De- or Re-Militarization in Post Peace-Accord Colombia?

An agreement between the guerrillas and the Colombian state does not mean the end of militarization in Colombia.

May 11, 2016

Teams from 17 nations during the opening ceremony of the Fuerzas Comando 2014 competition in Fort Tolemaida, Colombia (Photo from Defense Imagery Management Operations Center)

The following is an adapted version of part of a public webinar discussion held in April 2016 about the militarization in “post-conflict” Colombia. The event was co-sponsored by NACLA, FOR Peace Presence, and the American Friends Service Committee.

The original March 23 deadline to reach a final peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC has come and gone, although both sides remain confident they will reach a full agreement. Negotiators are now primarily working on issues of demobilization, deciding where guerrilla forces will be concentrated within Colombia, and what the conditions of this concentration will be.

In addition, on March 30, 2016, Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) announced that they too were entering formal negotiations with the Colombian government. This is good news, as the armed conflict with both guerrilla armies has produced millions of victims, increased human rights abuses, and created widespread displacement and disruption in the lives of Colombians for decades.

However, an agreement between the guerrillas and the Colombian state does not mean the end of militarization in Colombia. This reality is already manifesting itself; consider the fact that even as the amount of violent combat has dropped precipitously in the last four years, the number of non-violent Colombian activists who have been targeted, primarily by paramilitary groups, has increased markedly. In a 30-day period between February and March alone, 30 people were assassinated by paramilitaries, including leaders and social activists disproportionally hailing from Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities.

Peace and Militarism

The army itself has undergone continuous growth in the last 15 years: today, the military and police together have almost 500,000 members, the second largest security force in Latin America after Brazil, with more than 100 counter-guerrilla battalions, each of which has about 500 professional soldiers. Will the 50,000 professional counter-guerrilla soldiers also be demobilized into the civilian population as part of the peace process? This remains a largely unanswered question, and it currently appears that much of the actual fate and size of the military and police will be determined by the direction of Colombia’s next president, who is expected to take power in 2018, after these accords will have gone into effect.

The United States has long played an important role within the Colombian military – and most signs point to a continued increase in U.S. military funding in post-accord Colombia. U.S. military and police aid to Colombia has steadily risen since the late 1990s, preceding Plan Colombia, which began in 2000.

Compiled by John Lindsay-Poland using data from

As the data above shows, military and police aid did not peak until the mid-2000s, when U.S. assistance began to target counterinsurgency operations in addition to its counter-drug mission.  After the Democrats took control of the U.S. Congress in 2007— and the Colombian Army solidified its strategic advantage over the guerrillas— military aid did finally begin to decline. But this figure is partially misleading, given that U.S. arms and military sales to Colombia have increased dramatically since the mid-2000s.

When these numbers are combined with military and police aid, it becomes evident that U.S. participation in the militarization of Colombia, at least when measured in arms and military transfers, remains at an all-time high. Today, Colombia possesses the fourth largest Blackhawk fleet in the world—and the largest in Latin America—with more than 100 Blackhawk helicopters. Recently, Colombia has also purchased tanks from Canada that have been deployed near the Venezuelan border, in the Guajira Department.

In addition to these transfers of military equipment and technology, the most recent military and police aid package that the Obama administration presented to Congress in February 2016 includes an increase in overall military assistance to Colombia. In its 2017 budget request, the White House is proposing the largest amount of counter-drug and foreign military financing for Colombia since 2011. Some of this is for de-mining operations, which are being dramatically increased. There is likely to be an increase in de-mining of the Colombian military and also the concentration areas where the guerrillas will be located. This is probably a good thing, because the military is the agency that is primarily responsible for de-mining operations in Colombia, which has one of the largest levels of victimization from abandoned mines in the world. In addition, because the international mission that will guard the FARC’s demobilization zones will not be armed, it is likely that the Colombian military will be charged with that mission as well.

However, Colombian Armed Forces themselves are not slated to undergo a reduction in troops, in spite of the peace accord. Last year, Colombia’s then- defense minister, Juan Carlos Pinzón, as well as the current commander of the Colombian Armed Forces, said as much publicly. It is unclear if Pinzón had to say this for political reasons, since the Colombian military would likely not submit to a peace process that eventually produced its own downsizing. That said, in every post-conflict experience in the world, a downsizing, readjustment, and re-accommodation of the armed forces have been inevitable.

Militarism Goes Global

One potential scenario is that, rather than seeing their numbers decline, the Colombian military will simply enlarge its presence in new, non-counterinsurgency missions. This could include U.N. operations, as well as an increased role in military training missions to third-party countries. Already the Colombian military has participated for more than 30 years in the Sinai Peninsula mission (due to accords between Egypt and Israel), as well as other U.N.-missions. The armed forces have also participated in counter-drug operations in Colombia. These were central to Plan Colombia, in which Washington and Colombia joined counterinsurgency and counter-drug operations on the basis that the FARC was trafficking cocaine.

With the increase of international corporate investment in post-accord Colombia, it's likely that the army will sign new agreements with international corporations to guard and protect investor infrastructure. The guarding of such infrastructure has a long history, and is already a major mission of the Colombian military. It's likely that those agreements with transnational companies, including mining companies, will only grow as extractive industries grow and the military seeks new revenue and missions.

