New Colombian President Promises More War

September 25, 2007

In 1998, Colombians elected a presidential candidate who promised them peace. On May 26, 2002, they chose one who promised them security, Alvaro Uribe Vélez. In both cases, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had a preponderant role in determining those choices. In 1998, the reclusive FARC leader Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda appeared in a photograph with candidate Andrés Pastrana days before the election, signaling that the FARC was willing to take part in peace talks with a Pastrana government. In 2002, the FARC helped elect the president by waging an intense bombing campaign and kidnapping spree. Such actions tried public patience and made dissident Liberal Uribe’s hardline rhetoric resonate with an impressive range of voters, garnering him 53% of the vote in a field dominated by four candidates. It was a stunning mandate considering that second place Horacio Serpa, a traditional populist and official candidate of the Liberal Party, earned only 31.7%.

Uribe ascended fast in the polls, rising rapidly from third place in January, as the peace talks between the government and the FARC strained and then broke down definitively on February 20.[1] His popularity continued to increase as the FARC conducted a massive sabotage campaign against energy and transportation infrastructure and violence escalated throughout the country. In the bloodiest incident, the FARC admitted to killing 119 civilians when it launched a canister bomb, destroying a church where townspeople had sought shelter, while battling paramilitaries in the village of Bojayá, Antioquia.

Uribe has long spoken of getting tough on crime and subversion, but he disputes the far-right image the foreign media and other observers paint of him; he fancies himself a law-and-order man with innovative social policies.[2] People close to him cite his abilities as a public administrator and his university coursework in the United States and Europe as important assets, his defining qualities even. He promises to attack corruption and would like to reduce the 266-member two-house Congress to a unicameral body of 150 members while eliminating many of their privileges.

A former governor of Antioquia and mayor of its capital, Medellín, Uribe has been dogged by a series of reports that link him to drug traffickers and paramilitaries.[3] He has also been an open supporter of Rito Alejo del Río and Fernando Millán, two generals who were dismissed by President Pastrana for rights abuses. Uribe even used del Río as an advisor on military matters, though his visa to the United States was canceled and he is currently under investigation in Colombia.[4]

The centerpiece of Uribe’s campaign platform, and what drew voters, was his call to battle the illegal armed groups, particularly the FARC and the other main guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), during his administration. The aim, if not to defeat them outright, is to at least weaken them enough to force them to the table on his own stringent terms. Those terms may be unrealistic, for they include a cease-fire and a halt to all kidnappings and bombings before a dialogue is to resume. Uribe was a persistent critic of Pastrana’s peace efforts and he evidently harbors a deep personal mistrust of the FARC: His father, a prominent landowner, was killed by that group in a botched kidnapping attempt in 1983.

The Colombian conflict pits the ELN and FARC guerrillas against the paramilitary United Self-Defense Units of Colombia (AUC) and the Colombian armed forces. The ELN, FARC, and AUC are designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department. Uribe and others in his future cabinet have refused to call the situation in Colombia a "civil war" or even a "war." Uribe has said "the international community must know that there is no war. Here, we have terrorism by armed groups against the rest of Colombia, and this must be resolved quickly."[5] He has called for an increase in the number of professional, combat-ready soldiers from 55,000 to 100,000 and a doubling of the number of police to 200,000. Despite campaigning on such a platform, he has been remarkably short on details. Nobody knows what reforms, if any, he will demand of a military that has a dreadful human rights record.

Perhaps most troubling for observers, however, from the human rights community and elsewhere, is Uribe’s proposal to invite one million civilians to participate in citizen militias, along the lines of the experiment with the Convivir civilian security groups he enthusiastically supported in Antioquia in the mid-1990s. The Convivir allowed armed civilians to patrol and gather intelligence under the control of local military commanders.[6] Uribe has waffled on the details of his current plans, but clearly through such an arrangement civilians would be provided radios, perhaps vehicles, and probably weapons, to act as informants for police and military commanders. Human rights groups point out that doing so would blur the distinction between civilian and combatant, and would likely violate international humanitarian law. Uribe says, "No state can provide an acceptable level of security unless the citizens cooperate. One thing is arming one million bandits. But it’s another thing entirely to arm ordinary citizens, private security firms, neighborhood security groups, and civil defense organizations so they can support the military."[7]

