Although peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC rebels continue to move in the right direction, President Juan Manual Santos’ proposal to distance the police from the military could prove both premature and risky.
The president announced the proposal, which involves moving the national police from the Ministry of Defense to a new Ministry of Citizen Security focused on post-conflict threats, on April 28 while unveiling his political program for the next four years.
He said the new ministry would focus on both organized crime and “street crimes” like cellphone robbery and “express” kidnappings. In addition to housing the national police, this institution would likely oversee several other agencies including the disaster response unit (UNGRD) and the immigration authority (Migracion Colombia), although the composition of the ministry has yet to be finalized.
The president’s proposal is designed to improve the police’s capacity to combat public safety issues, which require a skill set and level of coordination with other government agencies Santos believes would be best developed outside the Ministry of Defense.
The proposal comes as talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) continue to gain momentum and as Santos is in full presidential campaign mode. The government and the FARC announced the third agreement of six proposed agenda items on May 16. Presidential elections, meanwhile, are May 25.
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The creation of a Ministry of Citizen Security has been the subject of intense debate since Santos first floated the idea in July 2013. Although moving the police to a new ministry reflects a regional trend towards prioritizing citizen security, critics question whether or not this is the best course of action for Colombia.
The Colombian police are the only police force in Latin America that answers to a ministry of defense, a system of organization that reflects the nature of the country’s security threats.
Over the past sixty years, the police’s institutional proximity to the armed forces has proved useful in combatting both guerrilla groups and drug trafficking organizations. In 2002, for example, the police worked alongside the military to drive the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) out of Medellin.
Militarized police forces like Comando JUNGLA have also collaborated with other security agencies to capture drug traffickers like Daniel Rendon Herrera, alias “Don Mario.” As the FARC has increasingly relied on urban militias, which are now responsible for more attacks than their rural counterparts, police intervention in the armed conflict remains critical.
While the police will undoubtedly need to adjust to a different security landscape if and when a peace agreement is reached, the post-conflict era remains a hypothetical situation. After a year and a half of negotiations, the FARC and the Colombian government have reached agreements on three of the six points on the agenda. Even if they sign a peace treaty, elements of the FARC will likely criminalize and continue profiting from the illegal activities that currently finance their insurgency.
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In addition to being premature, moving the police to a new ministry within the immediate future could also be risky, as the period of readjustment within Colombia’s institutions would coincide with a possible increase in crime and the emergence of new security threats. When the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) demobilized in 2006, for example, many former paramilitaries converted into criminal groups that the government denominated BACRIM (from the Spanish abbreviation of “criminal bands”).
Jairo Delgado, a retired police general and former director of the national police intelligence office (DIPOL) says moving the police to a new ministry will create a climate of uncertainty and logistical confusion badly timed for a post-conflict period. He thinks the government should wait to see what types of issues emerge once the FARC demobilizes, since security forces will likely continue to face the current threats of drug trafficking and organized crime — threats he says the police are already well trained to combat — over the next five years.
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However, others are for the move. Maria Victoria Llorente, the director of the Bogota-based think tank Fundacion Ideas para la Paz (FIP), which has numerous projects that study police action closely, believes the police cannot adequately address citizen security issues within the Ministry of Defense.
“[In this ministry] they aren’t opening a space to develop a citizen security policy, because what they’re developing is a plan for war,” she explained.
For Llorente, citizen security requires a different mindset as well as different skills and tools. But if a focus on citizen security is the ultimate goal, moving the police out of the Ministry of Defense may not be necessary to enact reforms — at least not over the short term.
The police have managed to develop a variety of citizen security initiatives over the past twenty years from within the Ministry of Defense, including programs that foster collaboration between police and local governments and “Plan Cuadrantes” in urban areas, which establishes a police presence in every sector of the country’s major cities.
Moving the police into a new ministry also exposes this force to a different type of politicization, which would require some adjustment. In El Salvador, a country that is also grappling with high levels of drug trafficking and organized crime, authorities transferred the national police to a new Ministry of the Interior and Public Security after the government signed a peace agreement with the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in 1992. According to an investigation (pdf) conducted fifteen years after the transition, the new structure proved an impediment to fighting crime because the ministry largely directed the police according to its political goals, rather than security dynamics.
Whether it stays under the purview of the armed forces or moves under a civilian umbrella, the police will have to increase their efficiency and establish more trust with the population. According to the Organization of American States, Colombians report less than 30 percent of armed robberies to the police, which indicates a belief that reporting crimes is futile.