Providing security training has become one of the main strategies for Colombia to position itself in the region as well as a key facet of U.S. security policy, especially in Central America and the Caribbean. The Colombian and U.S. governments have been working to build policing capacity and institutions in Central America, who are also combating criminal organizations related to drug trafficking. This practice began several years after Plan Colombia started, when Colombia began to be seen not as a failing state at war, but a “success story,” despite continued violence. In the mid-2000s the Colombian state, in tandem with the U.S. government, started selling the idea that the country had begun to overcome its security crisis. Statistics revealing lower rates of kidnapping, homicides, and interdicted cocaine over a relatively short amount of time after Plan Colombia's launch led to requests for Colombian training and assistance related largely to drugs, organized crime, armed insurgency, and kidnapping. When President Juan Manuel Santos took office in 2010, he made international security cooperation a cornerstone of his foreign policy strategy. In 2012, as a result of this interest, the Santos and Obama governments announced the creation of a high-level security dialogue, in which police and military cooperation in third countries became (and still is today) a key facet.

In addition to prioritizing certain areas of Latin America, the two governments also agreed to look into the possibility of cooperating in areas such as West Africa, which has become a key transit point in the drug trade for cocaine exiting Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil and going into Europe. There is a bilateral Security Cooperation Coordinating Group that combines delegates from the two countries – including the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and the Colombian Vice-Minister of Defense – and develops an annual Action Plan on Regional Security Cooperation. In 2013, this plan included 39 joint training exercises in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama. This went up to 152 in 2014, and grew to include Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. In 2015 it grew again to 205 activities, and will supposedly reach more than 300 in 2017. Continued increases appear probable.

Notably, this assistance operates via the U.S. embassy in Bogota, which has an International Coordination Division located within the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL), acting as as a liaison between the Colombian and foreign governments seeking assistance from the United States and Colombia in the area of security. This division has a budget of only about $1 million per year for improving the capacities of Colombian police to provide training. Approximately 80% of training in third countries is provided by the Colombian police, under INL supervision, while SOUTHCOM (U.S. Southern Command) is responsible for supporting training provided by the Colombian military. In both cases, the United States provides travel and other costs, while Colombia pays the salaries of the Colombian trainers that are going to be mobilized abroad. The U.S. supervises these activities, but there has been little evaluation of the program to date, making it very hard to discern the positive and negative impacts of the training—and if poor practices are being transferred from the Colombian armed forces to other countries in the region.

The training is highly concentrated in specific countries that have been prioritized by the United States and Colombia. In 2014, for example, Honduras was the main recipient of training, followed by Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Ecuador, the latter of which does not receive U.S. supervised training, but rather, “South-South” cooperation from the Colombian state directly. At present, it is impossible to tell exactly how much Colombian security training is triangulated with the United States and how much is “South-South” cooperation. In general, it is estimated that between 50% and 70% of Colombian-led training in the Americas is in cooperation with Washington. In many countries, both types of cooperation take place at the same time; U.S.-triangulated cooperation might be going on in countries such as Honduras while at the same time the Colombian state provides South-South cooperation to that same country. It does seem to be the case that programs funded with U.S.-triangulated cooperation receive higher levels of scrutiny and follow-up than those supported with Colombian-led “South-South” cooperation funds.

Notwithstanding the official discourse about the “success” of Colombian security training in third countries, very little information related to these cooperation programs is public. According to documents provided by the Department of State and the Department of Defense under the Freedom of Information Act, in 2014 the United States supported Colombian training of 6,526 police and soldiers from ten countries in the Western Hemisphere, more than five times the amount provided in 2013. However, the Colombian government says that it has provided training to just 5,714 members of the third-country security forces. This discrepancy, which largely reflects a lack of accurate data in both countries, underscores just one of the difficulties of overseeing Colombia-U.S. security cooperation.  In addition to not knowing exactly how many foreign security members are being trained in Latin America and around the world, these activities have fallen largely under the radar of civil society actors in Colombia, Mexico, Central America, and Ecuador.  It is also unclear what content the Colombians are teaching, and what the actual consequences of training might be. This raises a large question mark about implications for human rights and corruption, and it illustrates the extent to which militarization in Colombia—and U.S. participation in it—have become largely normalized.

We are now entering a period when the amount of conflict between the Colombian state and the guerrillas will continue to drop. Combat has declined, and a cease-fire agreement has been entered into. And yet, the amount of military assistance, at least if arms sales are included, has grown, and the power and involvement of the Colombian military, both at home and abroad, only seems to be increasing. The implications of growing Colombian-led and U.S.-triangulated police and military training, in particular, need to be explored further. To what degree are the Colombians looking towards security cooperation abroad as a means to find some type of function for resources and expertise that have less relevance at home? If left unchecked and unmonitored, militarization in and beyond Colombia might become more institutionalized in the years to come, with the U.S. its long-term guarantor.

John Lindsay-Poland is Wage Peace Coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee in San Francisco, and author of Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of the U.S. In Panama (Duke). He is working on a book about the role of the United States in the war in Colombia.

Arlene B. Tickner has a Ph.D. in International Studies from the University of Miami and an M.A. in Latin American Studies from Georgetown University.  She is Professor of International Relations in the Political Science Department at the Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia, where she has worked since 1991. She writes a weekly newspaper column in the Colombian national newspaper, El Espectador.

(Editor's Note: The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.)


Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.