WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
30 Apr 2013 |

Re-Sheathing the Sword: The Uncertain Future of Colombia’s Civil-Military Relations

This article was originally posted on World Politics Review. 

Colombia’s long armed conflict against leftist guerrilla groups may be entering its final stages as peace negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) proceed. The possibility of peace comes after a decade-long military buildup and a series of offensives left both the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) weakened, but not defeated.

Colombia, a distant third in population among Latin American countries, now has the region’s second-largest armed forces and its largest army. This buildup turned the tide in the conflict. But it has also altered the Colombian military’s relationship with its civilian leaders.

The president who presided over most of Colombia’s military expansion, Alvaro Uribe, championed military priorities, rejected peace talks with guerrillas and opposed efforts to punish military human rights abuses. To the surprise of many, not least Uribe, his successor and former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, has pursued peace negotiations with the guerrillas — something that the armed forces in the past have disliked, if not opposed outright. Perhaps in exchange, though, Santos has gone much further than Uribe did in shielding the military from human rights prosecutions.

If Colombia can end the war, it faces a period of uncertain civil-military relations. A post-conflict reality may require the military to undergo painful changes. Colombia at peace will continue to face pressing security concerns, but the armed forces will not be the appropriate tool for confronting them. Adjusting to that reality, and ensuring a post-conflict future of civilian-led democracy, will require an unusual degree of social consensus, a constructive U.S. role and some skilled statesmanship from Colombia’s political leaders.


Colombia didn’t fit the 20th-century stereotype of Latin American civil-military relations. Its armed forces mostly avoided assuming political leadership. Its small, aristocratic elite held the officer corps in disdain: “In Colombia, they are not socially important,” a diplomat told anthropologist Winifred Tate. “People are embarrassed if their daughters marry a military officer.” Wealthy Colombians refused to pay the taxes necessary to maintain large, well-equipped armed forces. Colombia’s combined military and police expenditure was 2 percent of GDP as recently as 1991, though it is triple that today.

Colombia suffered only one military coup, in 1953, at the height of a period of civil war, and that was bloodless, with civilian elites both ushering in the military government and guiding its 1958 exit. The restoration of democracy that year — elections have since been held every four years — included an arrangement that set the tone of Colombia’s civil-military relationship for the rest of the century.

A May 1958 speech by then-President-elect Alberto Lleras Camargo laid out a sort of civil-military “pact.” Lleras urged the military to stay out of the political realm because of the divisive, deprofessionalizing nature of politics. In exchange, he promised, the people would fully support whatever the military chose to do with regard to defense and security.

This is not to say that civil-military peace reigned during the 20th century. Though coups were rarely a credible possibility, officers frequently resorted to saber-rattling in the form of angry, politically damaging declarations, often expressed by recently retired officers, or high-profile resignations to express discontent or get their way.

Most of the time, this discontent was caused by civilian attempts to oversee military budgets, prosecute human rights abuses or negotiate peace with the guerrilla groups the government has confronted since the 1960s. At times, saber-rattling worked, forcing an end to stumbling peace initiatives or stopping prosecutors and judges from holding officers accountable. But civilian leaders came out ahead at other times, either by appeasing the officers or bearing the political cost of military anger.

The 20th-century civil-military pact brought poor results. In the 22 years since Colombia named its first civilian defense minister, it has had 16 of them — and most have served more as advocates for those in uniform than as managers or overseers of defense policy. With no civilian direction or consensus, security policy went badly adrift. By the 1990s this lack of direction had grown so severe that the government was failing to react to the sharp growth of leftist guerrilla and right-wing paramilitary groups that had thrown much of the country into chaos.

Over the decades, meanwhile, civilian and military security roles grew badly blurred. It is no exaggeration to say that Colombia’s police routinely fight guerrillas while Colombia’s army routinely patrols neighborhoods — and vice versa. While most of Latin America has moved police forces out of the Defense Ministry’s jurisdiction, under a 1951 arrangement Colombia’s police remain under the defense minister’s command, though not under the command of the armed forces chief.

1990s: End of the Pact

The second half of the 1990s was an especially rough period for Colombian civil-military relations. President Ernesto Samper (1994-1998), his administration crippled by a drug-money scandal, offered little guidance on security strategy and quarreled openly with archconservative armed forces chief Gen. Harold Bedoya, especially over a proposal to initiate talks with the FARC. The FARC, meanwhile, gained important ground against the small, poorly trained armed forces, winning large-scale battles and kidnapping more than 2,000 Colombians for ransom each year.

Paramilitary groups proliferated, carrying out near-daily massacres with almost no opposition, and some open support, from the armed forces. In this context, a 1997 high court decision determined that military human rights abuses committed outside of combat — that is, most of them — should be tried in civilian courts, setting the stage for years of legal battles.

