Petro and Colombia’s Armed Forces Are Heading for a Showdown

Petro and Colombia’s Armed Forces Are Heading for a Showdown
A police officer stands in front of a campaign sign for then-presidential candidate Gustavo Petro and his running mate Francia Marquez, Bogota, Colombia, May 25, 2022 (AP photo by Fernando Vergara).
Gustavo Petro, who once fought against the Colombian state as a member of the rebel group M-19, will become the first leftist president in the country’s modern history when he is inaugurated on Aug. 7. He has promised to make radical reforms to Colombia’s military and police forces, which have a checkered history of human rights abuses, corruption and even ties to criminal groups, immediately upon taking office. Petro himself admits the stakes are high, saying that if he fails to implement his vision, “darkness will ravage” any hope the country has at achieving real peace. But to effect the structural changes he has promised, Petro will need to overcome resistance not only from political opponents, but also from the military and police forces themselves, who view his past as a former guerrilla with deep suspicion. “A confrontation is inevitable,” said John Marulanda, a retired colonel and spokesmen for Acore, an association that represents retired military forces in Colombia, “between the ‘ex-terrorist’”—referring to Petro—“and the military command, who have seen first-hand what the guerillas have done to Colombia.” In 2016, Colombia signed a peace accord with the FARC rebel group, officially ending the country’s 52-year civil war. But other guerilla groups in the country, such as the ELN and some FARC splinter groups, never signed on. When the vast majority of FARC fighters disarmed and joined civil society, they left a power vacuum in FARC-controlled territories. In recent years, the ELN, FARC fighters that didn’t demobilize and a plethora of other armed criminal groups—including the Clan de Golfo, with origins in the paramilitary forces that fought on the side of the government during the civil war—swiftly moved in and grew in power. (The M-19 demobilized and became a political party in the late 1980s.) Petro won last month’s presidential election after running on a campaign platform that included fully implementing the 2016 peace deal, large aspects of which were delayed or dismantled by outgoing President Ivan Duque’s administration. He also promised new peace talks with other criminal armed groups, an end to the “War on Drugs” and sweeping reforms to police and military command structures. His proposals have sparked outrage among some in the military. Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro, Colombia’s highest-ranking officer and a strong critic of Petro during the election campaign, announced his resignation last week. And while the fears of Petro’s allies that military commanders might not recognize him as president have so far proven unfounded, an antagonistic relationship with Colombia’s security forces could well leave Petro’s plans for peace on the drawing board. It would also complicate his ability to rein in growing violence in rural areas currently racked by conflict. Petro’s plans for reforming the security forces include placing Colombia’s police, which currently operate under the Ministry of Defense and answer directly to the military chain of command, under civilian control within a newly created government department, the Ministry of Peace, Security and Coexistence. “The function of the army is defense and the function of the police is to protect rights and liberties,” he recently said in an interview explaining the plan. The same reform was recommended by the Office of the United Nations Human Rights Commission in its report last year after an investigation into police violence during national protests, in which more than 60 people were killed by security forces. The call was echoed by investigators from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights after a similar investigation during the same period.

An antagonistic relationship with Colombia’s security forces could leave Petro’s plans for peace on the drawing board and complicate his ability to rein in growing violence in rural areas.

