To the Colombian Military: “Don’t be afraid of peace!”

On June 12, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos responded to criticism from a group of a group of retired military by saying, “Don’t be afraid of peace.” Santos’s admonition reveals the power held by the Colombian military and the fact that the armed forces have their own agenda—one that apparently does not coincide with the country’s search for peace.

At an officers’ graduation ceremony, which usually include a recitation of the military’s achievements against the FARC, President Santos first recalled that six years before, when he was a cabinet minister, then-President Alvaro Uribe told him, “you have to hit the enemy where it hurts him the most; you have to get to the head,” which the military understood to mean decisive attacks on FARC leaders such as Raul Reyes, el “Mono Jojoy” or Alfonso Cano.

But the ceremony became uncomfortable when Santos added, “Some retired military have criticized the President of the Republic for offering the possibility of peace. I say to these retired military officials, ‘Don’t be afraid of peace.’” He went on to say, “In any part of the world, what any official wants is peace. And when he goes to war, he does so, ultimately, for peace.”

Why remind the military that the ultimate end of all armed struggle is peace? For those who believe that only a victory by arms is a triumphant peace, Santos’s words are like  tossing a bucket of cold water on an already disgruntled military. Among the reasons for their discontent is their supposed vulnerability, not being able to efficiently fight the guerrillas because their hands are tied by the courts and because of what they say are “advantages” given to the guerrillas in the recently approved “legal framework for peace.”

The military is reacting this way at time when there is a resurgence of voices in Colombia clamoring for the peaceful end to long years of conflict and pointing to the FARC’s release of kidnapping victims—without military intervention—as evidence of their success. Unfortunately, those involved in peace movements often find that they themselves are victims of threats that make them fear for their lives. They are harassed precisely because of their ability to make others question militarism as the only way to restore the nation.

Among those who now support a peaceful solution are those who used to be hardline defenders of militarization such as former minister Fernando Londoño. After the attempt last May that almost cost him his life, he said in one of his columns, “We have to outlaw terror, without regard to its source and its purpose. There is no such thing as good terror or forgivable terror.”

From the perspective of the Colombian military, being afraid of peace, in the words of Santos, has to do with the controversial “Fuero Militar” [military jurisdiction in cases where the military is accused of human rights violations], as well as the interests of certain sectors of the armed forces who fear that the uncontrolled flow of enormous of resources for the war would be compromised if annihilation of the enemy was no longer seen as the only solution to armed conflict.

Challenging military courts

After the January 2012 condemnation of Colonel Alfonso Plazas Vega for the forced disappearance of several survivors of the 1985 siege at the Palace of Justice, the military is especially upset about what they consider “legal insecurity” and political persecution. For human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, strengthening the jurisdiction of the military court system represents a risk of impunity in cases of violations of human rights such as massacres, torture, murder and forced disappearances.

Lobbying by the retired military to protect the military exemption from civil courts is nothing new. During a political event on September 19, 2009, former President Alvaro Uribe said that he had had a meeting with retired generals, headed up by Alberto Ruiz Novoa, Gerardo Ayerbe Chaux and Rafael Zamudio Molina (the latter also implicated in events at the Palace of Justice), who asked the president to defend the military exemption and change the law so that government funds could be used to pay for the legal defense of members of public security forces. As one of the generals said, “You have an accusation against a member of the public security forces and their salary and pension aren’t enough to pay for an attorney. And accusations happen every day, all day long.”

Judges in the Colombian military judicial system are either active or retired members of the military, which raises the question of a conflict of interest between those who are judges and, at the same time, are also trying to defend the military courts. This is controversial because of high levels of impunity. Accusations are constantly being made against members of the armed forces, but that’s because of criminal activities on the part of members of the military rather than because of a supposed “war in the courts” being carried out by allies of the guerrillas. Just recently four soldiers were sentenced to 34 years in prison for the 2005 massacre at San Jose de Apartado. In another case the former chief of security for former president Alvaro Uribe, retired General Mauricio Santoyo Velasco, was arraigned in a U.S. District Court in Virginia on charges of taking substantial bribes from drug gangs and supplying them with information that led to kidnapping, extortion, and assassination and assisting in the shipment of cocaine to the United States. Santoyo had been promoted to general by Alvaro Uribe, despite having been the subject of a disciplinary investigation by the Office of the Inspector General of Colombia.