Samper’s successor, President Andres Pastrana (1998-2002), entered into peace talks with the FARC, but did so by meeting a guerrilla precondition that he pull troops out of a large zone in southern Colombia — a move that the armed forces found humiliating. In 1999, on the first of 11 times that Pastrana would extend the deadline for the armed forces’ returning to this zone, his civilian defense minister resigned in protest, in one of modern Colombia’s biggest civil-military crises. At least 16 generals and 31 colonels resigned as well, but were convinced to return to their posts.

While pursuing his peace strategy, though, Pastrana also initiated an unprecedented military buildup that would continue for the next 10 years. As negotiations with the FARC foundered, Colombia’s defense expenditure began to grow, with large investments in mobility, such as helicopters; intelligence; and the transition to a professional volunteer force from what had mostly been an army of recruits. Part of this buildup was the result of a new partnership with the United States, which in 2000 helped Colombia craft a new security and counterdrug plan, called “Plan Colombia,” that multiplied U.S. security assistance sixfold over 1998 levels. U.S. military and police aid to Colombia would total about $6 billion over the next 10 years.

Uribe Amends the Pact

By the beginning of 2002, the Colombian government’s efforts to negotiate peace with guerrillas had collapsed. Talks would not start again for 10 years. Instead, Colombians that year elected a candidate who promised to build up the country’s military as never before.

From the start, Uribe was an outspoken critic of Pastrana’s peace negotiations. He was also a fierce opponent of those who sought to punish human rights violations committed by the military, whether directly or in support of paramilitaries. In 1999, Uribe, then a former governor of Colombia’s second-most populous state, made headlines with an emotionally charged keynote speech at an event held to honor the first two generals ever to be forced into retirement for aiding and abetting paramilitary abuses.

Uribe held these positions in common with most, if not all, of Colombia’s military leadership. Upon his August 2002 inauguration as president, he set about unfettering the armed forces to intensify the fight against the guerrillas, while ratcheting up defense spending — in part through a special tax on the assets of the wealthiest — to pay for it. Between 2000, the year that Pastrana began the military buildup in earnest, and 2008, Colombia’s army grew by nearly two-thirds, from 145,000 to 236,000. During the same period, other services and the police grew at similar rates, and the army’s defense budget roughly tripled (.pdf), from about $4 billion to $12 billion. Colombia went from having about 20 functioning helicopters in 1998 to well more than 200 today, including the world’s fourth-largest fleet of costly Black Hawk helicopters.

On the battlefield, the results were evident. The armed forces cleared guerrillas from main roads and from the regions around Bogota and Medellin, reducing their numbers, forcing them into remote zones and dramatically reducing the numbers of kidnappings and acts of sabotage. Uribe then negotiated disarmament terms with the paramilitary groups, thus reducing their numbers and their violent actions. The country’s homicide rate fell from 70 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2002 to an admittedly still-high 32 by 2012.

Uribe’s offensive, which he called his “Democratic Security” policy, shattered the old pact whereby civilians would stay out of security matters if the military stayed out of politics. Uribe micromanaged security policy, with his oversight bordering on the obsessive. The president could recite statistics about recent violence and existing military capabilities. He not only knew the names of generals and colonels heading far-flung brigades and battalions, he routinely called them on their mobile phones, often at predawn hours, to request updates and demand results. Officers who did not produce results were publicly scolded or, in some cases, fired. Uribe dismissed more top generals than any of his predecessors, sometimes for their involvement in corruption scandals, sometimes for disagreements on oversight or strategy, and sometimes for poor performance.

Democratic Security created some perverse incentives with regard to human rights. On one hand, Uribe kept up a steady drumbeat for “results,” often without defining what that meant. On the other, he regularly launched vicious verbal attacks on critics of the armed forces’ troubled human rights record, even calling the country’s human rights defenders “spokespeople for terrorism” in a high-profile 2003 speech before the military high command. The result was not just hostility toward opponents of military impunity, but an alarming spike in the number of civilians killed by the armed forces during Uribe’s eight years in office.

The worst came in the form of a scandal that Colombians call “false positives”: civilians — often young men deceived by promises of employment — detained and killed, their bodies later presented as those of armed group members killed in combat in order to inflate “results” in the conflict. Colombian prosecutors, in the words of the U.N. high commissioner for human rights (.pdf), have now “accumulated complaints, including 4,716 victims of homicide presumably perpetrated by members of the security forces, many of these false positive-type executions.”

Human rights groups, along with parts of the U.S. government, pushed for accountability for these and other human rights crimes, and the Colombian judiciary remained outside of Uribe’s control. As a result, Uribe’s presidency (2002-2010) also saw the first major cases of senior military officers sent to prison on charges of violating human rights. These verdicts were reached despite Uribe’s strong condemnation and repeated demands that human rights investigations stop damaging “military morale.”

