WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
8 Aug 2012 | Commentary | News

Security in Colombia at the Santos Government’s Halfway Point

Two years ago today, Juan Manuel Santos began a four-year term as president of Colombia. At this halfway point, commentators in Colombia’s media portray Santos as struggling. He began his term with polls showing his popularity above 80 percent and most of Congress backing him. Now, he is in the high 40s, and cracks are beginning to show in the coalition.

The main reason for this decline is a perception that Colombia’s security situation is deteriorating. A Datexco poll published last weekend revealed 69.3 percent of Colombian respondents disapproving of the Santos government’s handling of national security. In a country that has suffered through a half century of internal armed conflict and drug-related violence, security continues to be the main yardstick for evaluating governments. Santos’s predecessor, Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), consistently maintained an approval rating above 60 percent in the same polls because his government, especially between 2002 and 2008, struck important blows against leftist guerrillas and reduced most measures of violent crime. Much of this owed to a major military buildup and to his government’s negotiations with pro-government paramilitary leaders.

Uribe on the attack

The perception of declining security owes both to a series of guerrilla attacks and to the words of ex-President Uribe himself. Uribe has become one of the fiercest critics of his former ally, who served for three years in his government as defense minister. On his Twitter account, in public speeches, and in media appearances, Uribe has been relentlessly attacking Santos for a perceived slacking off on security. One month ago, in a high-profile speech [PDF] at Bogotá’s exclusive El Nogal social club (bombed by the FARC in 2003), Uribe issued a warning with an implicit message to the armed forces.

“The deterioration of security, the widening breach between the government’s word and the actions Colombians are suffering, make the Executive lose credibility, and risk that, in the medium term, the armed forces’ collective trust and fondness could be disfigured.”

As The Economist noted back in April, “Mr. Santos’s predecessor has become his most powerful opponent. And that could turn into a problem.”

Is security worsening?

Uribe attacks most vociferously on the security issue. But is security really getting worse in Colombia? The country’s most-cited security experts hold conflicting views, but taken together the consensus is that, yes, the security situation probably is worse than it was when Santos took over. The consensus also holds, however, that Santos is not entirely to blame.

There are three principal views of the security situation today.

President Santos and his supporters contend that, despite some setbacks, the overall security picture is not as bad as the media makes it appear. Indeed, as an overview of official data by the investigative website La Silla Vacía indicates, some important measures are going in the right direction: homicides are down 8 percent in the past year, kidnappings are down by 16 percent, there are fewer incursions into towns, and more members of illegal armed groups are being captured. On the other hand, the same statistics show a sharp rise in sabotage of infrastructure, ambushes and attacks, illegal roadblocks, and killings of police. (Crimes that all sides commit against citizens in rural areas, where there is little judicial, media or NGO presence, tend to go unreported.) Whether coca production is increasing depends on which source one consults: estimates published by the UN and the U.S. government diverge.

Supporters of the present government’s security strategy acknowledge the increase in attacks by Colombia’s decades-old guerrilla groups, especially the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC. Put in perspective, though, they argue that the attacks’ severity is reduced and the FARC’s chances of recovering their pre-2002 strength is virtually zero. Much of the increase, they add, owes not to audacious guerrilla blows but to small-scale actions like land-mine detonations and sniper attacks. Bogotá’s Ideas for Peace Foundation think-tank, which laid out this view in a September 2011 report [PDF], calls much of the concern about FARC activity “false alarms.”

The government contends that guerrilla actions’ greater frequency — and headline-grabbing nature — is the result of desperation. The Santos government has maintained the military’s state of readiness and defense budget, increased the size of the police, and is carrying out a security strategy called “Sword of Honor,” whose aim is to weaken the most powerful guerrilla units in several strategic parts of the country (among them the departments of Cauca and Arauca, two zones that have seen a spike in violence this year). The guerrillas’ attacks, they say, are an effort to distract the joint task forces carrying out “Sword of Honor” operations, seeking to draw them away and thus reduce pressure on FARC units under intense attack.

There is some similarity between this argument and that used by the government of Felipe Calderón in Mexico, who has argued that Mexico’s sharp increase in violence since 2006 was the cartels’ response to the military and police offensive his government carried out against them. When they have acknowledged the rise in violence, both presidents’ message has essentially been, “It will get worse before it gets better.”

President Santos’s critics on the political center-left, meanwhile, say that security is deteriorating on his watch because he inherited a flawed strategy from Uribe. These analysts, perhaps most prominently those at the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris think-tank, note that FARC attacks began increasing after 2008, when Uribe was still president.

Chart from Nuevo Arco Iris shows increase in FARC actions starting after 2008
Chart from the Nuevo Arco Iris database shows FARC attacks’ frequency doubling since 2008.

Nuevo Arco Iris says its database shows FARC attacks more than doubling since 2008, with half the growth occurring during the Uribe years. (The organization counts 1,206 more attacks during the first six months of 2012, ahead of the 2011 pace.) To those who dismiss these events as chiefly landmine or sniper attacks, it responds that the guerrilla actions are taking place ever closer to population centers and roads. It also notes that the FARC are operating in “Tactical Command Units,” small groups operating in civilian clothes and thus much less vulnerable to the Colombian military’s airpower superiority.

