Colombia Unveils Plan to End Conflict by 2014

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Colombia has announced a new security plan which aims to wipe out guerrilla groups and emerging drug gangs by 2014. Despite the fanfare, the plan is more of the same and signals no real change in the government’s security policies.

The plan, named the Comprehensive Policy on Security and Defence for Prosperity, sets out the government’s security aims for President Juan Manuel Santos’ (first) term in office, 2010-2014.

Introducing the plan, the government set itself the ambitious task of “ending the cycle of violence that has been prolonged now for 47 years.” Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera told the press that this government is the first that can realistically seek to rid the country of its illegal armed groups.

According to Rivera, guerrillas and emerging criminal groups, known as BACRIM (‘bandas criminales’ or criminal gangs), will not exist as a threat in Colombia by 2014. The authorities aim to completely dismantle these forces, reduce the murder rate from 35 to 24 per 100,000 inhabitants, and decrease the area under illegal crops from 59,000 down to 30,000 hectares by the end of Santos’ term.

The government has billed the plan as a mixture of change and continuity with what has gone before, namely the policies of previous President Alvaro Uribe. The two-term leader oversaw a dramatic improvement in Colombia’s security, with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) numbers dropping by half. The first phase of the security push, which governed policy from 2002-2006, was known as the Democratic Security Policy. This involved the roll-out of military presence across neglected areas of the country, driving out illegal armed groups and destroying drug crops with the help of massive sums of U.S. aid money. The second phase, the Consolidation of Democratic Security, began in Uribe’s second term (2006-2010). It was intended to consolidate and build on military gains made by the armed forces, by bringing state institutions to supposedly newly secure zones in parts of the country where there has historically been little government presence.

The aim was to drive economic development, build institutions, and win the “hearts and minds” of people in these areas so that they would support the government rather than illegal groups.

Santos’ security policy seems to follow this model. Both plans distinguish three types of zones, designated as red, yellow and green. In the red zones, under both plans, military force is still needed to expel armed groups. The yellow zones are transitional areas, where the immediate security threats have been overcome and the police force can takes charge of security, while in the green zones the military will mostly withdraw, and the focus will be on expanding the presence of state bodies and improving public services. The new plan appears in large part to be an extension of the previous consolidation program, but with even more emphasis on the “soft” aspects of security, like counterinsurgency work and state building, as opposed to military action.

The new plan sets out to adapt security policy to the changing face of Colombia’s conflict. It states that illegal armed groups are now more fragmented than in the past, with rebel groups reverting to traditional guerrilla tactics and avoiding confrontations with the armed forces. Likewise the BACRIM are made up of small gangs, with few connections between different groups, or between their branches in different parts of the country. This calls for a new, more locally-focused approach to security, according to the plan.

One aspect of the evolution in the conflict, and a product of the improved security situation, is that the government is now free to devote more attention to common and small-scale crimes like micro-trafficking of drugs, and micro-extortion. The plan says it will attack this kind of activity head-on and break up the structures behind it.

The government’s policy document is light on detail — it does not set out, for example, policies for specific zones of the country. This makes it difficult to tell exactly what substantive changes will take place, and where. It does include a map (see below) of areas of the country marked as red, yellow, and green, showing how the security situation has improved since 2004. This may give an indication of which parts of the country will be prioritized.

But the document does set out in great detail the ideas behind the plan. It aims to bring military action into closer coordination with action carried out by other branches of the state, with social development as a focus. This signals a new emphasis rather than a departure from previous policy. The Consolidation Plan was based around this idea, and even the Democratic Security Policy contained some elements of it. Although Democratic Security has been widely criticized for its overemphasis on military security at the expense of human development, it also contained ideas about trust-building and governance. “Security is not principally coercion: it is the permanent and effective presence of democratic authority in the territory … Security cannot be achieved with the work of the security forces alone,” the policy document stated.

Behind the Democratic Security plan also lay ambitions to bring the conflict to a close. “We want to end this war, not to diminish its intensity,” said then-Defense Minister Marta Lucia Ramirez when the policy was formally presented in 2003.

Colombia’s government has been trying for some time to institute broader development programs in conflict-hit areas. This has met with varying degrees of success, and the shortcomings of the Consolidation Policy have been criticized. Figures quoted in newspaper El Tiempo say that a third of all displacements and half of all massacres in 2010 took place in the specially designated consolidation zones, highlighting drastic failures of the zones to bring about lasting security. An April 2011 report by the Washington-based NGO Just the Facts said that while the zones had seen some successes in terms of reducing drug production and improving security, in many areas the military remained in charge of providing various services to civilians even after the initial stage was over, with civilian bodies slow to arrive. The think tank warned that the program’s “admirable goals” were difficult to achieve in reality.

Santos’ new plan is not a departure from previous government policies, and indeed this is to be expected, given his close connection with them as defense minister from 2006-2009. However, it does signal a renewed commitment to bring about long-promised human development in neglected areas, as well as to take on armed groups. Its emphasis on building up state presence in zones where this has traditionally been lacking, and driving economic development, could go further towards answering some of the criticisms leveled at Colombia’s security programs over the last decade.

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