The Colombian Army’s Very Bad Year

Here’s an English translation of a column WOLA’s Adam Isacson 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.

Tags: Civil-Military Relations

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