All Change as Colombian Security Forces Try to Regain Initiative

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Colombia’s president has appointed a new defense minister, changed the entire military high command and promised an extra $550 million in defense spending. He wants, and needs, to retake the initiative from the country’s Marxist rebels and criminal gangs.

With the Marxist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) increasing their actions in many parts of the country, and directly threatening the key oil and energy industries, the Colombian government has been forced to act and announce an overhaul of security policy. The rebels are now conducting attacks in small units, more often than not in civilian clothing, and hiding among the civilian population, presenting fewer and fewer targets for an army still geared up for a traditional counterinsurgent war.

President Juan Manuel Santos’ choice for the new defense minister is no surprise. Juan Carlos Pinzon was his deputy when Santos was himself minister of defense in the second administration of President Alvaro Uribe. Upon taking office in August 2010, Santos made Pinzon one of his “gatekeepers” and go-to men. Pinzon has the president’s ear, has long helped to determine his thinking on defense matters, and has the trust of the military.

Pinzon’s orders from the president are “deal the final blow to the FARC” — much the same orders that every defense minister has received for the last 40 years. Pinzon will have the advantage of an extra $550 million injection into the defense budget, coming from the “Patrimony Tax,” which levies additional taxes on the country’s richest citizens and companies.

“I believe that these resources will result in another leap, a fundamental leap, in results so that this country can finally live in peace,” stated Santos as he inaugurated the new defense minister.

Pinzon will face his first challenge in October, when there are regional elections. Elections have traditionally been a period when the Marxist rebels flex their muscles and show they are still politically and militarily relevant. However, the new minister’s first action has been to implement sweeping changes in the leadership of all the different elements of the armed forces.

The promotion of General Alejandro Navas from the head of the army to commander-in-chief of the armed forces is a positive one. First of all it puts the army back in charge of the armed forces. The occupation of this position by a naval officer, Admiral Edgar Cely, had led to discontent in army ranks and a drop in coordination between the different elements of the security forces. General Navas is also perfectly equipped to implement the government’s new small unit strategy, having a special forces background, almost every major commendation available and the unwavering respect of the army rank-and-file.

The Colombian police have also seen a radical overhaul of their command structure, although the indispensable General Oscar Naranjo remains the National Police chief, with no obvious successor. One surprise was the retirement of General Cesar Augusto Pinzon, who has been responsible for some of the highest profile arrests and killings of drug traffickers in the last five years.

Part of the new injection of cash will go to the recruitment of another 20,000 policemen. More will go into the improvement of intelligence, to ensure Colombia’s limited resources are deployed in the right place and at the right time against the Marxist rebels and the new generation narco-paramilitary groups (called BACRIMs by the government).

Buried in all the shuffling of personnel is the appointment of the former head of the navy, Admiral Alvaro Echandia, to the Central Intelligence Agency, which will replace the discredited secret police of the Department of Administrative Security (DAS). It is still not clear when the DAS will be disbanded and the Central Intelligence Agency will take over responsibility for national intelligence.

President Santos enjoyes an 82 percent approval rating after his first year in office. However, should he fail to convince Colombians that security is improving rather than unravelling, those numbers will suffer. InSight Crime has also learned from sources within the presidential palace that the government is seeking to open back door channels with the FARC, with a view to exploring the possibilities of a peace dialogue. This is unlikely to be officially announced until late 2013, just in time for the presidential elections of 2014.

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