The Failure of Colombia's "Democratic Security"

September 25, 2007

Professor Alfredo Correa De Andreis was a respected member of the community in Barranquilla and a peace activist. He had been dean of the Magdalena University and was a professor at the University of the North and Simón Bolivar University. On June 17, 2004, agents of Colombia’s Department of Administrative Security (DAS), who were relying on information supplied to them by former guerrillas, detained him on charges of rebellion. Although Correa was later cleared of all charges and released, the stigma of his detention remained: just three months later, on September 17, he was assassinated by unknown assailants.

Most observers see Correa’s tragic death as an example of the logic of the Colombian conflict. Under this logic, those accused of collaborating with guerrillas—no matter what truth there may be behind the charges—easily become a target for armed actors who utilize selective violence as a tool to maintain their control over civilian populations. Unfortunately, Professor Correa’s story has been repeated regularly in Colombia, where many people who have been arbitrarily detained under President Álvaro Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy have been released only to face suspicion, threats or assassination.1

Uribe’s “Democratic Security” strategy is based on and draws support from the same political discourse as the Bush Administration’s War on Terror. It is a discourse that obliges him to combat “terrorist groups” in Colombia at all costs. According to Uribe, “The Colombian State has theoretically given all liberties [to citizens], and terror has overcome these liberties.” Uribe regularly paints his government’s actions as a war against terrorists, rather than placing the current internal armed conflict in historical perspective and thereby recognizing the political and social elements of the fighting. “There is no armed conflict here,” says Uribe. “There was armed conflict in other countries when insurgents fought against dictatorships. Here there is no dictatorship; here there is a profound, complete democracy. What we have here is the challenge of a few terrorists.”2

According to the U.S. government’s list of terrorist organizations, Colombia is home to three different terrorist groups: the paramilitary group AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), and the two guerrilla groups, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army). However, the Uribe Administration has opted not to pursue each of these terrorist groups equally. Rather, his Administration is implementing a three-pronged platform to gain “national security”: negotiating with paramilitaries, attacking the FARC, and pursuing legal and constitutional reforms. All of these strategies have been dependent upon the financial support of Washington through Plan Colombia. The strategies have also led to continuing violence and insecurity.

Over the first year of Uribe’s government, August 2002-July 2003, the government made 4,362 arbitrary detentions. This was a remarkable increase over the 2,869 arbitrary detentions registered during the preceding six years. In addition, there have been more non-combatant deaths during the first two years of Uribe’s Administration than during the full four years of the Samper Administration (1994-1998). Kidnappings continue at a rate of roughly 2,000 per year, and from January 2003 to June 2004, at least 337,953 people were forcibly displaced.3 These statistics raise real worries for the security of the vast majority of Colombians. They also raise urgent human rights concerns.
However, the Uribe government argues that the country is more secure now than it was two years ago: there are fewer extrajudicial killings and fewer massacres. The government bases this claim on official statistics and on the progress of the peace process with the AUC paramilitaries. Accordingly, Colombian Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo reported that during 2003, the year the paramilitaries declared a unilateral ceasefire and entered into negotiations, they committed significantly fewer homicides, massacres and kidnappings than they committed during the previous year.

Although the reduction in violence perpetrated by paramilitaries—who are estimated to be responsible for roughly 70% of the political violence in Colombia over the past decade—was certainly significant, it is essential to note that during the first year of their unilateral ceasefire (December 2002-December 2003) they still committed 362 homicides, 16 massacres and 180 kidnappings in clear violation of their own declared policy. This hardly seems like a secure situation for the civilian population in the many regions of the country controlled by paramilitary forces.4

The political opposition in Colombia, members of Colombian civil society, international organizations and foreign governments have all actively criticized the peace process with the paramilitaries for its inherent contradictions. Criticisms have focused on paramilitary involvement in drug trafficking, on the inability of the peace process to effectively dismantle paramilitary organizations, and on the need for truth, justice and reparation for victims of paramilitary crimes.5
In terms of justice, the most pressing concern has involved effective punishment for the numerous crimes against humanity and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed by paramilitaries. The legal proposal offered by a coalition of Colombian congressional deputies sets the possible terms of punishment for crimes against humanity at only five to 10 years in prison, while the most recent proposal by Uribe’s government sets no minimum at all. These new legal proposals create the following absurd scenario: a high ranking military official currently on trial will likely receive 30-40 years in prison for not preventing the Mapiripán Massacre, but these new legal proposals will guarantee that the paramilitaries actually responsible for committing the massacre will serve no more than five or 10 years for their crimes against humanity.6 Despite this, the peace process with paramilitary forces has continued, with active support from the Organization of American States (OAS), up to the point of demobilizing 3,784 paramilitary troops by February 2, 2005.7

In fact, since Uribe took office as president, his peace and security policy has amounted to negotiating with paramilitaries while simultaneously engaging in a military assault on guerrilla groups, especially the FARC. Though little publicized in Colombia and abroad, the Colombian government has been actively engaged in military operations against FARC forces in various regions. A case in point is the current implementation of Plan Patriota (Patriot Plan) in the southern region of the country, which includes the zone the Pastrana Administration demilitarized during peace negotiations.

