The Post-Conflict Colombian Military Looks for a Development Role


“Soldiers can be clowns,” a Colombian general observed to me in an interview, explaining why Colombian soldiers have donned face paint and rubber noses, “and this is one way to create a love of country in children.” In the wake of the 2016 demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the military has taken on new missions to repair the reputation of their institution. The armed conflict between the government and the FARC began in 1964, claimed the lives of at least 220,000 Colombians, and left virtually no country in the Americas untouched, as the FARC increasingly involved itself in the cocaine trade over the years. The conflict has seen severe blows dealt to the army’s reputation, leading to soldiers’ taking part in these specialized “circuses.”



But nearly four years after the 2016 signing of Colombia’s peace deal with the FARC, the agreement remains unrealized in many parts of the country. While President Ivan Duque should be credited with progress on 34 percent of the deal’s provisions, 69 percent of the agreement remains unfulfilled. His government has challenged key aspects of the deal and made troubling decisions which contradict his claims that he is supportive of the peace process. In 2019, for instance, the Duque government authorized a new “kill order.” The order was reminiscent of that which preceded the 2008 false positives scandal, when armed forces personnel murdered upwards of 3,000 Colombian citizens and reported them, falsely, as FARC combatants so they could receive bonuses. The order so alarmed military officers that they reported it to the media, forcing Duque’s government to reverse its decision.

The role of the Colombian military in the post-conflict era has been the subject of much discussion. Inarguably, it is true that military personnel have been implicated in severe human rights abuses since the conflict’s beginning in the 1960s. However, it is equally true that high-ranking leaders in the military have supported the peace process. These individuals are preceded by a long history of commanders who proposed robust state development, rather than armed operations, as the solution to Colombia’s reoccurring security woes. These commanders have advocated for non-violent methods to end the conflict, arguing for education, healthcare, and even rural land reform to end reoccurring conflict. The Colombian military even has its own “developmentalist” doctrine, “integral action,” which dates back to the earliest years of the Colombian conflict. This doctrine presents a solution to reoccurring violence and an opportunity to consolidate the nation’s peace while transitioning its armed forces toward peacetime. Such a transition will reorient the armed forces away from the practices which have led to human rights abuses, widen its skill set, and guarantee it a post-conflict role. At the same time, building on integral action operations will contribute to the long-lasting development of a nation whose conflicts have spilled out not only across Latin America, but to the United States as well.

Developed by Colombian military commanders in the early 1960s, integral action is a military doctrine which envisions a proactive role for the military in state development. Integral action operations are diverse and varied, and contemporary operations have seen the Colombian army distribute public goods; build critical infrastructure such as roads, schools, and clinics; and even perform circuses to build trust between citizens and the armed forces. Unlike other counter-insurgent “hearts and minds” strategies, which focus primarily on development as a means to win the loyalty of a population, integral action conceives of a post-conflict role for the military in solving longstanding problems of development. It is a doctrine with a longer time horizon than other counter-insurgency operations, and it has seen soldiers act as clinicians, teachers, and even circuses performers as they develop new expertise outside the use of arms.

However, a historical analysis of integral action shows that the doctrine has, at critical junctures, only been partially implemented. Military commanders advocating for integral action have clashed with civilian policymakers, who tended to favor combat solutions to the nation’s insecurity, even as the number of combatants has declined. This preference has often come with grave consequences. Rather than considering the advice of integral action advocates, civilian policymakers have favored officers who “stay in their lane” and do not offer social or economic prescriptions for the country’s security crisis.

To avoid past missteps and seize on the opportunity the peace deal with the FARC provides, leaders in the Colombian government and armed forces alike should elevate integral action as a priority mission. Military commanders must be mindful of how they communicate their goals to civilian policymakers, and civilian policymakers must, in turn, become more invested in the inner workings of their armed forces.

The Historical Development of Integral Action

The context from which integral action emerged shares much in common with that of contemporary Colombia. From roughly 1946 to 1958, Colombia experienced its most violent civil war to date. Simultaneously, Colombia also sent troops to fight with the U.N. coalition in Korea. Two officers deployed to Korea, Alberto Ruiz Novoa and Álvaro Valencia Tovar, became particularly important in developing integral action as a military doctrine.

In his writings, Valencia Tovar defined integral action as:

[The] permanent development and coordination of political-economic, social and military actions designed to strengthen the basic structures of the state and guarantee the defense and protection of the rights and liberties of society so that the citizens of Colombia, using their liberties and within their constitutional rights and abilities, are able to enjoy a just, dignified and durable peace which permits adequate development and progress.

