Colombia’s police are already strategizing for the end of the country’s conflict with Marxist rebels, even as the task of combating the guerrillas is increasingly falling to the police instead of the military.
With talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) now almost a year old, General Jose Roberto Leon Riaño, who was director of the Colombian National Police until earlier this month, declared “the new model of service [for the police] is anticipating a post-conflict scenario, a scenario of peace.”
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon has acknowledged that whatever the results of the talks, citizen security will remain one of the country’s main challenges in years to come, and the government has already begun to implement plans to boost the strength of the police.
Among the measures highlighted by Pinzon was increasing the number of active police to a total of 25,000 by July 2014. With 10,000 officers already enlisted, the government is hoping to recruit the remaining 15,000 between December 2013 and June 2014. Other measures included increasing vehicle numbers, improving technology, and improving community outreach.
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The talks in Havana remain Colombia’s best chance of peace for some time and in many respects it is a positive sign that the Colombian police are preparing for a post-conflict Colombia. In the country’s last peace process — with the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) — the security forces were ill-prepared for the new underworld structures the demobilization created, and seven years later are still dealing with the fallout.
However, it remains a distinct possibility that the Colombian police are preparing for a peacetime Colombia that may never come. After nearly a year of negotiations, the talks in Havana have so far yielded agreement on one of the six points on the agenda — agrarian reform — and the signing of a final peace agreement remains a distant prospect. While the FARC have consistently refused to place a time limit on talks, President Juan Manuel Santos faces a looming political deadline with the 2014 presidential elections, which have the potential to become a de facto referendum on whether to continue with negotiations.
Whether or not the planned for post-conflict scenario arrives, the police may be better served focusing on the conflict as it is now, and will remain for some time yet. Increasingly, the police have found themselves at the heart of that conflict, as the task of combating the guerrillas moves away from the army.
This shift is because the FARC, squeezed by the army in rural areas, is increasingly turning to urban militia cells. The militias do not have the same military training as their rural counterparts but are a slippery target as they wear no uniforms and are camouflaged among the civilian population. In recent years, the guerrillas have been using the militias, and not the heavily armed and uniformed rural combatants, as their main offensive force, and they are now responsible for more attacks than the rural units. Reports suggest there are now approximately 30,000 urban militia members around the country compared to 8,000 rural fighters.
This evolution has left the army with ever fewer targets, while the police face the job of dismantling the increasingly prominent militia networks. The militias represent a distinct threat from common criminals and even from the organized crime groups the police are accustomed to confronting, and this challenge will require the police to adapt and not simply to rely on the reinforcements announced by the government.
The issue is one the police will likely have to confront for some years yet. If the FARC do sign a peace agreement, it is not clear how these militias would figure in the demobilization, and whether their members would receive the same recognition and demobilization benefits as the rural fighters. Unless this is resolved, it would increase the already distinct possibility that some of the militias may continue to operate, either as independent guerrilla cells or as criminal gangs.
By 2014, Colombia’s defense and police budget will reach $27.7 billion — accounting for the largest slice of the national budget. There is no doubt Colombia recognizes the end of the conflict with the guerrillas would not mean the end of its security problems, which will continue to plague the country for years to come. However, success for the security forces in tackling this depends not just on how much money is spent or how many recruits are added, but also on whether the police and the army can adapt to the new challenges thrown up by an ever evolving underworld.