Critics on the left say that the FARC are carrying out a long-announced “Rebirth Plan,” effectively ending a tactical retreat that began in the early years of Uribe’s government. While the FARC suffered strong blows during those years, these analysts contend that the military’s offensive never reached the guerrillas’ core strength or structures, much less the underlying reasons for the conflict, like social injustice, corruption, and very weak governance in rural Colombia. They add that the government still lacks a strategy for going after the new generation of paramilitary groups active in much of the country, other than periodic captures of quickly replaced kingpins.

They note that the signature strategy for bringing a government presence into long ungoverned areas is struggling. The National Consolidation Plan, spearheaded by then-Defense Minister Santos during the latter Uribe years, has not received the same emphasis or profile in the current government. Progress toward consolidation has been very slow, the Armed Forces are still largely on their own in many of the “Consolidation” zones, and the long-promised arrival of civilian government representatives has not yet happened. On a recent trip to the most prominent zone in the program, Miami Herald reporter Jim Wyss noted, “FARC patrols were spotted twice while government troops were nowhere to be seen.”

For their part, President Santos’s critics on the right, including Álvaro Uribe, think-tanks like Alfredo Rangel’s Center for Security and Democracy, and retired military officers, emphatically agree that security is worsening — but for a very different reason. The military’s hands, they say, are tied by “judicial insecurity.”

They point to several recent convictions of senior military officers for human rights crimes, as well as the thousands of cases currently before Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s office for widespread extrajudicial executions of civilians during the Uribe years. Right-wing critics say that military personnel, paralyzed by fear of running afoul of civilian prosecutors, are avoiding combat and refusing to go on the offensive. They argue that members of the armed forces should be tried in military courts, which historically have a record of guaranteeing near-total impunity for abuses committed against the population.

Critics like Rangel note a sharp drop in the number and frequency of military offensive operations since 2008 [PDF]. They argue that human rights prosecutions have damaged military morale to the point that many units are carrying out a de facto “sitdown strike,” which has allowed the FARC to make inroads in many territories. This, if true, is terrifying because of its implications for President Santos’s ability to command Colombia’s armed forces.

Are these views of security contradictory, or complementary?

All three of these views of security during the Santos administration may be accurate. They don’t necessarily contradict each other.

The Santos government may be right that the big security picture is getting better overall, and that the FARC are feeling pressure. However, the “Sword of Honor” plan does not seem to have anticipated the obvious result that the FARC would respond by attacking on the margins of the focus areas. There does not seem to have been a plan to mitigate the resulting impact on civilians, like the indigenous communities of northern Cauca department who were so tired of being in the crossfire that they removed soldiers from a hilltop post and detained four FARC members in July. If the “Sword of Honor” offensive doesn’t start making Colombians feel safer soon, perceptions of insecurity will continue to drop in the coming months, and assurances that “it will get worse before it gets better” will ring ever more hollow.

The left is right that FARC remain stronger than thought, that vast parts of Colombia remain badly ungoverned and unjust, and that even if “Sword of Honor” took down the FARC today, it might not significantly improve security in areas like Arauca, Cauca, Nariño, or Guaviare where the Colombian government presence has always been tenuous, banditry and drug trafficking are common, and violence rarely gets punished in the legal system.

The right may be correct that the military is unhappy with a more active effort to punish human rights abuse. But ultimately, Colombia’s civilian leaders need to stand up for the law. This doesn’t mean refusing everything the soldiers ask: it makes sense, for instance, to negotiate a 2006 order that now requires civilian Prosecutor’s Office representatives to be present after every combat incident to verify that no abuses took place. But it is urgent that they resist pressure to give carte blanche to an institution many of whose members allegedly killed thousands of innocent people, and cooperated with paramilitaries that killed many thousands more, during the past ten to fifteen years.

Managing expectations

The Santos government’s popularity problems at its midpoint owe to more than security: charges of corruption in the health system, and a badly botched judicial reform in the Congress, have also taken their toll. There is a common thread, though.

In its first two years, this government has raised expectations with promises of security, reduced poverty, social services like health, reduced corruption, and especially assistance to victims of the conflict and the return of massive amounts of stolen land. Two years in, most of these promises remain unmet.

Important laws have been passed and government agencies are slowly being set up to fulfill many of these commitments. As of now, however, a common perception is that the Santos government has a surfeit of technocrats busily designing the perfect plan from within a bubble in Bogotá, with few concrete results.

Ex-president Uribe, whose popularity rating remains above 60 percent, is capitalizing on this perception. He is spending much of his time traveling to, and backing landowners and allied politicians in, regions all over the country beyond Bogotá, with a discourse that sharpens people’s expectations of what the Santos government can reasonably deliver.

There are two years to go until Colombia’s next president is inaugurated, after an election in which Uribe cannot run and the Datexco poll already shows two-thirds unwilling to vote for Santos a second time. We can already discern the mix of security perceptions, popular expectations, vocal opposition on the right, and perhaps even civil-military tension that is likely to mark the second half of Santos’s term.