WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
24 Sep 2002 |

Colombian Government’s Controversial Security Measures

On August 7, Álvaro Uribe Vélez became the president of Colombia. Thus far, he has pursued three principal methods to provide "democratic security" to Colombians under fire from illegal armed groups. There are serious questions, however, about how "democratic" these methods are. Some would have the effect of strengthening the military and the police while drawing civilians directly into the conflict and denying them basic rights.

As Congress considers providing Colombia $374 million in military and police assistance through the 2003 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, we encourage you to review the following security policies initiated by the Uribe government. In our view, these measures are unlikely to improve security for ordinary Colombians, and could easily aggravate the decades-old conflict and punish civilians more than ever. Furthermore, they raise concerns about the wisdom of providing great amounts of military aid to a government that seems to be chipping away at democratic practices.

  1. Emergency Powers and Decrees

On August 11, four days after his inauguration, President Uribe invoked constitutional emergency powers that enable him to rule by decree. The emergency powers allow arrests, searches, and wiretapping to be carried out without warrants. A recent decree (#2002) also permits the creation of special zones in which the military will be given police powers, the mobility of civilians will be limited, curfews will be imposed, and restrictions will be placed on the presence of foreigners. Two such zones have already been created, one of them in the province of Arauca, where the United States is poised to send $98 million to protect an oil pipeline used by Occidental Petroleum.

  • The Security and National Defense Law, which was very similar to this recent decree, was struck down by the Constitutional Court on April 10. Both measures have been condemned by important Colombian human rights groups, such as the Colombian Commission of Jurists. According to Gustavo Gallón, director of the CCJ, "The Decree is directed against the civilian population, which is the primary victim of human rights violations. The enemy is not the civilian population, but rather the combatants that must be dying of laughter….it creates a regime of terror."

2. "Network of Collaborators"

One of Mr. Uribe’s most ambitious measures is the creation a civilian informant network of one million volunteers, which will function as additional "eyes and ears" for the police and military. According to news reports, there are thousands of participants already in at least half of Colombia’s provinces.

The participants are not only paid a small amount for helping with intelligence, but they could also receive large payoffs ($190 to $770) for particularly important tips that lead to arrests or the prevention of an attack. Some $40,000 has already been paid in what the government calls "Reward Mondays." "Reward Mondays" feature informants in ski masks receiving thick wads of bills from military commanders in live, televised public ceremonies.

  • Antanas Mockus, the mayor of the nation’s capital, Bogotá, has called these ceremonies a "grotesque spectacle." Furthermore, he will not allow the informant networks to operate in his city. Mockus has argued that the city’s security problems are indeed grave, but addressing them requires professional police and respect for international humanitarian law. Mockus maintains that citizens should cooperate with the authorities out of civic duty, and not for pay. He also warns against double-agents who would use the reward system for their own personal enrichment.

Colombia has a troubled history with civilian networks supporting military operations. While Governor of Antioquia in the mid-1990s, Uribe supported a similar experiment of rural security cooperatives called the Convivir. By his own admission, several of the Convivir were infiltrated by paramilitaries. It would be an extraordinary challenge to avoid replaying that scenario today at the national level, with the paramilitary AUC’s explosive growth, budding sympathies from the middle class, and well-documented links with elements of the Colombian military. It is all the more alarming given Colombia’s countless vendettas and history of private retribution. People seeking revenge against others for personal reasons may label their enemies as insurgents, criminals, or terrorists in order to see them arrested or even killed.

  • UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, has singled out Colombia’s human rights situation and specifically criticized Uribe’s proposal to recruit civilians as a blurring of the line between soldier and civilian. On September 4, she said such measures "can contribute, within the context of generalized violence and a degradation of the conflict, to the civilian population becoming involved in military operations or exposed to risk situations."
  • Senator Antonio Navarro Wolff (ex-guerrilla leader and former Minister of Health) says that the network of informants "will wind up being armed," and that "nobody will be able to control one million armed civilians. They will wind up shooting their political enemies, the people they don’t like, the man who gets their daughter pregnant."
  • Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman, Eduardo Cifuentes, says the network "offers the worst model of citizenship and authority that one can imagine in the most hair-raising of nightmares. The lack of transparency of the system allows it to be colonized by every source of evil and organized crime….the cure is worse than the sickness."
  • It is still unclear whether the networks will be armed or not. In the large cities, some of the nation’s 180,000 already-armed private security guards will play a special role in the networks. During the initiation of the first network, in the city of Valledupar, on August 9, President Uribe suggested that participants could eventually be armed. Uribe has also said, "One thing is arming one million bandits. But it’s another thing entirely to arm ordinary citizens, private security firms, neighborhood security groups, and civil defense organizations so they can support the military."
  • Minister of Defense Marta Lucía Ramírez has said there will be a "very rigorous" selection process, and the participants’ names will be "absolutely confidential." Yet, Vice-president Santos said in a meeting with U.S. human rights groups on September 16 that there is no background check on participants. Given the country’s decades-old conflict and the fact that the irregular armies count 40,000 troops among them, a vetting process seems fundamental to protect citizens from overzealous, corrupt, and violent participants.

3. "Peasant Soldiers"

President Uribe has stated his intention to double the number of professional soldiers and eliminate the draft by 2005. But in the meantime, in the interests of saving money and establishing state presence quickly in zones without police, his government is recruiting 15,000 "peasant soldiers" between now and March 2003 to act in "support" of the regular armed forces. All peasant soldiers would receive three months of military training, serve in their hometowns, and would return to their homes at night.

According to Vice-president Santos, the "peasant soldiers" will function as a "national guard" in 450 municipalities
(186 of which currently lack police). Each of these municipalities will have garrisons of 100 troops, 40 of them "peasant soldiers." According to Santos, the government is "evaluating" whether these peasant soldiers would bring their weapons home with them, or whether they would leave them at the local garrison. In either case, these soldiers would be more vulnerable than regular soldiers, because they will not enjoy the protection of military or police facilities when they are off duty. In fact, they could also be exposing their families to attacks by the illegal armed groups.

  • The prominent Colombian social scientist, Eduardo Pizarro, has described these soldiers as "second-class conscripts" and "cannon fodder." He questions whether it is possible to professionalize the armed forces while taking shortcuts such as the creation of "peasant soldiers." He points out that similar efforts in Guatemala and El Salvador were the cause of those country’s worst episodes of violence.
  • Eduardo Cifuentes, Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman, says that "Soldiers are trained to act collectively, they belong to units under a commander, they have protected institutional living quarters and permanent systems of prevention. If these peasant soldiers are going to be in their homes, it will be very difficult to organize an effective response in the case of an attack, which, in a guerrilla war, is by surprise."