WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
24 Mar 2016 | Commentary

The Colombian Military Faces Post-Conflict Uncertainty


In the context of the Colombian peace talks in Havana, WOLA will be publishing a series of analytical pieces on how to ensure the success of potential bilateral ceasefire agreement. The series will be accompanied by video interviews with experts and leaders on the ground who are on the front lines of the peace process.

  • The first article explores the subject of FARC concentration zones.
  • The second article discusses the need to incorporate Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities in the negotiating table.
  • The third article addresses the issue of the UN mission that will be in charge of verifying the ceasefire.
  • The fourth article analyzes the role of Colombia’s military in the post-conflict.


WOLA noted 14 months ago that the Colombian military’s support for the FARC peace negotiations was less than wholehearted, and that “a significant sector of the armed forces and its leadership disagrees with the civilian government’s handling” of the peace talks.

The intervening year has seen improvements in the armed forces’ support for the process, at least among active-duty military officers. There have been far fewer examples of the spying scandals and reported civil-military infighting on the peace issue that we documented in 2013 and 2014. This is so for a few reasons.

  • The likelihood of an accord is far stronger, especially after negotiators signed agreements on transitional justice in September and December 2015.
  • The Colombian armed forces’ Transition Command has by all accounts done its work seriously and responsibly. This small office is led by top-ranking active-duty officers who have spent months in Havana negotiating technical aspects of a ceasefire and disarmament with guerrilla counterparts on an “End of Conflict Subcommittee.”
  • Colombia’s civilian leaders have insisted more strongly that officers keep their views to themselves. “In September, they gave us an order not to say anything related to the FARC,” a “high-ranking army officer” told Medellín’s El Colombiano. “Even demobilization campaigns against this guerrilla group cannot be transmitted on army radio stations.”
  • Leadership changes have brought in more moderate officers who are viewing the Havana talks more pragmatically as the quickest way to bring about an end to FARC-generated violence. The chief of the army since July 2015, Gen. Alberto Mejía, has set about to reorient military doctrine, and the army’s new campaign plan, toward post-conflict priorities.

It’s hard to tell how deeply the views of moderates like Gen. Mejía hold sway among top officers; observers like Juanita León of the La Silla Vacía publication have their doubts, noting that the army chief has had “a certain distance from army intelligence officers, which is exactly where there is the most opposition to the Havana process.” Meanwhile Colombia’s association of retired officers, ACORE, whose members can speak freely about policy, continues to be strongly skeptical toward the dialogues.

WOLA is assuming, though, that the majority of the armed forces isn’t ideologically opposed to these talks as an example of “negotiation with terrorists” or “handing over the country to the FARC,” to borrow phrases from Colombia’s right-wing political opposition.

However, our reading of Colombian media, and numerous recent interviews with officers and experts, lead us to conclude that a majority of officers do share three concerns that could dampen their support for post-conflict consolidation at key moments. These are misgivings about transitional justice, the likelihood of a deep cut to their personnel and budgets, and uncertainty about their new roles in a post-counterinsurgent Colombia.

Transitional justice

Though it left some key points undefined, a December 15 accord addressed the question of how to hold guerrillas accountable for serious human rights abuses. A December 19 government communique stated that military personnel accused of similar crimes would face a similar standard of justice. The high command welcomed the proposed changes. As the December 19 document foresees shorter prison terms and weakens the principle of commanders’ responsibility for subordinates’ crimes, it eased many officers’ concerns about spending more time in prison than the FARC, being detained in a normal prison instead of a military facility, and having to respond to all atrocities committed by the units they commanded.

In our view, not all of these worries should be eased. The difficulty of proving that commanders had effective control over subordinates could allow many to escape responsibility. Punishments need not be a normal prison, but the level of austerity matters. Past scandals have shown military personnel convicted of human rights crimes enjoying “resort” conditions. Colombia will be establishing a new international accountability standard for transitional justice, and ankle bracelets or house arrest arrangements—to give two examples—are unlikely to meet standards of austerity.

Though it eases many of their worries, the armed forces continue to have misgivings about the transitional justice process. In order to benefit from lighter sentences, thousands of military personnel will have to confess their crimes. As a result, at the military’s moment of triumph, much ugly information will emerge. Subordinates may name their commanders as they “tell everything.” Revelations of a truth commission, which is also authorized by the Transitional Justice accord, may further tarnish the military’s reputation. Meanwhile, there may be a bitter, case-by-case legal fight to keep “false positives” cases (civilians killed in
order to boost body counts) in the regular criminal justice system—where penalties can be as high as 40 years in prison—instead of the alternative system.

Budget and personnel cuts

The end of the armed conflict may mean deep cutbacks for Colombia’s armed forces, which today have a combined 272,000 members. U.S. government officials interviewed by WOLA speculate that this number could very quickly shrink by 90,000 or 100,000 after a peace accord. Much of this would be attrition, if Colombia cuts back on recruitment or even abolishes its draft to become an all-volunteer force.

