Dereliction of Duty: The Abandonment of the Defense Sector in Colombia and How to Fix It
Five years after a peace accord ended the long-running conflict between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia is again in the midst of a severe security problem. Multiple criminal organizations are present in approximately a third of the country’s territory, one that remains shaped by violence, lack of economic opportunities, and burgeoning illicit economies. The peace accord of 2016 offered a unique opportunity to counter this historical lack of territorial control, but it was blundered by civilian incompetence, and time is running out. In the last four years, strategic indecision prevented President Ivan Duque from adequately guiding the armed forces, which swung between half-hearted efforts to tackle illicit mining, deforestation, wildlife trafficking, and carrying out an unproductive decapitation strategy. Colombia’s defense sector has been abandoned by its civilian leadership, as parties on both sides of the political spectrum have neglected the field for different — but equally harmful — reasons. Historically, civilian leadership has been either missing, ineffectual, or both. Colombia deserves better public servants, and its defense sector needs wide reform.
Faltering civilian leadership by Duque followed former President Juan Manuel Santos’ missteps. At the end of his term in 2018, Santos loudly claimed to leave the “most robust military in Colombia’s history” while at the same time dramatically reducing defense spending under the premise of peace. The Duque administration maintained a similar budgetary position and stretched the military thin in various futile endeavors, like manual eradication of coca crops and biodiversity policing. To make matters worse, civilian leadership is also absent now, when consequences for past mistakes threaten to materialize: The military has been left to deal with the judicial fallout from reports of its past abuses. Such abuses cost the armed forces dearly, pushing public opinion to the lowest point in 20 years and leaving them with little bargaining power.
Added to the instability of the Duque administration, the election of Gustavo Petro raised the alarm of the military, whose commander (just retired) had a public spat with the president-elect right before the election. The defense establishment has voiced concerns about a former guerrilla fighter as commander-in-chief, including concerns about the possibility of Petro distancing himself from the United States as Colombia’s primary security partner. Such concerns are not unfounded, as Petro has expressed his endorsement of a further reduction of the defense budget and the abolishment of conscription. Further reducing defense spending would accelerate faltering military readiness and erode the already dilapidated professionalism of civilians in the armed forces. Eliminating conscription, on the other hand, as desirable as it may be, would strongly contribute to force attrition while diminishing readiness.
The state of the U.S.-Colombian relationship is another source of concern, and although a strong relationship between the two countries is generally taken for granted, Duque navigated it poorly. After betting on a second term for President Donald Trump, Duque had to abruptly adjust course and pivot to support President Joe Biden. Petro seems off to a better start, with Biden quickly reaching out to congratulate him on his election. The president-elect should maintain this momentum and veer away from past animosity toward the United States, shedding his previous admiration of Hugo Chavez and his calls for Latin American unity as an alternative to “kneeling to the United States.” Here is an opportunity to enhance the military in a way congruent with the national interest: Petro should acknowledge the U.S.-Colombian relationship as a strategic partnership built on trust, economic development, and military cooperation. In the past, Latin America has seen lack of trust turn into anti-American sentiment, so strengthening U.S. efforts to increase economic development would cement trust while at the same time help to address the social and economic ailments that have contributed to the overextension of the Colombian military. As China gains influence in Latin America, Colombia needs the United States as a strategic partner. Petro should recognize Chinese global expansion as a threat to regional stability. China’s digital autocracy, underscored by an expansive colonialist effort, is anathema to the aspirational principles of democracy and open markets embodied in the Colombian constitution and which outline the U.S.-Colombian relationship. With Chinese economic colonialism on the rise, the threat to democracy and sovereignty in Latin America increases daily, and Colombia’s partnership with the United States will be more valuable than ever.
Expanding this partnership is critical. Cutting military support to the Colombian armed forces would be an obvious mistake. However, the Truth Commission at the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, a post-conflict institution for truth and reparations, recently asked the European parliament to do so, and some U.S. legislators have floated the idea. Colombia needs, and will continue to need, military aid, but it also needs independent auditing of how such assistance and the general defense budget are spent. Petro has promised a swift campaign against corruption, a measure that no doubt will look into the armed forces and is an opportunity for reform and a welcome step in clearing the ranks of corruption, waste, and grift.
