By Liam Sousa Casey-
On July 20 2022, fighter jets and helicopters filled the sky over Bogotá, Colombia. Heavily armed commandos marched through the streets. Tanks followed behind. This overwhelming martial splendour is how Colombia celebrated 212 years of independence. It was a curious display in a country where most of the victories that brought an end to Spanish domination were won by armies led by Venezuelans. But then, the parade was not a celebration of what the armed forces used to be. Rather, it was a celebration of what they are now.
Colombia's military today is Latin America’s premier fighting force, the only official NATO partner on the continent, and, of course, victors in the decades-long war against the guerrillas of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP). Despite these many accolades, this is the same military that has murdered civilians en masse, worked hand-in-hand with vicious right-wing paramilitary forces, spied on reporters and opposition politicians, and brutalised demonstrators during mass protests.
Indeed, a recent report from the Truth Commission, a body established as part of the 2016 peace deal between the government and the FARC-EP, sheds light on the extent of state violence. The report noted that of the 450,664 people killed between 1985 and 2018, 12 per cent (just over 56,000) were killed by state security forces. Four in five of those killed were civilians. Many lost their lives in what became known as the falsos positivos, or false positives, scandal. In this sinister and cynical programme of extrajudicial murder, civilians were not just killed, but subsequently defamed and degraded as guerrillas ‘killed in armed action’ by soldiers under pressure to meet body count quotas. The practice was, in the words of the Convocatoria a la PAZ GRANDE report, “a monstrosity”.
The historic and current role that the armed forces play in abuses of state power makes them a prime target for reorganisation. For these reasons, President Gustavo Petro has promised to reform the armed forces. A longtime senator and former member of the now-disbanded M-19 guerilla group, Petro was elected as the country’s first leftist president in modern history. His running mate, Francia Márquez, has become Colombia’s first-ever black vice president. Their victory was built in large part on promises of far-reaching structural reform.
Petro told newspaper El País that he plans to “make our security forces democratically stronger”. He has spoken of dismantling ESMAD, the anti-riot police squadron accused of “egregious” abuses in the protests of 2021, and of moving the military into a post-conflict status. However, it seems that the Petro-Marquez administration will face an uphill battle in their efforts to reform the country’s armed forces.
Indeed, a key resignation points to the difficulties Petro will face as president. Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro, appointed commander of the Colombian army by Duque over two-and-a-half years ago, announced that he would step down from his post. Even by the lamentable standards of the position (Zapateiro’s predecessor Gen. Nicacio Martínez, not content merely to be implicated in the false positives murders, actively pushed for a return to body count bloodshed), the general abused his command to a degree arguably unprecedented for a Colombian military leader.
Zapatiero’s resignation was not the first time he had publicly clashed with Petro. In April 2022, he accused then-candidate Petro of having taken cash bribes (an allegation that Petro has since been cleared of). This shattering of the civil-military divide was Zapateiro’s response to Petro’s charge that military officers had colluded with the Clan del Golfo, a neo-paramilitary drug cartel. It should be noted that there is a great deal of evidence to support this accusation.
“The general knows there is a problem with me,” the president told Colombia’s Cambio magazine. “What is the problem? I do not want corruption to take over the police and army.”
By stepping down, Zapateiro avoided having to appear beside the incoming president on inauguration day. The departure of one general is not the end of Petro’s difficulties, however. Zapateiro was only the most public proponent of a school of hardline thought in the military leadership, and while Petro has so far focused his outreach efforts on mid-level commanders, there are ideological and institutional challenges to address if reform is to succeed.
One key further difficulty is that it is difficult to assess the inner workings of the Colombian security forces. One recent effort is the three-tiered categorization of Adriaan Alsema, executive editor of Colombia Reports. He divides the military into ‘uribistas’, ‘constitutionalists’, and the corrupt or criminal. This schema is both too expansive and too limiting. It conflates a hardline technocratic stance that has existed for a century with the fairly recent “democratic security” policies of former president Álvaro Uribe. At the same time, it equates reform-minded officers with the constitution, a document they have traditionally been willing to sidestep in order to advance new conceptions of the security forces' role in state-building. Criminals, meanwhile, certainly exist, though they have profited under both hardline and more moderate leadership alike.
Having said this, what Alsema and other scholars understand correctly is that the Colombian military is not a homogenous entity. For every hardliner or traditionalist who opposes change, there may well be a reformer or institutionalist willing to work with Petro. Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, the Washington Office on Latin America’s director for the Andes, suggested in an interview that a number of Petro’s proposed security reforms - combating corruption, for instance, or strengthening benefits for military members, many of whom live on only $375 per month - have already received positive if cautious support. In effect, although the divisions among the armed forces' leadership that make opportunities for reform so difficult, it should be noted that this could simultaneously offer Petro the potential space to enact change.
A great many challenges remain. Moving the National Police out of the Ministry of Defense, as Petro has indicated he intends to do, will lead to clashes with senior military commanders. Sánchez-Garzoli noted in her interview that there are already rumours that the police leadership will resign if this reform is enacted. Furthermore, the appointment of Iván Velásquez Gómez - an ex-magistrate mainly known for investigating ties between the military and armed groups - to head the Ministry of Defense has drawn the armed forces' ire.
Another of Petro’s announced reforms, reorienting the armed forces from a wartime stance to a post-conflict one, has a troubled history. Talk of a post-conflict footing has been going on since at least 2016, when Gen. Alberto José Mejia, a moderate reformer, put forward plans for the Damascus Doctrine. This was to be a “paradigm shift” away from the dogmatic internal security precepts of the Cold War and toward a progressive re-engagement with the civilian populace through state-building projects and an institutional disavowal of ‘dirty war’ tactics. President Duque’s appointment of generals like Zapateiro ensured such dreams turned to ashes. The responsibility for resurrecting them will fall on the shoulders of Petro’s appointee to chief command of the army and other senior officers.
The precarious security situation in Colombia, with its multiple defined conflicts and growth of paros armados, or ‘armed strikes’, by illegal criminal groups in the north, could lead to knee-jerk criticism of Petro’s security policy among the general population. It will be difficult to carry out progressive reforms or to negotiate peace with the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) in the face of escalating violence, especially when the president’s opponents have proven quick to link perceived weaknesses against guerrillas to his own revolutionary past.
Petro is now faced with confronting these challenges to his reforms. Yet he must take advantage of his coalition-building efforts and act while he has the momentum of his mandate and popular support. The longer the government waits to enact reform, the more institutional resistance within the security forces will be able to entrench and seek political patrons. There are elements in the Colombian military open to change. If given the opportunity, they may be able to help Petro achieve his vision for a more democratic future.