Colombia’s Military and the Peace Process

President Santos and government peace negotiators meet with the high military and police command on January 23.

“Fifty-one years of war and we’re going to reach peace, a peace that is your victory,” President Juan Manuel Santos told Colombia’s army in a pre-Christmas speech. “That courage, that determination, have been responsible for us talking about peace, because the enemy finally noticed that you are invincible, and today we have the best Army in our history.”

President Santos, who served as defense minister in the previous administration, regularly offers effusive praise to the armed forces. Except on December 2, when he appeared on the TV station of Bogotá’s left-leaning city government and warned, “People who aren’t acting with loyalty are coming out, and any officer, no matter how important, showing the slightest sign of disloyalty or lack of discipline will be out of the military.”

This comment, which came a day after the resignation of an Army general who had been captured and released by the FARC guerrillas, raised eyebrows in Colombia and reportedly angered the military.

Santos’s words drew attention to a concern brewing below the surface of Colombia’s peace process: that a significant sector of the armed forces and its leadership disagrees with the civilian government’s handling of negotiations with the FARC.

It is impossible to know how large this sector is, as active-duty officers usually respect their constitutional mandate to be “non-deliberative,” avoiding public criticism of civilian leaders. We must rely on off-the-record comments, some of them made to us and some of them reported by a small number of Colombian investigative journalists, as well as the public words of retired officers and of politicians believed to be close to the military.

These comments indicate that military leaders and rank-and-file who are unhappy about the Havana talks aren’t opposed to “peace” or agitating to prolong the conflict. Their likely concerns, listed below, have more to do with the design of the process, or its implications for their institution.

Military discontent is important. Colombia’s armed forces have grown rapidly in this century: today, about 450,000 Colombians wear a military or police uniform, up from less than 300,000 in 2000. While the possibility of a military coup is near zero, opposition from the armed forces could manifest itself in ways that make peace negotiations, or subsequent accord implementation, inviable. Analysts cite military resistance as a key factor in the failure of a 1980s attempt to negotiate with the FARC and mid–1990s efforts to get negotiations started.

Elements in the armed forces can hinder or derail peace talks through what longtime Semana magazine columnist Antonio Caballero called “sometimes quiet and sometimes open opposition, sometimes almost en bloc and sometimes, like now, in the form of surreptitious ‘loose wheels’” within the institution. Methods can include private communications to politicians opposed to the process, incomplete compliance with orders, filtration of damaging allegations (true or invented) by military intelligence, or politically damaging public statements which, as they are rare, often come with high officers’ resignations. In extreme cases, some officers’ opposition could even be expressed through uncredited threats or intimidation against civilians involved in, or supportive of, negotiations.

Evidence of Military Unease

Military commanders insist, and some analysts agree, that the armed forces have stolidly supported President Santos’s peace effort. “The Army’s support for the peace process is proved, clearly, by our work,” Gen. Jaime Lasprilla, the chief of Colombia’s army, told El Espectador journalist Cecilia Orozco in November. “The fact that the transfer of 30 terrorists to Havana has occurred without any incident is a concrete and forceful piece of evidence.”

While the institution as a whole has gone along with the talks, there have been troubling incidents.

  • In April 2013, when international guarantors and Red Cross personnel dispatched helicopters on the delicate mission of transporting guerrilla negotiators from Colombia’s jungles to the peace table in Havana, someone high in the military shared the pickup zone’s secret geographic coordinates with former President Álvaro Uribe, a vocal opponent of the peace process. Uribe posted the data to his Twitter account. Investigations into the incident failed to hold anyone accountable.

  • In February 2014, the Colombian newsweekly Semana revealed the existence of an Army intelligence unit, masquerading as an Internet café in a Bogotá neighborhood, whose members were hacking into the e-mails and phone conversations of many civilian targets, including some of the government’s own negotiators in Havana. The incident raised concerns that the armed forces’ Military Intelligence Center (CIME) is a focus of opposition to the Havana process—but investigations here, too, have gone nowhere.