Battling corruption inside the armed forces is no simple task. It is just one of many urgently needed changes. The military, and the heavily militarized national police, are public policy tools that demand fundamental changes to be of use to the country. Such reforms should efficiently modernize the force to face continuous threats like the growing power of illicit armed groups, the expansion of criminal economies, and the proliferation of foreign espionage and disinformation efforts.
Cuban, Venezuelan, and Russian intervention in the Colombian conflict is a serious topic that needs to be addressed. Intelligence agencies like the CIA have declassified documents that shed light on their role in the conflict (with the tacit acquiescence of the Colombian state, in the case of the CIA). Petro should seek this truth from other states that had a role in aiding and abetting armed groups like FARC. On June 28, the Truth Commission at the Special Jurisdiction for Peace published some of its findings and recommendations. At first glance, the 896-page report largely ignores reporting or investigating the role of foreign powers in the Colombian conflict and seems to treat drug trafficking exclusively as a tool for financing political goals. Such a narrative is both dishonest and incorrect, as it fails to include all aspects of political interference by foreign powers or recognize that many criminal organizations and governments saw the Colombian conflict as an opportunity to profit from drug trafficking and other criminal economies. Revealing how foreign powers profited and benefited from the Colombian conflict is an essential task for Petro to pursue, despite how uncomfortable it may be for neighbors like Venezuela, with its known ties to Cuba, Iran, China, and Russia.
Although Duque attempted to contain Venezuela’s influence in Colombia, mainly using diplomacy and special operations forces to conduct operations against criminal organizations sheltered in Venezuelan territory, these efforts were insufficient. The Colombian executive should take a stand against foreign intervention and reveal and clarify the role of foreign powers in the Colombian conflict and the current security crisis.
Any military reform should also urgently reshape the armed forces to project power nationwide since, as it stands, the Colombian military is not an optimal tool for policymakers attempting to tackle the current security crisis. Colombia’s geography, lack of development, and proximity to the United States will continue to make it a natural hub for criminal economies. Tackling such challenges will require a vast state effort in which the armed forces will continue to play a significant role, one for which they are not currently equipped. The operational capability of the armed forces suffered greatly under Santos’ second administration, which dramatically reduced the operational and maintenance readiness of rotary-wing aircraft. Such aircraft were the backbone of the Alvaro Uribe and Santos counter-insurgency campaigns and are some of the few current means for nationwide power projection. These capabilities, or lack thereof, need to be rebuilt and properly maintained — otherwise, the state’s capacity to respond to illicit actors will remain insufficient.
Petro should also seek to reaffirm civilian control over the military to ensure political factions will not politicize the armed forces, a line dangerously toed by Uribe during his 2002 to 2010 tenure. This effort should extend to other defense institutions that, under the Uribe, Santos, and Duque administrations (among others) were severely politicized. Thus, the professionalization of intelligence services should also be a priority, with the expansion and specialization of cyber capabilities at the forefront.
Professionalization and improvement of intelligence capabilities must be achieved while maintaining civilian control and independence. Latin America has a history of misusing robust intelligence services, and Petro should no doubt ensure the risk of entrenched political cadres using intelligence to harass political enemies or activists is mitigated. But Petro should also beware of political factions that ignore or disregard, with or without malicious intent, the risks of mismanaging intelligence and intelligence capabilities. For example, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace recently voiced its desire to declassify military intelligence archives. The request should not be concerning on its own, but given the lack of technical experts on intelligence in the organization, Petro should be cautious of complying with this recommendation. Declassifying military intelligence without proper vetting risks undermining Colombia’s meager intelligence capabilities.
As recently as last year, Petro was referring to Colombia as a dictatorship, casting doubt on the integrity and fairness of its democratic institutions. Petro portrayed himself as a champion of the people pitted against a sort of deep state determined to prevent his election, a Trumpian narrative that hurt the country. Now that Petro is president-elect and such a narrative is unsustainable, he should refrain from such statements, especially if he wants to gain and maintain the respect of the armed forces. There is no reason to doubt the military’s commitment to the principle of civilian control, but admiration for the former guerrilla fighter is unlikely to be forthcoming.