Colombian civil-military relations shifted during the Uribe administration, as the hard-line president altered the civil-military pact that had held for most of the 20th century by increasing civilian management of Colombia’s security policy. But he did so in a context of tight consensus between political leaders and top officers. The military put up with Uribe’s occasional scolding as he lavished its members with resources, opposed peace initiatives they viewed as premature and lashed out at human rights critics. With so little light showing between the civilian and military leadership, there was little occasion for military saber-rattling or involvement in national politics.

Santos Pursues Peace, Gives Ground on Human Rights

In 2010, after Colombia’s Constitutional Court struck down an attempt to let Uribe run for a third term, Colombians elected Juan Manuel Santos, a political heavyweight from one of Bogota’s most influential families. As Uribe’s defense minister for three years, Santos knew the armed forces and had overseen critical aspects of the military buildup, including several successful military operations.

As president, Santos inherited the inflated, empowered armed forces that Colombia had built up over the previous decade. But civil-military tensions were not anticipated because Santos was expected to continue the Uribe consensus of yielding to military prerogatives on war-fighting methods, human rights and peace talks.

Santos has indeed yielded on the first two points. But on the question of peace talks, he has walked a careful line. Santos is pursuing a peace process with an eye constantly on military sentiment, working carefully to keep the armed forces “inside the tent.”

Santos’ first year in office saw surprisingly rocky civil-military relations. He named as defense minister Rodrigo Rivera, an influential career politician in Colombia’s Liberal Party who had little experience in defense issues. The micromanagement of the Uribe years suddenly gave way to a more delegated style. For his first armed forces chief, meanwhile, Santos appointed an admiral from Colombia’s navy, plainly angering high officers in the army, which makes up more than 80 percent of the armed forces.

After his first year, Santos gave ground on these appointments. Rivera was replaced by Juan Carlos Pinzon, the son of a colonel who, when serving as vice minister of defense under Santos a few years earlier, had earned a reputation as an outspoken defender of military interests. Adm. Edgar Cely was replaced by an army general as head of the armed forces. The military launched an anti-guerrilla campaign plan, “Sword of Honor,” which, other than the inclusion of police in joint task forces, eschewed any “whole of government” approach: Troops hit guerrilla structures and sought to recover territory with only minimal coordination with civilian institutions. This lack of civilian involvement not only threatens to make governance impossible in “recovered” areas, it represents at least a partial return to the old pact in which civilians keep their distance from security questions.

Human rights prosecutions rose to the fore of the military’s concerns. When courts condemned to prison a general and a colonel involved in a highly sensitive case — the 1985 response to a guerrilla takeover of the Palace of Justice in downtown Bogota — the armed forces’ anger hit a boiling point. Officers — and especially ACORE, the very vocal association of retired officers — intensified their demands for what they called “judicial security.” By 2011, some pro-military security analysts, tallying the declining frequency of military operations, came to the conclusion that soldiers, upset at the possibility that civilian prosecutors might investigate their actions, were refusing to go on the offensive.

Whether this “sit-down strike” was real or not, the drumbeat of military pressure gave momentum to proposals that human rights cases be taken out of civilian courts’ jurisdiction and returned to the military justice system, known to be extremely lenient with soldiers accused of rights abuse. In October 2011, as Colombia’s Congress considered a package of constitutional amendments regarding the justice system, Pinzon added a clause to send all human rights cases first to the military courts, which could turn them over to the civilian system only if they saw fit to do so. This represented a reversal of all progress made since the 1997 Constitutional Court decision sending such cases to the civilian courts.

In the face of widespread protest from national and international human rights defenders as well as quiet messages from the Obama administration, the constitutional reform was watered down somewhat, but the measure that passed at the end of 2012 still gives the military courts jurisdiction over many categories of alleged human rights abuse, probably including future false positives.

Santos, then, oversaw a big step backward for military accountability to civilians on human rights. He may, however, have done so in order to pursue another big objective that Colombia’s military has historically disliked: peace negotiations. In August 2012, Colombian media revealed that for the previous six months, emissaries of the FARC and the Santos administration had been meeting in Havana, Cuba, and had developed a framework agreement for formal peace talks.

To a greater degree than his predecessors, and perhaps because of the military’s greater influence, Santos sought to secure the armed forces’ support for, or acquiescence to, these talks from the very beginning. The five-man negotiating team includes a former armed forces chief and a former police chief, both of whom led some of the principal anti-guerrilla offensives and operations during the Uribe years. Santos secured a framework deal that situates talks on foreign soil rather than demilitarized zones, excludes military reform or security policy from the talks’ agenda and, perhaps most importantly, refuses to rein in the military with a cease-fire. Even when the FARC declared a unilateral two-month cease-fire, from November 2012 to January 2013, Colombia’s armed forces continued to bomb FARC encampments.