  • The Association of Retired Officers (ACORE) has been vehemently critical of President Santos and his peace effort, issuing regular public statements and tweets attacking a process they view as too permissive with the guerrillas. ACORE is regarded as a de facto mouthpiece for the political opinions of active-duty officers, or at least a significant number of them, who are constitutionally prohibited from expressing them publicly.

Rumors of Military Unease

Other indicators of quiet military discomfort are harder to prove, but persist in off-the-record discussions about the process. Among them:

  • The idea that in order to get them to acquiesce to the peace talks, President Santos has had to yield to the military on much else. “Since he assumed the presidency, Santos has given the military what even [his hardline predecessor Álvaro] Uribe did not dare to give them, as a way to avoid their veto of the FARC peace process,” Juanita León, director of Colombia’s La Silla Vacía investigative website and a dogged investigator of civil-military relations, wrote last February.

    Until a January 14 announcement, Santos had refused to agree to FARC requests for a bilateral cease-fire while talks occur. The argument has been that the guerrillas would use the respite to regroup and strengthen themselves, but a widely held view alleges that the military would oppose having its hands tied. “For the military, it is a point of honor that has implications for troop morale,” journalist Arcadio González noted in Cali’s El País newspaper in December.

    Other concessions to the armed forces include support for legislation that would widen military courts’ jurisdiction over human rights crimes, and reduced civilian oversight of officers’ discretionary funds.

  • Some Colombian media reported that a key general’s opposition to the peace process triggered a shakeup of the military high command in August 2013. The change in command, which occurred several months earlier than normal, may have taken place to prevent the ascent of Gen. Sergio Mantilla, the chief of the Army, to the overall command of the armed forces. Mantilla, these reports indicate, was a frequent behind-the-scenes critic of the peace process. Unnamed sources told the Semana newsmagazine “that in a security meeting in [the central Colombian city of] Bucaramanga … Mantilla verbally attacked the minister of Defense, Juan Carlos Pinzón, showing a lack of respect that was the last straw.” Pinzón has denied these rumors.
  • Several conversations with Colombian analysts and journalists have identified military intelligence, particularly the CIME, as a likely node of opposition to the peace talks. Their allegations mention the February 2014 hacking/wiretap scandal mentioned above; subsequent revelations of a pro-Uribe presidential candidate’s alleged effort to dig up dirt about the peace negotiators by hiring a computer hacker claiming to have ties to military intelligence; revelations in October that the CIME had compiled a list of personal e-mails, including those of many people involved in the peace talks; and human rights defenders’ suspicions, expressed in off-the-record exchanges, that recent threats against non-governmental backers of the peace process are the work of military intelligence personnel.
  • Another frequent off-the-record concern is that many senior military officers are personally more supportive of Former President Uribe, the peace talks’ most prominent critic, than of President Santos. This may not be surprising: as in the United States—where a recent Military Times poll of almost 2,300 active-duty troops gave President Obama a 15 percent approval rating—officers’ personal political views may be more conservative than those of the President or the public in general without their loyalty being in question. The problem arises, however, when now-Senator Uribe’s rhetoric urges the Armed Forces on a near-daily basis to consider Santos, and his peace effort, to be threats to their interests. Just in the past week, Uribe has posted messages to his Twitter account accusing Santos of “forever staining the noble sacrifice of soldiers and police” and “creating conditions to disrespect the armed forces.” This baiting of the military, undermining the commander in chief, is a dangerous practice that is unheard of in the United States.

Purported Military Concerns

President Santos has endeavored since the beginning to involve the military in the peace process. One of the principal negotiators is retired Gen. Jorge Mora, who led the armed forces in the initial years of the Uribe government (2002–2003), as the counter-guerrilla offensive intensified. Another is retired Police Gen. Óscar Naranjo, who headed the force for five years. In August, the negotiating table launched an “end of conflict” subcommittee to discuss the technical details of disarmament and demobilization. The government negotiators in this group include seven active-duty military officers, headed by Gen. Javier Flórez, who until August headed Colombia’s joint chiefs of staff.

