By Weakening the Military, Colombia’s Petro Imperils His Hopes for Peace


Just shy of a year into his term, Colombian President Gustavo Petro faces a formidable challenge: a security crisis that risks renewed conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and a return to widespread violence. On paper, “Total Peace,” Petro’s plan for achieving territorial and institutional stability, represents an actionable solution to Colombia’s historic challenges. It aims to offer a comprehensive and sustainable roadmap to peace beyond the end of armed conflict, addressing the root causes of violence and inequality. But in practice, Petro’s framework for peace is incomplete, failing to understand that disarming insurgent groups and signing peace agreements is insufficient without the state’s coercive power to maintain stability. 

In this context, Petro’s faulty handling of the Colombian military will fundamentally compromise his aspirations. Under his tenure, the military has suffered reduced personnel, inadequate equipping, reduced intelligence capabilities, insufficient training, incompetent civilian leadership, and the consequences of disadvantageous agreements that heavily benefit criminal actors while hurting the armed forces.

The Colombian government has attempted negotiations with armed groups from a position of relative military inferiority on at least five occasions, all of which have failed. Currently, criminal groups enjoy a safe haven in Venezuela, relative military parity or near parity, and record earnings from cocaine and other illicit activities. As a result, they have little incentive to negotiate. Now is not the time for Colombia to sign disadvantageous deals with criminal actors that give away major concessions with little in return. Instead, the Petro administration should revamp military intelligence and mobility capabilities, improve training and recruitment, and appoint more effective civilian leadership. 



The views expressed in this article build on a decade of observation and work with operators, analysts, academics, and policymakers in Colombia. I am, in no uncertain terms, critical of the current administration. But, as with my criticism of previous administrations, I hope that raising specific concerns about force capabilities will ultimately strengthen the government’s hand in tackling the security challenges Colombia faces. 

An Underwhelming Military

Petro’s predecessor, Ivan Duque, left eroded and hollowed-out armed forces. Petro inherited this problem and quickly made it worse, dismissing experienced officers, appointing incompetent civilian leadership, and igniting a wave of early voluntary retirement by mid-level officers. 

In private conversations, members of the intelligence apparatus have detailed the challenges they face under the Petro government. As a result of a recent cabinet-level decision, the Colombian Army went from 48 to 24 tactical intelligence units this year. Earlier this month, the leadership of all army intelligence commands, including counterintelligence and army intelligence brigades, was reassigned, the third reshuffling of commanders in under a year. Collectively, this has disrupted continuity, eroded morale, hindered coordination, and delayed decision-making.

Mobility capability has also greatly diminished, as confirmed by off-the-record discussions with senior military officials. Pilots are flying fewer training hours this year, often in very old platforms prone to accidents and mechanical malfunction. At the peak of Colombian operational readiness, a pilot could expect to fly around 100 to 120 hours a month. Today, they are lucky to manage 10 hours airborne for cruise flights, none of those at night or in the kind of challenging conditions that mimic complex tactical insertion and extraction situations. Making matters worse, not enough pilots are being trained, and there are far more lieutenant colonels and colonels than there are lieutenants and captains currently flying. This imbalance in rank structure is affecting career progression and causing skill degradation. 

The cannibalization of rotary-wing aircraft for spare parts is another issue. Colombia’s Mi-17 and Antonov systems are entirely grounded, limiting high-volume transport. The UH-60 Black Hawk, once the backbone of the Colombian Army’s mobility, is decimated, with a maximum of 14 units available to cover over 1 million square kilometers. Training and recruitment are also growing problems: Army recruiting has decreased by around 50 percent in the last nine months, while ammunition for training is limited, leading to lower readiness in the face of increasing casualties. Military operations are significantly reduced to adapt to the loss of effectiveness, which is a sure way to avoid casualties and a questionable path to operational results.

Colombia’s offensive capabilities have also been compromised, according to multiple senior military sources. Intentionally or not, the current administration is deprioritizing special operations as the tip of the spear against illicit actors.  It has reduced intelligence and mobility, which effectively means reduced efficiency and capability. This is reflected in special operations casualties, which have increased in the last eight months, and in a growing number of ambushes against regular troops. 