While Colombia cannot continue paying for such a large military, a too-steep drop in military personnel could open a security vacuum in post-conflict Colombia. Colombia’s 184,000-person National Police force—which may be moved out of the Defense Ministry, where it has resided since 1953—is trying to increase by 10,000 recruits per year, but it will take years for it to fill the personnel gap left by such a swift cut in the armed forces. As a result, we do not expect the drop in military capacities to be as sharp as our sources indicated.

Some drop, though, is inevitable simply because of the Colombian government’s shrinking overall budget. Due to the twin blows of a drop in oil prices and a drop in the Colombian peso’s value, the size of the Colombian central government’s budget has dropped, in dollar terms, from over US$100 billion in 2014 to perhaps US$70 billion this year. Those likely to feel the cuts most deeply are mid-level officers, some of whose careers may end prematurely if Colombia is forced to reduce the number of billets for colonels and generals.

New military roles?

If the FARC successfully converts to a non-violent political movement, demobilizing most of its 15,000-20,000 fighters, militias, and support personnel, Colombia’s armed forces will lose what has been their main mission for more than half a century. Colombia’s “traditional” defense threats—insurgency and external aggression—will not be serious or plausible enough to justify maintaining Latin America’s second-largest armed forces (and largest army). The smaller ELN guerrilla group, and FARC remnants who fail to demobilize, will not be enough.

Colombia’s Defense Ministry knows this. Its new defense policy, and interviews with officials, reveal a host of new, non-traditional roles that the armed forces are poised to fill. These include:

  • Protection of FARC concentration zones during a ceasefire. The Colombian government and FARC request to the UN Security Council called for unarmed international verifiers, not blue-helmeted peacekeepers. As a result, it will be up to Colombia’s military to guard the perimeters of the zones where FARC fighters will demobilize.
  • Combatting organized crime, including un-demobilized guerrilla remnants, paramilitary “criminal bands,” and well-armed organizations engaging in drug trafficking, human trafficking, illegal mining, and similar activity. The military anticipates supplementing Colombia’s police presence in areas of organized-crime influence, especially rural areas where police coverage is currently poor. Officials say that they expect to employ military intelligence to uncover illicit financial flows. Since fighting organized crime is an internal-security mission not technically considered “insurgency” or “terrorism,” Colombia’s legal system is currently unclear about how deeply the armed forces can take it on.
  • Backing up the police in citieswhen crime is judged to exceed police capacities, as has recently been proposed for Medellín and Barranquilla.
  • Patrolling coasts, rivers, and borders to interdict trafficking and other organized-crime activity.
  • Manually eradicating illicit crops like coca, poppy, and cannabis. Colombia’s minister of defense says that 5,000 military and police personnel will be engaged in this mission during 2016.
  • Participation in UN peacekeeping missions around the world. Colombia expects to have a force of 5,000 peacekeepers available to deploy during the post-conflict period.
  • Demining, with the rather ambitious goal of making Colombia landmine-free by 2021. Colombia’s armed forces expect to have 5,000 personnel trained in humanitarian demining by the end of the year.
  • Development projects for what one officer called “the consolidation of Colombia.” In particular, the armed forces foresee a corps of military construction units building up the country’s sorely insufficient road network.
  • Assisting during natural disasters, and carrying out risk assessments before they strike.
  • Environmental protection, including combating illegal logging and deploying high-mountain battalions to protect fragile páramo (high-altitude wetland) ecosystems.

While this list appears compelling, most items on it are the sort of tasks that civilians can perform just as well as military personnel. And for most of these missions, in Colombia’s system the military is not the “lead agency.”

As WOLA has noted elsewhere, these “non-traditional” roles are rarely appropriate in a democratic society, except under emergency circumstances. Even if these roles are necessary in the immediate post-conflict period, when security vacuums are large and governance capacities are lacking, the medium-term goal must be to transfer most of these roles permanently to capable, trained, career civilians.

A Bumpy Ride — and a Soft Landing?

For Colombia’s armed forces, the post-conflict period is going to be bumpy. Shameful acts will be confessed. Units will be forced to shrink, and purchases will have to be postponed. Soldiers will find themselves carrying out roles, from road-building to forest protection, that are neither military in nature nor considered a clear path to career advancement. These adjustments will be painful, and they will come at a time when civilian leaders are asking the armed forces to participate in a cease-fire and post-conflict implementation effort for which many officers have no enthusiasm.

Guaranteeing the smoothest possible path for Colombia’s civil-military relations will require the country’s civilian leadership to be creative and, when necessary, accommodating. It will also require the international community, especially donor nations, to be firm in its support for Colombia’s civilian leaders when they are forced to say “no” to those in uniform. WOLA looks forward to discussing how to do that in its inquiries and analyses over the next year.