In addition to including these officers—most of them regarded as hardened battlefield commanders (“troperos”)—President Santos has assured the armed forces on dozens of occasions that their institution’s future is not an item on the negotiating agenda in Havana.

Still, the steady drumbeat of comments, incidents, and rumors indicates that suspicion and unease persists in the military. Defense Minister Pinzón—who has held his post since 2011, the longest service of any Colombian defense minister since civilians resumed holding it in 1990—often gets criticized for public statements that cast doubt on FARC negotiators’ good faith, if not on the peace process itself. Looked at another way, if the darker view of military discomfort is accurate, Pinzón could be walking a tightrope between a Santos administration that has staked much on the negotiations and an officer corps that detests them.

What about the peace process might make military officers angry or troubled? While this is unavoidably speculative, three sets of concerns emerge. This list borrows heavily from the work of Juanita León of La Silla Vacía, who talked to five sources close to the military and published an analysis of their concerns in late October.

Going to Prison While Guerrillas Do Not

“So that we may all be absolutely untroubled, for any judicial benefit that is given to the FARC there will have to be a corresponding benefit for members of our Armed Forces,” President Santos said in November. He has publicly repeated this promise to the armed forces on dozens of occasions.

But many in the military apparently do not believe the President. In conversations with us, as well as with journalists and U.S. officials, some Colombian officers express a concern along the lines of, “Ex-guerrilla human rights abusers could be running for political office while military human rights abusers rot in prison.”

Colombia’s peace negotiators haven’t even begun serious discussion of penalties for guerrilla and government human rights abusers. Still, officers point to the 1990 accord with the small M–19 guerrilla group, which amnestied guerrilla human rights crimes only.

Under modern human rights standards—Colombia is a member of the International Criminal Court—crimes against humanity and serious war crimes cannot be amnestied or pardoned. But long prison terms are unlikely. The “deprivation of liberty” required for the worst FARC human rights abusers is likely to be far less severe, in length and conditions. And President Santos is promising similarly light treatment for soldiers accused of serious human rights and international humanitarian law violations.

The set of crimes that reportedly has officers most worried is the so-called “false positives,” in which soldiers under their command killed perhaps thousands of civilians, mostly between 2004 and 2008, then falsified the murders as combat kills in order to win rewards for high body counts. Colombia’s chief prosecutor has already said that, because these homicides didn’t occur during combat, they are not conflict-related and their perpetrators should not get reduced sentences.

The prosecutor may not get his way, and a peace deal could end up assigning light sentences to military personnel who committed “false positive” killings—and those who commanded them, a list that today includes some of the Army’s most senior commanders. But even if that happens, the deal would require soldiers and officers to publicly confess their crimes and to reveal who ordered and knew about them. This is a necessary process—truth is non-negotiable—but it will badly tarnish the military institution. The prospect likely fills some officers with dread.

Among these, Juanita León cites “a group of military personnel, led by some of high-ranking officers currently under investigation and several of those detained in the PM 13 [the not very austere stockade at the Colombian Army’s 13th Brigade headquarters in Bogotá].”

“The point at the Havana negotiations that most worries them is that of ‘victims’ because of the truths that could emerge,” a person who has worked with the military for more than a decade told La Silla.

“It is very hard to confront these truths. More than the judicial investigations, what worries them is historical truth,” said a journalist who has interviewed many soldiers. “The existing pyramid won’t hold up when the truth starts to get out.”

Throughout their careers, soldiers have had to see illegalities and abuses against the population committed by some of their superiors and have had to remain quiet, dirtying themselves with their complicit silence, due to the lack of an independent military justice system to channel their claims.

When Pandora’s box is opened in a truth commission, and without the promise of stability, many of these soldiers will speak and corroborate the victims’ testimonies. That day, the prestige that the Army now possesses will no longer be the same despite the many heroes who have also formed part of the military forces.