According to information from the military published by the Colombian daily newspaper El Tiempo, investigations are underway against 12,404 Colombian soldiers and military officials; 1,177 have been discharged from service. There are convictions and arrest warrants in 244 cases. With respect to retired military, the civil judicial system has detained 175 and convicted 298, while the military judicial system has detained 83 and convicted 36. Some 1,346 investigations for crimes against humanity are underway, including homicide of persons under custody 695 (51.6%), homicide 157 (11.6%) and aggravated homicide 494 (36.7%) (El Tiempo, May 27, 2012, page 13).

The Colombian Senate is studying a bill to strengthen the military courts, but the military has been concerned about possible changes in the bill and a constitutional review when the law is enacted. Organizations of retired military are also asking to revoke an agreement signed in 2006 between the Ministry of Defense and the Attorney General of the Nation that suspends the automatic application of the military exemption in cases of homicide during military operations. It also requires that the Office of the Attorney General carry out forensic investigations to determine if cases should be handled by the civilian or military judicial system.

There is a petition to nullify the agreement between the Ministry of Defense and the Office of the Attorney General. Curiously, the Inspector General of the Nation, Alejandro Ordoñez, recently added his support. Ordoñez pointed out that establishing the powers of officials (military and civilian) is crucial not only for optimizing the investigation of the legality of such actions, but especially to “clarify the application and validity of military jurisdiction in each particular case, which is a matter of highest importance in the context of pursuit and confrontation of subversive groups and criminal organizations operating outside the law.”

The position taken by the Office of the Inspector General’s [the office that conducts most disciplinary investigations of public officials and monitors criminal investigations and prosecutions] favors protecting the military exemption, rather than protecting the human rights of those killed by the military. In the controversial case of the conviction of Colonel Plazas Vega for forced disappearances at the Palace of Justice, the Inspector General questioned the 30-year sentence that was upheld by the Supreme Court.

The Legal Framework for Peace

For the military, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the recently approved “Legal Framework for Peace”. The measure provides a mechanism for an eventual peace process with FARC and ELN guerrillas. In response to presidential discourse inviting the military to lose their fear of peace, associations of retired military have said that the Framework for Peace “favors and is excessively generous to terrorist organizations.” They believe it will lead to impunity for crimes committed by guerrilla combatants or armed groups that enter into a peace process.

The retired military say that the new law would permit demobilized guerrillas to “hold positions in government or collective bodies, without punishment, without truth, and without any type of reparation,” an opinion they share with former president Alvaro Uribe, who failed to express similar concerns when paramilitaries were demobilized in 2005. In addition, the former president has been critical of victims’ rights laws and the law of land restitution for victims of paramilitaries.

In reality, the “Legal Framework for Peace” is a legislative act that adds a transitory article to the constitution authorizing the Senate to issue exceptional transitional laws. It is designed to facilitate the end of armed conflict through an eventual peace process. Under these conditions, only the maximum leaders of demobilized armed groups will be subject to prosecution; those who committed crimes against humanity will have no political voice; the government will have four years to issue laws that enable the framework. Although it has been criticized because of the possibility of immunity in cases of crimes against humanity and violations of international humanitarian law, the “Legal Framework for Peace” represents an alternative solution to Colombia’s armed conflict with the guerrillas. It is paradoxical that Alvaro Uribe and the military are the ones who now reject the law because of the possibility of impunity, when they defended similar conditions for paramilitaries in the law of “Peace and Justice.”

The paradox of armed security in the midst of widespread crime

The demobilization of 37,000 members of the paramilitary ended in 2005; the Uribe Velez administration’s “democratic security” policy was designed to guarantee foreign investment and the military recovery of territory formerly occupied by guerrillas. The reality today is that some of these regions are under the control of new criminal structures that mutated from paramilitaries to what are euphemistically known as  “Criminal Gangs,” BACRIM or “emerging bands,” comprised of and led by a significant number of former guerrilla and paramilitary combatants.