The Patriot Plan involves some 15,000 Colombian troops with active support from U.S. military advisors. The Uribe government and the Colombian Armed Forces hold that the victory of the Patriot Plan is possible, emphasizing that from October 2004 to February 2005, 328 members of the FARC have been removed from battle: of these 167 have been killed in combat, 123 captured and 38 have voluntarily surrendered.8

However, during the end of January and beginning of February of this year, the FARC struck back dramatically with aggressive military actions in the formerly demilitarized zone. They not only burned 11 vehicles, but also killed at least 66 members of the military in their attacks. In fact, FARC officials have declared the Patriot Plan a failure, arguing that their own statistics show that in 18 months the Colombian Armed Forces have suffered 4,717 casualties, including 1,825 deaths and 2,301 injuries.9

Although the overall results of the mission are impossible to gauge given differences in information offered by government and guerrilla forces, two things are clear: first, to date, the Patriot Plan—the most important military operation against the FARC since Operation Conquest in 1996—has gained no clear victories or tactical advantages despite the massive investment of military resources. And secondly, given the paltry results of the offensive so far, the Colombian Armed Forces will continue to be highly dependent not only upon the financial support of the U.S. government, but also on the tactical and military support of the U.S. Armed Forces.

In addition to negotiations with the paramilitaries and the frontal attack on the FARC, the third major component of the Uribe Administration’s national security plan involves fundamental legal and constitutional reforms, including proposals that bear striking resemblance to the changes brought about in the United States by the Patriot Act in the wake of 9/11. In search of supposed improvements in the efficiency of the security and military apparatus, the Uribe Administration has proposed limiting civil liberties and guarantees of fundamental rights.
The most shocking example of this was the constitutional reform Congress approved on December 10, 2003 (International Human Rights Day). The reform allows the military to detain people for up to 36 hours, search homes and intercept communications without warrants or other judicial orders. In addition, it allows for the creation of a registry of personal data, which the military can use for keeping tabs on the population. Finally, the reform also grants judicial police-powers to the military, meaning that members of the military can now collect evidence and interview suspects at the scene of violent events, even those in which the military may have played a role.10

The broad scope of the reform suggests that the challenge of a “few terrorists” has fundamentally altered the relationship between the state and its citizens. Apparently, the war against the “few” requires an assault on the rights and security of the entire population. It is worth noting that the constitutional reform goes against repeated recommendations by the UN High Commission for Human Rights and violates international human rights agreements signed by the Colombian government.
Given this situation, it is clear that Uribe’s grand plans for “Democratic Security” have instead left the majority of the Colombian population less secure than ever. Implementation of all three components of the Uribe Administration’s security plans will continue to require active U.S. political and financial support. Indeed, ever greater U.S. involvement in the internal conflict in Colombia appears likely.

Following the lead set by President Bush, Uribe continues to sell these policies with a discourse about liberty and freedom from terrorist threats. The discourse of the War on Terror is broad and diffuse, allowing for almost any interpretation. The Uribe government uses this discourse to justify its moves to attack one “terrorist” group, to negotiate with another “terrorist” group, and to limit civil and political rights for all. Unfortunately for Colombia, the cost will likely be continued conflict, increased political instability and the deepening of the humanitarian crisis.

About the author
Heather Hanson is currently a lecturer at the University of California at Davis. From 2002-2004, she completed research in the field of human rights in Colombia. Rogers Romero Penna is a Colombian lawyer who worked for four years in a leading human rights NGO in Bogotá. He is currently studying law in the United States.


1. See the open letter to President Álvaro Uribe, October 29, 2004, from 12 U.S. nongovernmental organizations, . (retrieved February 1, 2005).
2. BBC interview with Álvaro Uribe, November 2004: “Querermos libertades efectivas.”
3. “En Contravía de las recomendaciones internacionales: ‘Seguridad Democrática’, derechos humanos y derecho internacional humaniario en Colombia: agosto de 2002–agosto de 2004.” Colombian Commission of Jurists, 2004.
4. High Commissioner for Peace, “Balance del cese de hostilidades,” El Tiempo, February 20, 2004, p. 3.
5. “Colombia: Letting Paramilitaries Off The Hook.” Human Rights Watch, January 2005.
6. “Con Rázon Lloró,” El Tiempo/Terra, taken from Revista Semana.
7. See,
. (retrieved February 12, 2004).
8. “Farc: ¿Del repliegue táctico al asalto?,” El Espectador, (retrieved February 12, 2004).
9. Farc: ¿Del repliegue táctico al asalto?,” El Espectador.
10. Press Release, “Gobierno y congreso desafían a la comunidad internacional: Aprobadas facultades judiciales a las fuerzas militares.” from Colombian Commission of Jurists, December 12, 2003.

Tags: Colombia, war on terror, FARC, paramilitaries, security, negotiations

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