Petro should also avoid a common mistake made by Colombia’s civilian leadership over the years: failing to define a clear political priority among the threats and opportunities the country faces, which caused discrepancy in political-military goals and generated strategic confusion. Such confusion is evident in the evolution of security in Colombia after the demobilization of FARC. Post-peace accords, the government failed to understand that Colombia required military presence and institutional nation-building to ensure peace in the far-flung territories vacated by FARC. Some significant examples of this lack of understanding include the fact that the government failed to implement an all-government approach, overloading the armed forces and stretching them thin to compensate for the lack of state presence. Ideally, non-military state agencies should provide infrastructure, social services, and economic development, a mission the state failed to fulfill. Petro should seek to correct this shortfall, and use post-conflict institutions — including, for example, the Agency for Territory Renovation, the Colombian Agency for Reintegration, the Department for Social Prosperity and others — to expand integral action and development.
After the peace deal, incompetent civilian leadership pushed for the expansion of special operations forces in frantic pursuit of a decapitation strategy. This expansion caused these forces to be less effective and specialized while simultaneously advancing an inadequate strategy that has produced no structural results in the last four years. The killing of high-level insurgent leaders in Colombia has become less significant in strategic terms over the years while becoming of great political importance for the executive. Under the Duque administration, high-value targeting campaigns generally increased short-term political capital but had little significant strategic value.
Duque attempted a Perseus-like task, disposing of one criminal leader to find him replaced almost immediately by one just as violent, if not more so, than the previous one. Poor strategic thinking, in addition to the abandonment of the defense field, has made Colombia harder to govern. It has eroded the military’s autonomy and ability to think, contributing to its lack of strategic clarity and poor understanding of its security problems. Colombia’s strategic foresight is inadequate, often failing to define what tools to employ and how to use them to serve its national interest. Although functional specialization makes civilians and soldiers less likely to know enough about each other’s fields, civilian ignorance of strategic affairs is inexcusable, particularly that of civilians with direct oversight of the defense space and the military as their constitutional obligation.
Duque’s unacceptable delegation of the defense space to a string of incompetent and unprepared civilians considerably weakened the Colombian military. He appointed Guillermo Botero, who was forced to resign when it was clear that the Senate would recall him from the post, as well as Diego Molano, who remains Minister of Defense despite having zero technical or professional qualifications to hold this position. (The main reason Duque gave the public for the appointment of Molano is that Molano was born at a military hospital and graduated from a military boarding school.) On the other hand, Colombia’s political opposition, of which Petro was a member, failed to check and counterbalance Duque, mainly due to their equally reprehensible ignorance of strategic affairs. If the political right in Colombia has been incompetent in defense matters, the left has entirely abdicated its responsibility, seeing the military with contempt and as an entity inferior to their values. Petro should seek to correct this by professionalizing the defense space, taking ownership of state force as a public policy tool, and surrounding himself with subject matter experts. The recent appointment of Ivan Velazquez as Minister of Defense is a salute to human rights advocates that offers a path to prevent abuses and fight corruption. This appointment is well-intentioned, but it is unlikely his tenure will help professionalize the space or attract subject matter expertise to the ministry, as Velazquez is not a defense expert.
In short, the military establishment shares some blame for Colombia’s security woes, but ultimate responsibility rests with its civilian leadership, a coterie which has consistently failed to understand grand strategy: In the words of Barry Posen’s classic definition, “a political-military, means-ends chain, a state’s theory about how it can best ‘cause’ security for itself.” Colombia has failed to “cause” security for itself, mainly because it lacks reconciliation between political and military means and has broken the “means-ends chain.” Colombia’s political class must stop neglecting its responsibility and take ownership of military power as a policy tool. Political responsibility is the missing link in the security chain — without it, endemic violence and insecurity will continue unabated. Petro has a golden opportunity to step up and fill this role. To do so, he would need to cease seeing the armed forces as a malicious institution and evolve to a more nuanced understanding of the purpose of force for a modern state. This is unlikely, however, given his record.
The defense sector in Colombia is in dire need of reform. The threats the country faces are real and could have severe consequences for its long-term stability. Change is the current buzzword as Colombia heads for its first left-leaning administration in the 21st century. Any changes taking place must include Colombia’s security establishment. Neglecting this community is a luxury Petro cannot afford, or Colombia’s political transformation will be woefully incomplete, leaving it in a weaker security position than it currently stands. Civilian leadership must enact changes based on strategic foresight before strategic failure sets in. Professionalization, recruitment, education, strategy, and leadership selection all need immediate attention.
Alfonso Camacho-Martinez (@RenaissanceAlf) is a defense and security expert and consultant. He focuses on risk and threat assessment, working on security issues with special operators in Latin America and other regions of the world.