The war against the assassinations, kidnappings and armed insurgency that have plagued Colombia for decades is being decisively won, after dealing massive damage to the country’s economic development and international reputation. As a result, spending on military and police forces is high. According to the UN’s Development Programme, in 2010 Colombia spent 4.5% of its GDP on security, significantly more than regional neighbours such as Panama (2.9%) and Costa Rica (2.5%). Indeed, security spending has been augmented by aid from the US over the past 15 years.
ONGOING CHALLENGES: However, over the past five years the government’s crackdown on guerrilla forces and criminal gangs is having tangible effects on improving security. Like many capital cities around the world, Bogotá is not a wholly safe destination, given that catching a cab on a capital street still carries the risk of an “express” robbery, referred to as el paseo Álvaro Uribe in 2002 demonstrated exactly how aggressive the government’s newfound resolve in eliminating insurgent movements would become.
Serving consecutive terms as president from 2002 to 2010, Uribe’s government launched numerous attacks on the FARC including the controversial killing of their high-ranking leader Raúl Reyes in Ecuador in 2008, the rescue of 15 hostages (including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt) the same year, the killing of FARC military commander Jorge Briceño in 2010, and the killing of FARC leader Alfonso Cano in 2011.
The election of Juan Manuel Santos as president in 2010 marked another significant shift, as despite having served under Uribe as minister of defence, President Santos has chosen to open communication lines between the government and FARC leaders, drawing the ire of his predecessor as a consequence. However, Uribe’s hard-line “do not negotiate with terrorists” stance against the FARC appears disingenuous given his government’s repeated dialogues with the ELN.
NEGOTIATIONS: In 2012 the FARC made significant concessions in order to make dialogue with the government a possibility. Most importantly it announced the abandonment of kidnapping for ransom, a significant revenue source for FARC. In October 2012 the FARC and the government entered into negotiations once again with the ultimate goal of disarmament.
Given the organisation’s stated mission to overthrow the government and install a communist system, negotiations between the government and the FARC have rarely achieved much. Even so, some (admittedly mainly opposition figures) within government have gone as far as to indicate the potential for FARC members to participate in the 2014 congressional and 2015 municipal elections. In addition to laying down arms – the principal goal – the government will likely be seeking criminal punishment for some FARC members for crimes against humanity, and compensation for victims.
POLICE REFORM: Colombia’s National Police Force, which serves under the Ministry of Defence (MoD), has seen several reforms over the past five years, which have changed the way the country is policed in a positive way. Indeed, an increased focus on providing basic social services and better security for citizens in need has been established to win over the hearts and minds of the public. As a result, policing in urban areas has seen an improvement in security and in particular intelligence gathering, as the police force has begun to use civilian informants as their eyes and ears in the search for drug traffickers and guerrillas. While a job far from complete, these tactics have allowed the police to create much more secure urban environments.
BY THE NUMBERS: Common homicides have decreased each year since 2002, halving from 28,837 in 2002 to 14,746 in 2011. The decrease in kidnappings has been even more rigorous, falling from 2882 to 305 during the same time period, though they have increased marginally from 2009 to 2011. Incidents of terrorism similarly decreased from 1645 to 564 in that time. Although they have also seen minor increases in recent years, the level is still nowhere near as high as a decade ago.
Explosive attacks on transportation and extractive industry infrastructure, a common tactic employed by the FARC, have also been significantly reduced, though assaults against oil and gas pipelines more than doubled from 31 in 2010 to 84 in 2011. Statistics also seem to reflect lower levels of violence and combat in the past few years as the MoD reports fatalities of combatants of illegally-armed groups have fallen from its peak in 2006 of 2165 to 362 in 2011. The assassination of military forces, which reached its 10-year peak at 528 in 2005, was down to 350 in 2011. Police force assassinations also peaked in 2005 with 189, before dropping sharply to 85 in 2008.
However, 2011 once again registered triple digits with 133 MoD-confirmed police killings. In the war on drugs, the annual capture and confiscation of cocaine continues to rise, registering 95,387 kg in 2002, but hasn’t fallen below 150,000 kg since 2007. In 2011 authorities managed 155,275 kg, while growth in the capture and destruction of coca plantations was similar (371,196 kg in 2002 to 1.02m kg in 2011).
CHALLENGES: The primary challenge in eliminating internal threats from rebellious movements is fostering sustainable development in rural areas. Legislation and federal social programmes, such as the redistribution of royalties from the extractive industries or the construction of low-cost housing for the poor, aimed at reducing inequality in rural areas, will be key to creating prosperous future alternatives for any potential FARC, ELN, smaller groups such as Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación), or criminal organisation recruit. With so much of Colombia’s future dependent on creating and sustaining a secure environment for economic growth and prosperity, a great deal hinges on negotiations with the FARC, and much is riding on a successful conclusion to the talks in Cuba.
However, given the battered morale and diminished manpower of the insurgents, added to a strong government determination to bring peace to the country, a deal could perhaps be reached in the near future.