Last January the so-called Urabeños, through pamphlets and threats, paralyzed five departments of Colombia in retaliation for the death of their maximum leader, Juan de Dios Usuga, thereby demonstrating that they control a vast amount of territory in the north of Colombia.

For his part, former Peace Commissioner and leader of the paramilitary demobilization process, Luis Carlos Restrepo, is now a fugitive from Colombian justice, after it was discovered that he had been encouraging false demobilizations of illegal armed groups, presumably to have greater media impact. Restrepo is assumed to be in the United States and from hiding continues to send communiques, complaining about the “lack of guarantees” from the judicial system. He recently issued a missive called “Getting Back on Track.”  In that document, Restrepo says that Colombia must recognize that choosing Juan Manual Santos as a presidential candidate was a mistake, that Alvaro Uribe’s policies should continue for another eight years, and that there should be a constitutional convention to, among other things, provide legal guarantees to members of public security forces.

A fugitive former peace commissioner and a general in charge of the security of former president Alvaro Uribe who is now linked to a drug trafficking scandal: These are just two emblematic cases in a long list of corrupt state officials that demonstrate the difficulty government institutions have in generating credibility.

Meanwhile, factions of armed groups who used to brutally annihilate each other are now working together out of economic interests derived from drug trafficking, making it very difficult to distinguish political and ideological differences, and muddying the border between legal and illegal actors. In the middle of those “muddy waters,” for better or worse, is the military.

An example of that complex reality was the May 15 attempt on the life of former minister Fernando Londoño in Bogotá. Although the FARC was singled out as the usual suspect in an attack on a spokesman of the right, there is reasonable doubt as to who was actually responsible. An urban attack of this nature requires a vast technical and logistical team, and the explosives used were of a type that had never been used by the FARC before. Moreover, there are precedents for the participation of agents of the state in similar actions.

In 2005, then senator and now housing minister, Germán Vargas Lleras, was the victim of a similar attempt in Bogotá. According to counterintelligence reports, the act was carried out by members of the now dismantled National Intelligence Service (DAS),  which was also linked to political smear campaigns, illegal wiretapping and espionage, and the murder of social and political leaders. The recently published book “Why did they kill him?” written by former senator Enrique Gómez Hurtado about the assassination 16 years ago of his brother and right wing leader Alvaro Gómez Hurtado, points to members of the government of former president Ernesto Samper as responsible for the crime. The accusation is based on statements from several drug traffickers and former paramilitaries extradited to the United States. These statements and others indicate that Danilo González, former police major and commander of the Anti-Kidnapping and Anti-Extortion Group-Gaula of Bogotá, was responsible. In 2003 it was revealed that González had strong ties to the Cali and Norte del Valle cartels, as well as to paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño.

Although some may find it ludicrous to think that the military and intelligence forces of the state could be behind attacks on individuals who are linked to the right and are members of the same government, this situation can be explained by the enormous power of drug trafficking and the mafias to corrupt, by the use of fear to discourage a possible peace accord–further polarizing the public, and by the political interests of those who favor war and the military defeat of the guerrillas as the only way to achieve peace.

In its September 20, 2008 edition, the magazine Semana documented at least five cases of false attacks in 2006 that were most likely carried out by the military:

 June 15, 2006: Taxi bomb deactivated. The XIII Brigade announced that it had discovered a taxi bomb loaded with 43 kilos of explosives placed by the FARC. The Office of the Attorney General found inconsistencies in statements by the military: The amount was less than a kilo and it was not activated; it was composed of bars of Indugel, Anfo, Pentonite and detonating cord (investigators confirmed that the combination of explosives was not typical of those used by guerrillas). One of the most significant pieces of evidence is the fact that the owner of the taxi said he had been contracted by two members of the army to rent his taxi for two days in exchange for five million pesos. The owner said that the day after the supposed taxi bomb was discovered, soldiers brought him to a bank to cash a check; they gave him 100,000 pesos and told him he could pick up his vehicle at the Office of the Attorney General. After realizing he had been tricked, he decided to reveal everything.