The Wages of Weakness

Against this backdrop of military limitations, Petro has initiated a string of failed cease-fires with the National Liberation Army, Clan del Golfo, and FARC’s dissidents. Despite Petro’s efforts, all three organizations continue to engage in child recruitment, extortion, kidnapping, and drug trafficking. The government’s response to escalating criminality is inadequate and harmful. Petro has announced his intention to pay criminal groups to “keep them from killing,” even going as far as announcing the possible creation of an international donor fund to compensate the National Liberation Army for ceasing criminal action. 

As a result, armed actors are growing stronger. Clan del Golfo has demonstrated territorial control in 30 percent of Colombia. In April, they declared an armed strike denying free transit to around 250,000 people for over a month, increasing extortion, and targeting public infrastructure, including water services. In the midst of a new ceasefire agreement announced this month, the National Liberation Army has continued to attack police and may be behind a recent car bomb at an army checkpoint. FARC splinter groups remain active as well, leading to strong criticism from citizens and politicians. Earlier this year, 22 of 32 governors took to Twitter to protest under the banner of “liberty and order.” 

In practice, Petro’s alleged bilateral ceasefires are a unilateral abstention of force by the state. After his first ceasefire announcement earlier this year, the National Liberation Army quickly denied agreeing to a truce, while Clan del Golfo’s continued violence eventually led Petro to order the restart of “offensive military operations.” The increasing violence even caused a former FARC commander to raise the alarm by stating that the original peace agreement was at risk. Ironically, FARC’s dissidents virtually ignored the ceasefire altogether, so much so that Petro was forced to restart military operations against them in late May. 

The lackluster performance in these renewed operations demonstrates a loss of operational capability by the military, which reflects the shortfalls underpinning the administration’s current security strategy. As a result of the challenges outlined above, Colombian units have not managed to reengage targets effectively and struggle to project force in isolated areas. Instead, operations have remained intermittent, revealing deep organizational, intelligence, and operational shortfalls. 

New Security Policy

This is all happening in the context of a new security policy, announced by Defense Minister Iván Velásquez this spring. Accordingly, Colombia’s defense strategy is moving away from pursuing “high-value objectives” such as kingpins to protecting population centers, combating deforestation, and improving the welfare of the armed forces. The shift seeks to pivot from pursuing organized armed groups to providing humanitarian relief in regions affected by criminal activities. In the fight against drugs, the government’s focus has turned from eradicating illicit crops to strengthening interdiction, dismantling cocaine laboratories, and pursuing illegal finances. Yet all of these measures require strong mobilization and intelligence components currently sorely lacking. Meanwhile, cocaine production is at its peak, with records for interdiction but also staggering levels of production.

This security strategy also has a concerning international component, in which Venezuela has transitioned from being labeled as a threat to becoming a “strategic security ally.” Despite the rebranding, there is no path to security if criminal insurgencies continue to find unrestrained refuge across the border. Of greater concern is the revelation of Colombian intelligence-sharing with Venezuela under the guise of combating cross-border organized crime. The Colombian government claims the intelligence shared is only that collected by Colombian intelligence agencies and excludes that shared with Colombia by the United States. This is unlikely to reassure Washington.

Rather than double down on negotiations at all costs, Petro should do more to maintain the state’s coercive power. To address the looming crisis, Petro should recover the backbone of logistics and intelligence that has allowed military success in the past, improve training and education in the military, and seek partnerships with governments to help the country update its equipment and hardware. Without a robust armed capability, Colombia is on the verge of losing a critical opportunity for peace. If this course is not corrected, Colombia will likely face yet another era of violence. 



Alfonso Camacho-Martinez (@RenaissanceAlf) is a Kathryn Wasserman Conflict Transformation Fellow at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies. He focuses on risk and threat assessment, working on security issues with special operators in Latin America and other regions of the world.

Image: U.S. National Guard