Santos Reshuffles Military Hierarchy – War Continues
News from Colombia |
on: Thursday, 22 September 2011
Upon his election Santos spoke of holding the ‘key to peace’ raising hopes among many that his government might open a dialogue with guerrillas that could lead towards peace for a country that has not known it since the 1940s. However, the recent reshuffle of the military hierarchy indicates that the Colombian government is following the well trodden path of war and more war, ever seeking to deliver the elusive ‘final blow’ to the guerrillas.
Since 2000 Colombia has more than doubled its military expenditure, and by last year it was spending more of the national budget on defence (14.2%) than on education (13.9%). Colombian military spending topped $10 billion last year. In reality it is even higher if one includes defence related expenditures from other ministries. All this sustains an army of over 400,000, the largest in Latin America after that of Brazil, in its fight against the FARC and ELN guerrillas who are said to number less than 20,000.
Changes in the hierarchy
The reshuffle has seen Juan Carlos Pinzon, a Santos confidant and trusted aide, appointed as Minister of Defence, replacing Rodrigo Rivera - who is now going to be Ambassador to the European Union. Along with the change at the top of the Ministry a swathe of senior officers have been retired and new faces put in charge of the army, navy and airforce. Colombian media have portrayed the reshuffle as part of a new security strategy, emphasising the new Defence Minister’s ‘8 point plan’ and highlighting the martial qualities of the new heads of the armed forces. However, Voz, the opposition newspaper disputes the originality of the plan saying that these are “analyses that are very similar to those of the past.” The other side of the political spectrum shares this view, with Juan Carlos Velez, a member of Uribe’s “Party of the U” saying that they expect the new Minister to “look after the egg of Democratic Security” which is what Uribe called his military strategy.
According to critics the reshuffle is a political one rather than a strategic one. The basic strategy of the continuing and escalating militarisation of the conflict remains in place, bolstered by the $838 million USD that Santos has promised to allocate to the war. The reshuffle in fact relates to the political pressures placed on Santos by former President Uribe and his right wing followers. Uribe maintains close contact with the military command and was one of the foremost critics of the perceived failures in President Santos’ war strategy. The reshuffle also returned overall command of the military to the army, placing an army general at the top to replace Admiral Cely. Therefore, the changes are largely designed to protect Santos’ right flank from vociferous attacks by the most militaristic and uncompromising elements of the Colombian elite.
The changes also reflect the way in which military doctrine has changed over recent years, with an increasing blurring between the traditional military world and that of intelligence. The new top brass are all graduates of security and intelligence courses and it is expected by the government that they will help the armed forces change their operational methods to counter the FARC’s successful adaptations over the last few years. The expectation is that smaller commando units will now be guided by accurate intelligence and will deliver the anxiously awaited ‘final blow’.
Military and intelligence overlap
Meanwhile changes are also afoot in the intelligence sector, with a new centralised intelligence agency, the National Intelligence Centre (its acronym CNI is the same as that of Pinochet’s secret police in Chile) and a likely renaming or dissolution of the DAS intelligence agency. The DAS is under direct presidential control and is currently being rocked by scandals after it was revealed that it spied on enemies of the Uribe government, cooperated with paramilitaries and helped to have members of civil society assassinated. Jorge Noguera, a former Director of the Agency has just been sentenced to 24 years in prison for ordering these killings. However, it is unclear how the new agency will be different when its staff will be drawn from the old structures. It is therefore unlikely that the change of name will mean a change of attitude towards the political opposition.
Despite the high expectations of many in the media and in Colombian government circles it is also far from clear that throwing more money and reshuffling the military and intelligence services will land the ‘final blow’ on the FARC. There is a desperation to the claims that “we’re winning and we have to keep winning” as Santos stated in the inauguration of the new Defence Minister. A recent report on the war signalled that the war has in fact been increasing in intensity in many areas of the country over the last two years and also spoke of some army units suffering from exhaustion.
Since the 1990s the armed forces have often fought alongside drugs-funded paramilitary groups that did much of their dirty work for them. As one former general said, the paramilitaries were like the “mistress” of the army, a necessity, but one kept out of the public eye. Despite this and improved training and technology, the armed forces have failed to inflict a strategic defeat upon the guerrillas. Furthermore, despite claims that the paramilitaries have demobilised, it is clear from the constant stream of reports from Colombia that the armed forces continue to fight in cooperation with paramilitary groups. After so many years it must be wondered if they have indeed become a military necessity for the Colombian armed forces.
It is also clear from Colombian human rights organisations that many of the abuses being committed are occurring in the so-called “Consolidation” areas the army controls. As the recent report from the Arco Iris NGO stated, in “the Eastern Plains for example, what we observe with the Consolidation Plan is that as the armed forces displace the FARC, the men of the ERPAC paramilitaries take up position. In Cordoba some members of the armed forces seem one and the same as the paramilitaries.” This would suggest that rather than investing in these areas, and providing goods and services, in many areas of Colombia the state presence in effect provides paramilitaries with free reign – enforcing social control though violence. This is not how the government likes to view its counter-insurgency strategy and it flies in the face of government rhetoric of development in the Consolidated Areas. Meanwhile, governments come and go, the war escalates, more blood and treasure is wasted and the real roots of the conflict are ignored.
The need for peace
Colombian social organisations, including human rights organisations and trade unions, recently held a National Meeting for Land and Peace in Colombia where they reiterated the need for a peace process between the government and guerrillas. According to the meeting’s manifesto “it is evident that a military solution is at the top of the governmental agenda, owing to the mistaken concept of a ‘peace of winners and losers’.” This was rejected by the Meeting, which instead emphasised the need to address inequality and poverty, with “the explicit aim of promoting peace with social justice and a political solution to the social and armed conflict.”
It is clear that what Colombia really needs is not reshuffles in the military command, or changes in operational methods, but rather a reshuffle of the military mindset. After 60 years of violence in which millions of lives have been ruined it is clear that, as the Declaration of the National Meeting for Land and Peace stated, “A political solution is essential.”