 June 26, 2006, False alarm: In the Normandía barrio (in western Bogotá), the Army discovered an old car. Inside they found six inactive Indugel cartridges. Before the army issued its report, neighbors had alerted police who asked two suspicious men nearby for identification. They identified themselves as members of military intelligence (B2). Hours later the descriptions witnesses gave of the men who had abandoned the vehicle coincided with that of the soldiers.

 July 23, 2006, Discovery of explosives: Near Sibate, Cundinamarca, troops of Brigade XIII announced that they had found and deactivated 100 kilos of explosives camouflaged in potato sacks inside a truck heading toward Bogotá. They said this was a terrorist plot prepared by the 42nd Front of the FARC.  In this case the explosives were inactive and investigators of the Office of the Attorney General discovered that several days before two soldiers entered La Picota prison to visit a guerrilla who had been there for several years, serving a 40-year sentence.

According to statements obtained by investigators, two soldiers proposed that in exchange for 50 million pesos he help them stage a crime, and they gave him a cell phone to coordinate the case. The guerrilla, who didn’t know he was being recorded by intelligence officers, asked a contact on the outside to rent a truck and “deposit” the explosives. When everything was ready the imprisoned guerrilla called the soldiers and described the truck, the license plate and the route where it was found they next day, when it was reported as a “positive” attack. The army presented the truck driver as a guerrilla, but less than 48 hours later, the Office of the Attorney General had to release him when they discovered that he had nothing to do with the guerrillas, nor with the false attack.

 July 31, 2006: Car bomb explodes. A car bomb exploded near the Military School as a group of military cars were passing by. Several uniformed men suffered minor injuries; the only victim was an indigent man in the area at the time. Videos, recordings and surveillance by the Office of the Attorney General showed that this case was also part of a fake scenario. Days before the attack two members of the Army met with a woman known by the alias “Jessica” to coordinate what was supposed to be a fake car bomb.

The transaction was simple: The woman, who had helped them stage other crimes, was supposed to leave the filled with explosives. The problems was that the woman also “worked” for the guerrillas, and “didn’t want to end up on their [the FARC] wrong side,” as she later told one of the soldiers when he telephoned her to complain about the car bomb being detonated. The recorded conversation, which is in the hands of the Office of the Attorney General, is among the most substantial pieces of evidence against the soldiers who are shown to be part of a conspiracy to stage a crime.

 August 7, 2006: Another car bomb. The army announced that troops had discovered a car loaded with 250 kilos of Anfo along the Fusagasuga – Sibate highway, near Bogotá. They confirmed that the vehicle was going to be used in an attack by the Antonio Nariño column of the FARC. The military said that the supposed terrorists had escaped and that there weren’t more than 20 kilos of explosives. The Office of the Attorney General found the owner of the car, who told authorities that in the early morning hours he had been drunk; two men threatened him at gunpoint and stole his car. For investigators this case has the markings of a crude attempt to create a fake scenario, due to the poor mechanical condition of the vehicle, which was more than 25 years old and presumably was stolen only to stage a crime.

 Interests behind the prolonging the war

So-called confidential expenses (gastos reservados) are public funds are used to finance intelligence activities, counterintelligence, criminal investigation, protection of witnesses and informers. State agencies that carry out these activities (almost all military and police) are authorized to spend these funds, and the existence of guerrillas and criminal organizations justifies the use of substantial amounts of money. But in practice these resources are a source of corruption. The blanket confidential authorization is valid for 20 years after funds have been spent, impeding any investigation into their final destination. According to the law, only an auditor designated by the Comptroller General of the Republic can monitor the use of the funds, which prevents the public and the media from knowing how the money was spent and guaranteeing complete discretion and anonymity to the military.

In 2008 it was discovered that the DAS was paying to recruit informants and conduct illegal surveillance on the Supreme Court, unions, and several opposition parties. The case was widely publicized by the media, but it is impossible to know the extent to which funds had been diverted.

Cases of corruption are not limited to expenses. There have also been complaints about anomalies in contracts for services such as such as tank maintenance, purchase of sabers, parts for night goggles, and uniforms. Because of the high cost of the equipment and the number of supplies that are ordered, military contracts are very lucrative. The result is an open vein in the national budget that is always justified because of the internal armed conflict. Colombia’s 2012 defense budget is 9.9 billion pesos (U.S. 5.53 billion), the second-highest military budget in the region, after Brazil.

