There has been much talk about what the cabinet of Colombia’s incoming President Gustavo Petro –who will take office on August 7– looks like and the giant scale of the challenges ahead.
In a country struggling with perennial high levels of violence and insecurity, it is no wonder many eyes are on Iván Velásquez Gómez, the anti-corruption crusader who will be Colombia’s new Defense Minister.
Velásquez Gómez’s background as a jurist, some argue, might mean he is more prone to listen to the recommendations human rights defenders and social leaders have been advocating for years. In Colombia, violence and insecurity are products of widespread impunity, stark inequality, rampant corruption, and a failure to govern marginal rural areas where illicit economies and armed groups thrive.
At his first official meeting with WOLA’s President just before taking office, Velásquez seemed clear about the way forward. He spoke of the need to put the responsibility for civilian security squarely into the hands of civilians, and the importance of the fight against corruption as a strong foundation on which to build strong security forces that do not violate human rights. He knows, too, that the challenges ahead are considerable.
The Petro government’s defense and security reforms will only be remembered as successful if they make meaningful progress in five key areas. These are: corruption in the security forces, state presence in marginal rural areas, a true modernization of policing, tackling impunity for human rights violations, and combating racism and racial discrimination within the security forces and towards ethnic communities as well as working closely with Afro-descendant and Indigenous community leaders.
The past several months have seen alarming allegations of high-level corruption in the armed forces. A former armed forces commander stands accused of collaborating with a Gulf Clan leader, Juan Larinson Castro Estupiñán alias “Matamba,” to allow cocaine shipments to transit the department of Nariño. A military judge is investigating former Army commander Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro for alleged mismanagement of public funds when he was a brigade commander—and that judge is receiving threats. A general in Cauca was recorded telling subordinates he favored allying with a criminal group to fight ex-FARC dissidents. The commander of the 3rd Joint Command faces allegations of ties with narcotraffickers, graft, and other corruption. Five officers in Medellín’s 4th Brigade are in trouble for taking large bribes for contracting awards. Before his extradition, Gulf Clan leader Dairo Antonio Úsuga David, alias “Otoniel,” was making serious accusations about assistance his group received over the years from corrupt officers. In late 2021, the organization Transparencia por Colombia reported that, of all government entities between 2016 and 2020, the one that faced the most corruption allegations was the security forces.
If this is what is allegedly happening at the high command level, what happens further from the public eye? How do units behave along remote rivers transited by boats laden with cocaine, or in territories where illegal mines and deforestation occur out in the open?
The armed and criminal groups that threaten Colombians today are not like the old FARC. None has serious ambitions of taking power in Bogotá. Instead, they thrive on their relations with the government, neutralizing any state response by corrupting and penetrating state institutions. They resort to aggressive, headline-grabbing actions, like a paro armado or a plan pistola, only when the corruption isn’t working and they want to send a message.
The armed groups Colombia faces today can’t be weakened, and citizens can’t be protected, without a far more concerted effort to break links between state representatives and organized crime. A determined effort to deprive criminal groups of the oxygen they receive from corruption would reduce drug trafficking more effectively than any crop eradication campaign.
That’s why Iván Velásquez’s experience as a corruption fighter trumps his lack of experience as a defense expert. (One hopes, though, that his vice-ministers have deep knowledge of defense resource management, threat assessments, planning, doctrine, and similar areas.)
Nobody has stronger anti-corruption credentials than Velásquez. His challenge will be to punish corrupt officers in a way that reassures honest officers and does not get misconstrued as an attack on the military as an institution, which would generate an overwhelming internal backlash.
Breaking corrupt links, “high value target” strategies, and “total peace” demobilization negotiations can do much to keep violent groups off-balance and weaker. Illicit economies will persist, though, and armed-group leaders will be replaced with others, as long as vast territories remain devoid of government presence. Targeting criminal groups won’t work without targeting the environment of statelessness and abandonment that benefits those groups.
From the “Plan Consolidación” of the Uribe years to the “Zonas Futuro” of the Duque years, Colombia has sought to address marginal rural zones’ state absence through military-heavy programs that tend not to persist into the next presidential administration. The Petro government can build on those experiences while departing from their pattern. In Afro-Colombian, indigenous and palenquero communities it must follow the principles of consultation laid out by the Ethnic Chapter of the peace accord guarantee that such programs have buy-in from communities.