The word “permanent” is critical for distinguishing integral action from the broader umbrella of counter-insurgency doctrines. Unlike other counter-insurgency operations — temporary and designed to extract information and cooperation from a population — integral action emphasizes a post-insurgency phase. At its core, it identifies social and economic causes as the biggest contributors to violence, and state development as its long-term goal. By definition, integral action envisions a post-insurgency mission for the military. In doing so, the doctrine serves as a bridge to constructing a peacetime military.

This is not to say, however, that early implementation of integral action was bloodless. This is demonstrated in “Plan Lazo,” the security plan Ruiz Novoa implemented as minister of war from 1962 to 1965.

The plan has a thorny history, embodying the most problematic practices and most idealistic goals of the armed forces. On the one hand, Plan Lazo followed more traditional counter-insurgency doctrines in recruiting, arming, and training civilian paramilitaries for the collection of intelligence. On the other, Ruiz Novoa used Plan Lazo to push a reformist agenda. Plan Lazo emphasized the military construction of roads, schools, and hospitals, as well as the provision of medical attention and education by military personnel. Publicly, Ruiz Novoa made claims not unlike those of contemporary observers: that massive social and economic reform would be essential for any lasting peace in Colombia.

Unfortunately, Ruiz Novoa found that civilian policymakers were uninterested in implementing economic or social reform, much less hearing out the opinions of military leaders. Civilian elites, cloistered in Bogotá and far removed from rural zones, remained more concerned with wiping out pockets of armed opposition than with economic or social reforms. For Ruiz Novoa, this disinterest was unbearable and offensive. In particular, Ruiz Novoa found the ambivalence of conservative President Guillermo León Valencia intolerable. Frustrated, he made his criticism of the president public in 1965. In an early test of the strength of Colombia’s civilian control, Ruiz Novoa was dismissed and replaced with a “traditional conservative officer” more in line with the president’s thinking.

According to Valencia Tovar, this was a huge blow to Ruiz Novoa’s development-oriented vision for Plan Lazo. “When General Ruiz left, Plan Lazo lost its dynamism. All the results of the plan were satanic after his relationship with the President soured.”

Tovar likewise clashed with a sitting president before being removed from his position as commander of the armed forces in 1975. After criticizing his commander in chief “for failing to tackle basic social difficulties,” Valencia Tovar and other officers who agreed with him were dismissed and replaced.

While the civilian leadership was perhaps not unjustified in dismissing critical officers, the incomplete realization of integral action meant the promotion of officers who advocated for traditional military strategies and the marginalization of those who looked to address Colombia’s underlying social and economic divides. This, in turn, meant a continuation of strategies which almost exclusively envisioned the armed forces as an instrument of violence, and a contribution to a reoccurring cycle of internal conflict.

Contemporary Integral Action Operations

The FARC’s 2016 demobilization brings a new opportunity to fully implement integral action and transition Colombia and its military toward peacetime. Though the agreement between the Colombian government and the guerrilla group was far from perfect, overwhelming numbers of FARC fighters agreed to demobilize and transition to civilian life. As the number of combatants has declined, combat operations are less necessary. Creating economic opportunities in zones guerrillas vacated has, however, become essential.

To seize the opportunities provided by the peace process, both policymakers and military leaders should take care to avoid past mistakes. Military commanders need to properly articulate their goals to civilian policymakers, and, in turn, civilians must make an effort to understand and meet with their commanders. To fully take advantage of integral action and its potentials, all relevant actors need to speak a shared language. Civilian and military leaders must have a shared understanding of the goal of state development and the military’s role in it.

Thankfully, integral action operations have expanded in the wake of the FARC peace deal. In 2017, one year after the deal was signed, the army created a Command of Support for Integral Action and Development. This new command oversees eight battalions composed of soldiers with specialized training in non-combat military missions, and they are retrained every six months at the army’s school of civil-military relations. These soldiers are currently engaging in the “Fe en Colombia” (Faith in Colombia) program, partnering with non-military government agents (such as the Ministries of Health, Education, and Agriculture), community-level actors, and private businesses to create new job opportunities and infrastructure in historically vulnerable zones.

The Integral Action Command’s operations are diverse, including the construction of hospitals and schools, and even putting on circuses. For Gen. Alberto Sepulveda Riaño, a high-ranking advocate of integral action, the circuses are connected to issues of building trust in the government, and even the health and safety of the most vulnerable members of Colombia’s population. “If a clown gives a presentation on abuse,” Gen. Sepulveda Riaño explained, “maybe a child will come forward after the show and tell them about it [abuse they are experiencing].” Recruits in the command have a similar view, connecting the country’s poverty and violence. “We have a problem of a lot of unemployed young men,” one recruit told me in an interview at the command’s headquarters in Bogotá in early 2020, “and we’re going to need to face that problem.”

