jun 2010
President Álvaro Uribe’s eight-year military campaign against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has taken a heavy toll on Colombia’s largest insurgent organisation. The government is now working to consolidate security gains by expanding state presence in several of the formerly most conflict-ridden regions. This strategy faces numerous challenges, not least because FARC’s command and control structure has not collapsed. The insurgents are adapting to military pressure through guerrilla warfare tactics, aggressive recruitment among rural populations, broadened involvement in drug trafficking and alliances with other armed groups and drug-trafficking organisations. Colombia’s next president, Juan Manuel Santos, will take office on 7 August. As part of an integrated conflict resolution strategy, his government must increase the country’s law enforcement and military capability against all illegal armed groups, including FARC. It also has to strengthen institutions, expand the rule of law, rigorously protect human rights, reduce poverty and design the political/negotiations component of a successful conflict resolution strategy. Security consolidation can only take root if Colombia tackles its pervasive problems of organised violence, criminality and illegality in an integrated manner.
Uribe’s sustained military campaign against FARC has produced tangible results but did not break the backbone of the 45-year old insurgency. While FARC has lost thousands of fighters due to deaths in combat, captures and desertions, it is estimated to still have 8,000-10,000 troops. Coerced recruitment of new members, mostly children and youngsters, among vulnerable groups such as Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities is ongoing. FARC has resorted to guerrilla tactics and the massive use of antipersonnel mines as well as snipers. It has expanded its participation in drug trafficking in Colombia and other parts of Latin America, particularly Panama, Venezuela, Brazil and Ecuador.
A number of FARC units have formed alliances with other illegal armed groups, including paramilitary successors and new illegal armed groups (NIAGs), such as Rastrojos and Paisas. Alliances are mostly centred on drug trafficking. While often temporary and fragile, as with Colombia’s second-largest insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), they add a new dimension to the conflict. Uribe’s military strategy against FARC was successful up to a point because it aimed at a more or less clearly defined and identified target. The threat posed by paramilitary successor groups, NIAGs and other criminal actors, and the alliances between them and FARC and ELN, is of a different, less structured and visible kind. There is mounting evidence that Colombia’s security forces lack a strategy to confront this new threat.
The new government should reassess current security policy and the efforts underway to consolidate the gains made under Uribe. The incoming Santos administration should acknowledge that Colombia has still not reached the post-conflict phase and implement an integrated conflict resolution strategy, which will be the subject of a forthcoming Crisis Group report. On security issues, the government should:
Maintain military pressure on FARC while effectively responding to the insurgents’ new modi operandi and their broadened participation in drug trafficking, while avoiding the human rights violations that have tarnished the record of the armed forces. This requires improving military intelligence and operational capacities as well as regional security cooperation, particularly with Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela. As tense relations with Venezuela have facilitated an increase in cross-border crime, the incoming Colombian government has to make every effort to open a new chapter of bilateral cooperation in order to effectively cut off supply routes, support networks and trafficking chains. Relations with Ecuador also need to be fully re-established.
Develop and implement a comprehensive citizen security strategy to address the different threats emerging from FARC, ELN, paramilitary successors and NIAGs to both rural and urban populations. This strategy should be based on in-depth analysis of the new tactics of, and alliances among, the different armed groups and their impact on citizen security. Increased protection of civilians, especially among vulnerable groups such as indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, is essential.
Tackle the threat posed by paramilitary successors and NIAGs by (a) officially acknowledging the expansion and complex nature of paramilitary successors and NIAGs and the severe humanitarian impact caused by their actions; (b) stepping up efforts to integrate effective law enforcement with military measures; and (c) decisively fighting and ending collusion and ties between illegal armed groups and members of local authorities and the security forces.
Advance military and citizen security policy reform in tandem with the implementation of the security consolidation strategy so as to increase the chances of success of the latter and rapidly shift it to a civilian-led operation with a whole-of-government budgetary commitment.
Bogotá/Brussels, 29 June 2010