In Antioquia, by Uribe’s own admission, several of the Convivir were infiltrated by paramilitaries while he was governor. It would be frankly impossible to avoid replaying that scenario today at the national level, with the AUC’s explosive growth, budding sympathies from the middle class, and well-documented links with elements of the Colombian military.[8] Given Colombia’s countless outstanding vendettas and history of private retribution, it is perhaps all the more alarming that local-level opportunists may try to further these long-standing conflicts within Uribe’s state-sanctioned model of "democratic security."

But if Uribe emphasizes security and public order above all, he argues that on that base his administration will erect other important changes, such as economic and social reform. Yet many are wondering how the government will first pay for the war effort. It will cost some $4 billion over four years, though the country’s annual budget is only $27 billion. Moreover, the country’s economy is at its most troubled point since the 1930s: Unemployment now hovers at 18% nationally, more than 60% of Colombians live in poverty—that is, they make less than $2 per day—and the gap between rich and poor is widening.[9] To address these problems, Uribe has drawn from Colombia’s vaunted economic technocracy and put together a formidable team of advisors and ministers. Their priorities will be to renegotiate the external debt and implement tax reforms—both to pay for the expanded war effort—overhaul a pension system that is considered wasteful, and create jobs. All are known for orthodox tendencies and close relationships with the international financial institutions, but the demanding context will require creative solutions, a combination of social investment and belt-tightening.[10]

For all of Uribe’s modern, technocratic trappings, his straight-talking, studious demeanor, and his can-do attitude often ascribed to the people of Antioquia, he also represents an enduring feature of Latin American political culture: the caudillo, or strongman, summoned to save the nation with a top-down political project based on the promise of order. Though he did not exactly ask for the role, the public readily assigned it to him: The entire power of state, it seems, has been invested in the symbolic figure of Uribe. Even by Latin American standards, where the executive branch dominates the political landscape, the Colombian president is particularly powerful. But that fact is unlikely to extend Uribe’s honeymoon. The public is clamoring for an impossibly quick fix to intractable problems, and its wild expectations will be deflated fast as the new president, the most resolute of recent rulers, tackles issues that no single person, or administration, can solve in four years.

Uribe’s support has come from odd quarters, as an expression of elite exasperation with the four-decade old conflict as well as lower and middle class faith in the contemporary caudillo. A Bogotá architecture student encapsulated many Colombians’ feelings: "Uribe will mean more war at first, but so be it if that gets rid of the violent ones and lets us start to make something of Colombia."[11] Even some academic leftists and human rights activists have discreetly backed him because of their commitment to the rule of law, which Uribe promises to strengthen. A Bogotá lawyer said, "Colombia needs strong institutions and respect for the law. Uribe is the only candidate who seems truly committed to that agenda."[12] At the same time, they are crossing their fingers and hoping that human rights are not further trampled in the name of establishing that very rule of law.

The rule of law is indeed critical to any long-term solution, because Colombia’s conflict is, at its heart, a turf war driven by material motives with ideological and class-based undercurrents, in large part fueled by the drug trade that services a voracious U.S. market. The FARC, like the AUC, is recruiting young people from shantytowns on the outskirts of major cities such as Medellín and Bogotá.[13] It is, at the same time, attempting to expand its control of the isolated and sparsely inhabited southern provinces of Putumayo and Caquetá, where most of Colombia’s coca is grown and processed into cocaine. Alfonso Cano of the FARC claims that a new demilitarized zone in that area will be a condition for any eventual peace talks.[14] The FARC has declared the mayors of towns in Putumayo, Caquetá, Huila, and Arauca (bordering Venezuela and increasingly contested for its oil resources) as military targets if they do not renounce their positions. The FARC is also accumulating hostages for what it hopes will be a massive prisoner exchange with the government, something it did successfully in 2001, turning over 364 captured military and police officers for 14 imprisoned FARC members.