Few in Colombia dare to denounce cases of military corruption, not only because they are afraid, but also because of the polarizing discourse in recent years that has characterized anyone who challenges military strategy as an ally of the FARC.

 Fear of peace or of justice?

Retired military organizations act as spokesmen for diverse sectors of the armed forces that cannot comment publicly because of their current status. That explains the importance given to statements made by these organizations in trying to understand the perceptions of the armed forces as a whole. In the letter responding to the statements made by President Santos at the ceremony in June, the armed forces renewed their faith in a military defeat of the guerrillas by declaring that “Military forces are fully capable of defeating this threat, provided they are given the required legal security and adequate anti-terrorist legislation.”

“Legal security” is understood to mean automatic application of the fuero militar in cases of homicide during combat, with all that implies. Some in the military say that troops are suffering from low morale and that the number of investigations of members of the armed forces has probably affected operations and the military’s effectiveness against groups operating outside the law. Without ignoring the disastrous role of the guerrillas in Colombian violence, the work of human rights organizations, the Supreme Court, and several other judicial institutions have proven that politicians, public officials, and members of the armed forces have been complicit with the paramilitary organizations that bear a good deal of responsibility for the exile of more than 3.8 million people (1.4 million displaced in the last five years), innumerable murders and forced disappearances, resulting in the dispossession of thousands of hectares of land that today are in the hands of large landowners and major “legal” industries.

Given this situation, instead of being concerned with how to prolong the war, the military should focus on how to regain public confidence. That can only happen by removing all doubts about the thousands of cases of abuse of power and by defeating impunity and internal corruption.

The large number of military and former members of the military who have been brought to justice does not reflect the “persecution” of this powerful sector of society. Instead it reflects the enormous corruption that exists within the military. The perversion of functions of the armed forces slowly advanced as a result of an unclear and ill-defined internal conflict, reaching an extreme with the cases of “false positives.” In 2005 Ministerial directive No. 029 outlined the logic of “head hunting;” under the pretext of promoting efficiency in the struggle against the guerrillas, secret economic incentives were offered for every guerrilla taken out.

The world was horrified when it was revealed that indigent youth had been deceived with offers of legal or illegal employment and then murdered and disguised to make them appear to be enemy combatants. That is why “low morale” cannot simply be attributed to fear of possible legal actions resulting from military operations. It is also a consequence of the failure of some in the military. Rather than trust, they generated fear among the public they were sworn to defend.

The extent of the threat posed by the FARC has been overplayed to the extent that all those who disagree with a military solution to the country’s structural problems have been called “terrorist collaborators.” That has impeded the military from going after those in their ranks who, by their reproachable actions, do enormous damage to their legitimacy as representatives of the monopoly of force in a bureaucratic state. Some analyses of the Colombian armed conflict, based on academic theory more than facts, downplay the importance of the military as a power that inserts itself in the political agenda. Strengthening the military has not only facilitated the submission of the guerrillas, it has also made it possible for the military to impose conditions that are usually ignored in a country that boasts about its democracy.

Security, especially in regions where bloody disputes take place among drug trafficking and other gangs, is difficult to achieve from a perspective of the military defeat of problems that stem from exclusion, corruption, and drug trafficking. Closing the door on the peace process and clinging to a military defeat of the reduced numbers of guerrilla forces that hardly constitute the principal threat to public security, are grave errors. While those policies may benefit some sectors, they endanger the security and welfare of millions of Colombians.

At a time when the government of the United Sates proposes that Colombia be the regional “exporter of security,” we need to spend more time analyzing failures rather than success. We need to make sure that we do not continue to make the same mistakes, which in the case of Colombia, have been paid with human life.

Alex Sierra R. is an anthropologist who has also worked as an independent investigator and consultant on issues such as human rights and international cooperation efforts for development and public policy in Colombia. He has worked in active conflict zones and with vulnerable communities in his country for the last 12 years. He is a monthly columnist with the Americas Program


Translator: Barbara Belejack

Editor: Laura Carlsen




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