As a result, the armed forces have gone along with Santos’ peace effort, which as of this writing is making slow but important progress and has the support of a majority of Colombians. However, the talks’ loudest opponent is Uribe, who has effectively become the leader of the opposition to his former defense minister’s government. In his near-daily attacks on a dialogue process he likens to “impunity for terrorists,” Uribe occasionally appeals directly to the armed forces, among whom he remains very popular.

This pandering to and agitating of the military threatens future civil-military tension. In April 2013, Uribe used his Twitter account to reveal the coordinates of a zone where a top guerrilla leader was to board a flight to Havana to join the negotiating team. These coordinates were only known by top military officers; as of this writing the leaker among the high command has yet to be identified.

While similar incidents are likely, especially if the peace talks grow less popular, military saber-rattling during the current peace talks will probably not be severe. This is because, from the human rights jurisdiction changes to the careful management of military preferences in the talks, Santos has moved assiduously to minimize opposition from Colombia’s greatly empowered armed forces.

What If There Is Peace?

The episode involving Uribe and the leaked coordinates led some Colombian media outlets to ask active-duty military officers for their off-the-record opinions about the FARC talks. While most supported the idea of ending the conflict at the table instead of several more years of fighting, they also expressed concerns about a possible post-conflict Colombia. Of these, two principal fears emerge: that the deal will include an amnesty for guerrilla human rights crimes while soldiers are imprisoned for the same, and that peace will mean deep cuts to the armed forces’ size, budget and capabilities.

A post-conflict Colombia, then, may face civil-military tension about accountability for past abuses and about retooling the security forces to address a much different array of potential threats. On human rights accountability, it is imperative that civilian leaders ensure that implementation of a FARC accord not become an opportunity for greater impunity, with abusers on both sides evading truth, reparations to victims or any sort of penalty for past crimes. There will be some form of transitional justice applicable to both guerrillas and soldiers — a constitutional reform passed in 2012 virtually guarantees that. While the necessity of imprisonment, or the number of years of jail time for abusers, will be very difficult questions to unravel, it will be up to civilians to avoid an outcome that, as in earlier peace agreements in Colombia, simply “forgives and forgets” while allowing old injustices to fester.

If there is a peace accord, Colombians will also be expecting a “peace dividend.” The Defense Ministry’s budget will be under great pressure to shrink. In the author’s conversations with Colombian military personnel, however, officers have expressed a hope that the military could remain at its current strength by taking on new, nontraditional roles like building infrastructure, providing health care in remote zones or supplementing police. It will be up to Colombia’s civilians to ensure that such eminently civilian roles do not become militarized in the post-conflict period.

One role that may in fact expand after a peace agreement is that of the police. Peace with guerrillas will not mean an end to drug trafficking, organized crime, gang violence or warlordism in historically ungoverned areas. Though they may not have the national reach of the FARC, violent criminal groups may proliferate on a regional level across the country, corrupting government representatives, engaging in brutal competition for control of territory and extorting and killing citizens. If it is to address a set of security threats that is all too familiar to Mexicans and Central Americans today, Colombia’s National Police may need to grow as the armed forces shrink.

If it does so, Colombia’s police force must professionalize and civilianize. It must be removed entirely from the Defense Ministry’s purview. Military and civilian police roles must be clearly separated, with the soldiers’ principal mission shifting to defense of national territory and sovereignty from external threats. Within Colombia’s borders, the police should have the lead in efforts to combat organized crime, which will require advanced capabilities to investigate and build complex cases against criminal networks. It will also require major improvements to Colombia’s beleaguered justice system, which should also be a top beneficiary of a post-conflict “peace dividend.”


Shrinking force sizes and budgets, and having citizen security replace war fighting, may be painful for the Colombian armed forces. A very large military may find itself standing aside without getting much in return — other than perhaps shows of gratitude, evading prison for past atrocities and some noninterference in budget and strategy matters. The armed forces, or powerful segments of the armed forces, may resist this. They got the job done and risked their lives, they will argue, so why should they be penalized when the conflict is over?

To minimize civil-military tension, the plan for readjustment must be guided firmly by disparate sectors that don’t often work together in Colombia. The business community, which bears a heavy tax burden for security, must demand a wiser use of resources. Civil society, which wants civilian democratization, must organize for reform. Political leaders, who must make difficult resource choices, will have to make the case to the public. And the United States, which backed the buildup and has cultivated strong ties to Colombia’s armed forces, must provide backing to those in Colombia working to sheath the sword and guarantee a future of civilian control.

If its civilians can adapt the armed forces’ size and role, while winning some accountability for past abuses, Colombia will be a model for countries suffering or emerging from armed conflicts. But if post-conflict Colombia features a politically aggressive, budgetarily bloated, judicially untouchable military, then it will be an example of an outcome to avoid — and an embarrassment to the U.S. policymakers who aided the past decade’s buildup.