“In a democracy, police cannot operate under a military mentality,” Silvia Serrano, a human rights lawyer and police reform advocate, told WPR. “Terms of engagement that apply to soldiers should not apply to a civil body that is in theory designed to protect the citizenry.” Petro’s reform plan would also place police officers accused of wrongdoing under the jurisdiction of civilian, rather than military courts. The latter have historically been very lenient toward security personnel and operate outside of public scrutiny. That, says Serrano, has “contributed to a cycle of impunity and a culture of human rights abuses.” Critics of the proposal, however, say that placing the police under the control of politicians risks politicizing their role. Some also fear that civilian trials will be used to punish security personnel who put their lives at risk to protect citizens. “Petro doesn’t understand the extreme challenges military forces face daily,” said Marulanda, the retired colonel. “And placing professional soldiers under the control of a politician, and making them vulnerable to often-politicized public trials, jeopardizes the entire military organization.” A reform of Colombia’s existing military and policing doctrine, which has its roots in Cold War frameworks as well as over half a century of civil war, is also on Petro’s agenda. Colombian police have been trained to seek out and exterminate an “internal enemy,” which they often conflate with civil society, Petro said on the campaign trail. “This doctrine must be made a thing of the past.” He has also promised to dismantle ESMAD, Colombia’s infamous riot police force, which became a focal point of protests demanding police reform after its personnel killed dozens and wounded hundreds of people during protests in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Finally, in an effort to combat systemic corruption among both police and military members, Petro has proposed increasing pensions for retired security personnel, scholarships for advanced education for those interested and mandatory retraining programs focused on upholding human rights. However, Petro could face challenges in enacting his reform agenda. Adriaan Alsema, the executive editor of Colombia Reports, outlined three factions competing for influence within the armed forces. The “Uribistas”—adherents of the hard-right political philosophy of former President Alvaro Uribe, who imposed aggressive military and security strategies during the civil war—“have been promoted into top positions across three administrations and hold considerable influence,” said Alsema. Those Alsema described as the “constitutionalists” may not like Petro, but they “consider the armed forces a professional body that must respect the office of the presidency.” And finally, there are personnel who are corrupt or “in the employ of right-wing paramilitary forces.” For Raul Musse Pencue, a retired admiral who supports dialogue with Petro, it’s no secret that the military is on the right of the political spectrum. “But the vast majority are also democrats,” he said. “We may not share Petro’s ideals, but he is about to become our president, and we are duty-bound to respect that.” But Pencue is just one of many voices in an internal debate within the armed forces over how to respond to what some see as a threat to those who work on the front lines of public security. And the situation is further complicated by systemic corruption within both the police and military that stretches back decades. “It is undeniable that [Colombia’s armed forces] are facing serious internal challenges,” Alfonso Manzur, a retired intelligence officer told WPR. “Many soldiers retire early to join mercenary forces where they can make more money. Others have been linked to narco-criminal groups or paramilitary forces.” The idea of an “internal enemy” is very entrenched within police and military ranks, he explained, which have been infiltrated by groups that have no interest in implementing Colombia’s peace deal. “It is possible that some of these forces may oppose Petro,” he continued, “and among both retired forces as well as reserve forces there has been talk of open resistance.” But Manzur views a coup attempt as highly unlikely, and he is even somewhat hopeful about the potential for reform, as he believes there are factions within the military that understand it is absolutely necessary and hope it gets implemented in a manner that improves the lives of those serving on the front lines. The United States, as Colombia’s closest ally and historical partner during both the civil war and throughout the militarized War on Drugs, is in a unique position to help Petro implement human rights reform in Colombia and encourage the faltering peace process. President Joe Biden, who as a senator was one of the architects of “Plan Colombia,” the controversial joint U.S.-Colombian counterinsurgency operation during the darkest period of Colombia’s civil war, would do well to work closely with Petro to repair the wounds of more than half a century of war. Doing so would go far to redeem a U.S. legacy that includes supporting military forces with a checkered human rights history. It is the Colombian military itself, however, that will need to find a way to work with Petro for the best interests of the country, if that is what they truly have in mind, says Issac Morales, an expert on organized crime at the Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation. For Morales, the “military forces have to be part of the solution” to the grave national security threats that the new president faces—which include the growing power of the illegal economy and its actors. These solutions must be achieved in a manner that is “compatible with democratic institutions and in defense of civil society,” Morales said. Petro seems intent on trying to do just that, but whether he finds a partner or an adversary in the armed forces remains to be seen.

Joshua Collins is a freelance journalist based in Bogota, focused on migration and violence. Follow him on Twitter at @InvisiblesMuros. Daniela Díaz is a journalist based in Bogota, Colombia, who focuses on women’s issues and the implementation of the country’s 2016 peace deal. She has previously been published by VICE News and NACLA, as well as a host of Colombian media companies.

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