The burgeoning right-wing paramilitaries, under the banner of the AUC, have tripled in size since 1998 and now count about 11,000 members in their ranks. Bankrolled by the drug trade as well as wealthy and middle-class Colombians who lack confidence in the state’s security forces and the legal system to protect their interests, the AUC poses as serious a threat to Colombian civilians and the tenuous Colombian democracy as the FARC does. The AUC is responsible for upwards of 70% of the politically motivated killings in Colombia and is increasingly taking on the FARC directly in battle. With or without military endorsement, the AUC is poised to wage a scorched earth policy against perceived guerrilla sympathizers, though it has recently tried to soften its tone for the sake of political credibility. For example, it has mostly held to its promise to not kill more than three civilians at a time (An action that results in more civilian deaths than three is officially designated as a massacre.)[15]

Paramilitary attacks have weakened the 4,000-member ELN and many within the military would like to see those attacks continue. Like the FARC, the ELN is involved in kidnapping, extortion, and sabotage. However, it has been engaged in more fruitful dialogue with the government than has the FARC. The European Union, for example, does not regard the ELN as a terrorist organization. Nonetheless, only days after Uribe’s victory, the Pastrana government unilaterally and surprisingly declared peace talks with the ELN over.

The position of the Uribe administration towards the ELN may indicate its policies towards the FARC. Will the government accept peace dialogues with a relatively reasonable partner or will it make extravagant demands of the ELN before such talks get underway? Does Uribe regard the ELN as a social movement of any form or does he believe that the ELN, like the FARC, has been reduced to a band of thugs and terrorists? There are indications that without a peace process, the ELN could even join hands with the FARC.[16] If that were to happen, Uribe’s international credibility would suffer tremendously and his war would be even more difficult to wage.

In any case, he will encourage other countries, especially the United States, to join him in his crusade, particularly with assistance in information gathering, equipment, and training. Colombia is currently the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, and has received almost $2 billion in assistance since 2000. Washington is now primed to change its mission in Colombia from one devoted exclusively to counternarcotics to include counterinsurgency operations, the first time it has done so in Latin America since the 1980s.

In military circles in the United States and Colombia, the overwhelming emphasis is on fighting the FARC rather than the AUC, though the Bush administration has officially labeled both as terrorist groups. It is no secret to those who follow Colombian issues in Washington that some U.S. officials privately sympathize with the AUC.[17] The same cannot be said of the Congress, however: This spring, a heartening number expressed concern about the AUC’s growth and its continuing ties to elements of the Armed Forces. Like U.S. "drug czar" John Walters and others in the administration, several members of Congress also made it clear that they expected Colombia to spend more of its own money on the war before they would be willing to further loosen U.S. purse strings.[18]

Criticisms aside, Uribe fulfills Washington’s desire for a firm hand, one that will not be hindered by peace gestures or mistake the FARC for a dialogue partner. U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Anne Patterson met privately with Uribe in late 2001 at his home in Antioquia, a visit kept secret until revealed by a journalist in February 2002.[19] She was also the first to congratulate him on the night of the elections, two hours before Uribe had acknowledged victory and before second-place Horacio Serpa had conceded defeat.[20] Hours after his victory, Uribe reappointed Luis Alberto Moreno as Colombian ambassador to the United States. Moreno has been particularly effective in recruiting congressional supporters for Plan Colombia. Days later, the acting commander of U.S. Southern Command, Army Major General Gary Speer, met with General Fernando Tapias, commander of the Colombian Armed Forces, while Assistant Secretary of State, Otto Reich, visited Uribe in Bogotá. [21]

By focusing on the FARC and short-term security concerns, the Uribe government is in danger of magnifying them into long-term obsessions at the expense of other reforms that Uribe says he values, such as education, health care, and the economy. During the campaign, civilian institutions did not receive the attention they deserve and could be shortchanged in the name of military bolstering. Uribe’s rhetoric appealed to a weary people’s instinctive desire for a sledgehammer solution of the type that contributes to Colombia’s vicious and seemingly unending cycles of violence. Colombia is a country scarred by violence and inequality, and much more than a tough-talking administration will be needed to move beyond that.