This sentiment is expressed frequently at the command’s headquarters in Bogotá. During the course of my fieldwork, officers trained in integral action expressed a remarkable awareness and, indeed, sensitivity to the issues facing vulnerable Colombian populations. This included specific attention to the challenges the Colombian LGBT community and Afro-Colombian communities face and the need and the need for armed forces personnel to be aware of these challenges.

Getting Soldiers and Civilians Alike Interested

Though recruits in the Integral Action Command are knowledgeable about the social and economic challenges affecting Colombia’s most insecure zones, the command remains marginalized in the armed forces. Though integral action advocates have been influential military intellectuals, awareness of integral action remains low across the military. Consequently, there is little interest outside the Integral Action Command in using military personnel for non-combat operations. To this end, Gen. Sepulveda Riaño wrote a book on the history and importance of integral action operations, hoping to raise awareness of these operations to soldiers outside of the command.

Integral action battalions remain small, and, though recruits are well trained, they cannot maintain a uniform presence across the zones where they are needed the most. Because operations exclude combat, a traditional mechanism for promotion, a majority of commanders and enlisted soldiers remain uninterested in joining. Participation in these operations should come with opportunities for career advancement, monetary bonuses, and other incentives for new recruits to seek specialized integral action training.

However, even if all military commanders were to uniformly recommend and promote integral action, civilian policymakers would still need to authorize and support its operations. While making troops aware of integral action operations will be challenging, spreading awareness to civilian policymakers will be even more so.

Though great strides have been made in recruiting civilians to the Ministry of Defense, integral operations require that the military coordinate with other government agencies as well. Soldiers within Integral Action Command expressed concern that they were not being heard by policymakers in government ministries. Commanders have said that civilians struggle to understand the utility of investing in the military’s unarmed capacities. In the field, leaders in integral action battalions have said they do not have sufficient human or financial resources to serve the populations they are deployed to aid.

Creating civilian interest in military affairs is difficult in many countries, particularly in Latin America. Militaries are notorious for jargon, making it difficult for outsiders to understand or even speak with military commanders. While commanders may take the initiative in engaging civilians, this should be met with an equal investment from civilian policymakers. Routine meetings between the agencies involved in integral action operations should continue, and these forums must be fully utilized as opportunities for the sharing of information and strategies.

It is not enough for civilians to attend these meetings. They need to listen and consider the advice of their commanders as well. This will be difficult as, though Colombia has made great strides in staffing its Ministry of Defense with competent and qualified civilians, integral action requires the participation of members of other government agencies. Gen. Sepulveda Riaño has explained that horizontal cooperation between these agencies — including, for example, the Ministry of Agriculture — will be necessary to achieve the goals of integral action: development through the realization of agricultural, education, and health infrastructure and reforms.

Civilian policymakers’ support of, and active interest in, integral action will not only expand civilian oversight of the military — giving civilian policymakers more input over military policy — but it will narrow the gap between Colombia’s government and its armed forces. This will be fundamental for consolidating peace, as civilians themselves will become more knowledgeable of the missions their armed forces can perform and what missions they should perform. Expanded knowledge of the military will be important in preventing previous mistakes, whereby civilians continued to favor combat operations when combat was less appropriate. Civilian support for peacetime missions and operations, however, will be integral in creating a more functional peacetime government.


The role of the Colombian armed forces in the wake of the FARC’s peace deal has transformative potential. The Colombian government still faces armed adversaries, against whom police and military operations are warranted. The National Liberation Army (ELN), the nation’s largest leftist insurgency, FARC dissident groups, and far-right paramilitaries remain active threats capable of targeting the state and terrorizing citizens. While an armed response will remain important, a de-escalation of state violence is more than warranted to secure a meaningful and lasting peace. As a state institution with vast resources, the armed forces can play a critical role in building and consolidating a stable and peaceful Colombia. However, without the unequivocal support of civilian policymakers, it is likely that the half-hearted implementations which have plagued integral action operations in the past will be repeated.

Though, as a candidate, Duque campaigned against the FARC peace deal, the two years left in his term come with an opportunity to expand integral action operations. This is particularly true as President-elect Joe Biden, who has long expressed support for the peace deal and who views Colombia as critical to the interests of the United States, begins his term. Indeed, with the support of such a critical ally, Duque has a greater opportunity to reorient the armed forces and consolidate peace than many of his predecessors.

Expanding integral action operations is an opportunity to, at once, escape a cycle of violence by undercutting poverty and underdevelopment in long-affected zones, contributing to the wealth and security of the entire Colombian state. This will be critical in securing a stable and secure Western Hemisphere and ending a conflict which has touched virtually every country in the Americas.



Andrew Ivey is a Ph.D. candidate with the department of political science at the University of California, Riverside. His research concerns civil-military relations, insurgency, police-military relations, and democratization. His previous research has appeared in Democratization.

Image: Colombian Army