Having to Shrink, for Some Late in Their Career

Without a large nationwide insurgency, the main security threat facing Colombians will be organized crime. (Some might argue that it already is.) Criminal groups—some perhaps made up of ex-guerrillas—will traffic drugs, extort and kidnap citizens, corrupt state institutions, and fight bloody battles for control of territory.

This challenge will call for a big civilian police response: community policing in violent neighborhoods, mobile carabineros for rural zones, and especially a beefed-up capability to investigate crimes, follow financial flows, and dismantle criminal networks.

For the most part, these are not military roles. Colombia may need more specialized police, and political leaders are already mulling moving the National Police out of the Defense Ministry. But Colombia is unlikely to need 275,000 soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen any longer. Nor is it likely to need a defense budget larger than Mexico’s.

The armed forces may face a post-conflict reduction. This will be especially painful for a powerful part of the officer corps: lieutenant-colonels, majors, and captains who, with less positions to fill, will face reduced chances for further promotions. Long careers may abruptly end.

Another powerful bloc with something to lose are retired officers who have become defense contractors. With a reduced military budget will come less money for equipment, uniforms, food and other services frequently provided by ex-military contractors. “There is much money involved that is at risk,” León notes.

On this point, concerned military officers are right: the armed forces, and their budget, will shrink in a post-conflict Colombia. This will be so despite plans to increase Colombia’s participation in UN peacekeeping missions, and Defense Minister Pinzón’s promises that the armed forces will play greater roles in development projects and the fight against criminal bands.

Ideological Opposition

Military officers, in Colombia and many other countries, tend to be politically conservative. They view their mission as protecting the state from threats, including internal threats like terrorism. In Colombia, they have lost many comrades on the battlefield.

As a result, many officers may oppose negotiations with their longtime leftist guerrilla enemies as a matter of personal principle. Some may also believe that they were “almost there”: that, given just another year on the battlefield, they could have forced the FARC to surrender. Juanita León elaborates.

“The military have their own pride, and it pains them to have had them [guerrilla leaders] taken from under their noses to go have drinks in Cuba, while nobody says anything. That the President has relegated them to the back room,” explained an officer to La Silla who spoke under condition of anonymity. “They believe they could have defeated them.”

This group is strongly influenced by Uribismo [Former President Uribe and his political supporters] and by retired generals like [Gen. Javier] Rey (who left the Army for supposedly having shared the [FARC negotiator pickup] coordinates with Uribe) and Rito Alejo del Río [currently imprisoned for collaborating with paramilitary groups].

This discourse has radicalized the majority of the Army and has also served to justify its other fears.

How Big is the Faction Opposed?

The persistence of rumors and comments makes clear that there is something behind all of this. A segment of Latin America’s second-largest armed forces is unhappy about the peace process, and may engage in alarming saber-rattling at key moments.

“It’s evident that the peace process has the Armed Forces divided,” Semana columnist María Jimena Duzán wrote in November. “The majority of the generals see the process with mistrust but do not dare to say it publicly, and there is another group, probably a minority, of military personnel who, in fact, have openly declared themselves to be enemies of the process.”

But how big is this segment that opposes the talks, whether quietly or openly? Is it truly a “majority” of the armed forces—the word that León and Duzán use here? If so, we must hope that “a majority of this majority” will ultimately go along with the peace talks and the changes that come after an accord.

Gen. Rafael Colón, a retired Colombian marine known in Colombia for combating paramilitary groups to the same degree as guerrillas (this is sadly unusual), put it optimistically in a comment posted to La Silla Vacía last May.

I observe sectors of the retired military, and minuscule sectors of the active-duty military, absorbed by radicalism and political polarization. Small sectors of non-conformity with the FARC negotiations, aspiring to avoid seeing them reach a happy ending, are evident.

More chilling, though, is the final paragraph of Juanita León’s October analysis.

A source told La Silla that of the 52 generals [in the Army], only 6—who he contemptuously called “the princesses” because “they crawled on carpeting since they were little due to their social class”—are in favor of the peace process. The rest have serious objections. Other sources believe that perhaps one-third are in favor of the process. But several agree that, right now, this discomfort is one of the largest threats to the peace process.”

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