Uribe quietly and perhaps inadvertently acknowledges the depth of the past he pledges to overcome. "What we have to do here is recover peace, to somehow have the peace that we have not had in our 200-year history."[22] Most analysts agree that a negotiated political settlement is the only way out of Colombia’s current conflict. Uribe has already met with Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, to discuss the Colombian situation. It is still unclear whether such gestures are merely symbolic or truly heartfelt, but they do point to a softer side, maybe a more thoughtful one.

He could go much further with no risk to his hard-line image. For example, he has an opportunity to attract the FARC and the ELN back to the table by designing a plan for reintegrating guerrillas into civilian life. With or without a peace process in the foreseeable future, there will need be to one eventually, and the reinsertion of irregular combatants will be critical to any successful negotiation given their sheer numbers, now over 35,000. It is particularly important in Colombia, because few have forgotten the systematic extermination campaigns waged against ex-guerrillas by state and paramilitary forces in the 1980s and 1990s. Without guarantees, transparency, and a well-crafted process, few combatants will be willing to lay down their arms and rejoin civil society, even after four years of toughing out Uribe’s new, improved war.

Jason Hagen is Associate for Colombia at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). He lived in Colombia for several years as a Fulbright Scholar and visiting professor.

1. See Adam Isacson, "Colombia Peace in Tatters," NACLA Report, XXXV, No. 5, March-April 2002, available at and Winifred Tate, "Colombia: The Right Gathers Momentum," NACLA Report, XXXV No.6, May/June 2002, available at
2. "Prensa de E.U. pone sus ojos en Uribe,"El Tiempo (Bogotá), May 20, 2002.
3. Joseph Contreras and Fernando Garavito, Biografía no autorizada de Álvaro Uribe Vélez: El señor de las sombras (Bogotá: Oveja Negra, 2002).
4. Juan Forero, "Rightist’s Hard Line Appeals to War-Weary Colombians," The New York Times, May 19, 2002.
5. "Likely Colombia Leader is Hard-Liner," The New York Times, March 17, 2002.
6. See Winifred Tate, "Colombia: The Right Gathers Momentum."
7. Karl Penhaul, "Front-Runner’s Tough Talk Plays Big in Colombia," Boston Globe, May 22, 2002.
8. See Human Rights Watch, The Sixth Division: Military-Paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia, September, 2001. Also see Human Rights Watch, Washington Office on Latin America, and Amnesty International, Colombia Human Rights Certification III, May 1, 2002.
9. "El costo de la guerra," El Tiempo, February 27, 2002.
10. Clara Inés Rueda and Jacqueline Guevara Gil, "El desafío del nuevo equipo económico de Álvaro Uribe," El Tiempo, June 9, 2002.
11. Howard LaFranchi, "Hardliner Winning in Colombia," Christian Science Monitor, May 24, 2002.
12. Interview with author, Bogotá, May 6, 2002.
13. Steven Ambrus, "Taking Aim at the City," Newsweek, February 18, 2002. John Otis, "Colombian Cities Now Targets of War," Houston Chronicle, June 11, 2002.
14. "Las FARC ante el nuevo gobierno, entrevista a Alfonso Cano," Jorge Enrique Botero, El Tiempo, June 9, 2002.
15. Margarita Martinez, "Colombia Rebel Boss Reveals a Plan," Associated Press, February 12, 2002.
16. James Wilson, "ELN May Seek Dignified Exit From Revolution," Financial Times, June 18, 2002.
17. Interview with U.S. government official, Miami, March 25, 2002.
18. Carol Rosenberg, "U.S. Prods Uribe on Drug War," Miami Herald, May 30, 2002.
19. "Uribe Sin Tapujos," Semana (Bogotá), February 26, 2002.
20. Joseph Contreras, "Law-and-Order Man," Newsweek, June 10, 2002.
21. Frances Robles, "Uribe to meet U.S. official, discuss terrorism, drugs," Miami Herald, May 31, 2002.
22. Juan Forero, "Tough Talk Resonates in a Nation Sick of War," The New York Times, May 27, 2002.

Tags: Colombia, elections, FARC, mano dura, Alvaro Uribe, militarization, civil war

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