The security forces are a necessary part of any plan to bring the state to the agricultural frontier. But they are only a small part of what is needed. Soldiers don’t resolve disputes. They don’t build most roads, hand out land titles, teach schools, or advise local government in transparent resource management.
Staged, sequenced plans to fill governance vacuums are difficult, expensive, and yield slow results. They require constant consultations with communities, including historically excluded Afro-descendant and Indigenous territorial authorities and organizations led by women, to respond to local needs and manage expectations.
A key piece of advice here is to build on what is already in place. Too often, new presidential administrations have discarded existing plans and ongoing efforts, instead building up their own from scratch, wasting their initial years in “PowerPoint mode”.
There is already much to build on. The Territorially Focused Development Programs (Programas de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial – PDETs) foreseen in the Peace Accord’s first chapter are behind schedule and must be reinvigorated, especially the original sets of priorities agreed with communities, the Regional Transformation Action Plans (Planes de Acción para la Transformación Regional – PATR). Even the outgoing Duque government’s military-heavy “Future Zones” plan can be adapted instead of cancelled. A plan with continuity, built on existing efforts’ momentum, is better than yet another “perfect” plan concocted in an office in Bogotá.
Nothing can end the Petro government’s early “honeymoon” period faster than an increase in crime that leaves the population feeling menaced. Protecting Colombians will require more resources for civilian policing, simultaneous with reforms to make the police more civilian and less on a war footing.
Police reform, in fact, should not be Defense Minister Iván Velásquez’s responsibility. That should be up to a new Public Security Minister whose portfolio includes management of a transferred National Police. It is absurd for a modern security apparatus to put the same official—the defense minister—in charge of deterring adversaries and confronting major armed groups, while also responding to cellphone robberies and car thefts.
Polls show confidence in the National Police at its lowest level in this century: there is much lost ground to recover. The police reform checklist is long. It includes reducing response times, improving investigative capacities, rethinking training curricula, raising salaries, strengthening internal anti-corruption controls, and emphasizing community relations. It includes a serious effort to build up rural policing coverage so that citizen security in rural areas stops being an almost entirely military mission.
The bitter experience of social protests since 2019 shows crowd control to be another area requiring urgent rethinking. Along with the police’s transfer out of the Defense Ministry, accountability for abuses—whether committed during protests or in other contexts—requires that cases of alleged abuse and human rights violations no longer go before the military justice system.
In Colombia, both massacres and attacks on social leaders occurred at a greater rate between January and March 2022 than in the same timeframe in 2021, according to the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz – INDEPAZ). Some of these took place in the context of military operations.
In cases like the March 2022 attack that killed civilians in Alto Remanso, Putumayo, independent and transparent investigations managed by civilian judicial authorities must determine exactly what happened, whether extrajudicial killings were committed, and if so, to take appropriate measures to sanction those responsible.
This is an intimidating and historic list of tasks and missions. It is encouraging that Colombia’s incoming administration includes people who have a record of willingness to take them on. But realistically, the most we can hope during the next four years is that the Petro government make some measurable progress toward these goals. Their actual achievement will take much longer. By 2026 it is reasonable only to expect officials to have lain the foundations for greater future progress.
Even laying the foundations will be hard. Fighting corruption, building state presence, and reforming policing will threaten powerful interests that do not fight back according to “the rules.” Overcoming their resistance will take enormous political will.
Ivan Velásquez is no stranger to fierce backlashes. But he has been set back by them before—as when a president accused of corruption ran the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN-backed anti-corruption body he headed, out of the country. Avoiding that outcome means ensuring that Velásquez has consistent high-level support.
That support must come from the president: when Velásquez faces pushback, Gustavo Petro will have to weigh in reliably on his behalf. It must come, as well, from Colombia’s international friends, most prominently the U.S. government. Determined support from Washington, both political and financial, can help keep alight an agenda of reforms that clearly benefit U.S. interests, too, in Colombia.