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Analysis file

, 2009

Limited Security Sector Reform in Colombia

This article is part of a book named « Security Sector Reform in Challenging Environments » (*).

Keywords: | | | | |


Colombia is the only South American country that is experiencing an ongoing internal conflict and has a very specific security policy aimed at achieving permanent state control over the entire territory of the country as well as ending the production and trafficking of drugs. The Colombian military and police forces (the second largest in the region after Brazil) spend 3.5 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and define their respective missions very differently from the way that security organisations in post-conflict societies do. Indeed, it is by no means clear whether the concept of security sector reform (SSR) is at all applicable to the Colombian case or how such reforms should be implemented and their ‘success’ could be measured, since the concept has only fleetingly been mentioned in the otherwise very lively academic and policy debate about security issues in the country. The question of the applicability of the general concept of SSR becomes further complicated by the overwhelming influence of the United States (US) as the principal external actor furthering and conditioning the limited SSR in Colombia according to its own domestic and international interests and priorities without specifically referring to the concept as such. The SSR process under way in Colombia since 1989 can only be viewed as being limited, as it has primarily been concentrated on achieving a modernisation of the security sector with the sole intention of improving the presence and security of the state and reducing the role of non-state armed actors in the country. By reviewing the national security challenges and institutional characteristics as well as the reform characteristics and objectives, the very specific and complex interaction between security and governance concepts in Colombia will become more transparent.

I. A Long History of Violence and Internal Conflict

Colombia’s five decades of active armed conflict – beginning with the violent uprising in Bogotá in 1948, known as Bogotazo – involving various guerrilla and paramilitary groups within a weak state and without effective state control over parts of its vast territory have elevated the security issue to become the dominant policy problem for Colombian society (1).

Every government in power during the decades following the Bogotazo has promised and intended to end the conflict and pacify the country by applying a wide variety of methods and instruments, but without any noticeable success. Moreover, until today it has not beenpossible to reach a consensus within the society about the form the pacification process should take (2).

By 1999 the Clinton administration considered Colombia to be a serious risk for US security (3), and in the years thereafter it became a showcase for drug-related military aid under the title Plan Colombia (4).

While this extensive US military aid programme – at the time the third most important one worldwide and the fifth since 2002, when only Iraq, Israel, Egypt and Afghanistan received more assistance (5) – and the election of Álvaro Uribe (2002) with his programme of extending the role of the armed forces in internal security under the concept of Seguridad Democrática (Democratic Security – since 2003 developed in the Democratic Security Policy) (6) have not brought about an end to the internal conflict, both programmes have certainly improved the presence of the state and the general security situation in the country, not only by reforming but also by increasing and modernising Colombia’s military and police forces.

In Colombia, the programmes undertaken to ensure civil control of the military and achieve strategic and administrative reforms within the armed forces have not been driven by the need to accomplish a more effective system for human security and democratic governance, but mainly to complete and guarantee the presence of the state in the entire territory and to ensure its capacity to respond to the increasing violence by illegal groups upholding a minimum of democratic governance. That overriding political objective resulted in the various reforms within the security sector having quite different characteristics and intentions than those in other Latin American countries (7), where the transition from military or at least authoritarian rule to democratic governments was accompanied by greater transparency in civil-military relations. Even though Colombia has been considered an established democracy, the security-related activities in response to the long-lasting internal conflict have by no means always followed democratic procedures. Not only human rights violations but also Limited Security Sector Reform in Colombia (9) massacres and extra-judicial killings have been attributed to the armed forces of Colombia, since civilian control has often been not sufficient (9).

This civilian control has only consisted of the presence of some civilians in the Ministry of Defence, a very strong command from the presidential palace (10) and the lack of any parliamentary oversight. Such control was frequently considered by the members of Congress to be politically inopportune, because the ongoing conflict – referred to by some as ‘civil war’ – made it necessary for the government in power to demonstrate a great deal of confidence in the actions of the armed forces, since ‘winning the war’ appeared to be the only government priority.

In many countries SSR was considered an important instrument in a post-conflict situation to assist in the reconstruction of a state emerging from a violent conflict; however, in Colombia some elements of SSR have been considered a sheer necessity to enable the state to put an end to the conflict. Essentially, military reform by modernisation, strengthening and material capacity-building was the principal issue of limited SSR in Colombia (11).

The increase of the capacity of the insurgent forces and in the intensity of the internal conflict made such a military reform absolutely necessary in the eyes of the political establishment. At the same time it was felt that any serious reform, including the modernisation and restructuring of the armed forces, the ‘professionalisation’ of the soldiers, the promotion and protection of human rights to improve the tarnished image of the military and the development of an effective anti-narcotics strategy (12), was unlikely to be achieved without external help (13), Ownership of these parts of the SSR could be claimed by Colombia even though the implementation was greatly influenced by the US, in part because the American concept of military modernisation included other elements which were imposed during the years of close cooperation with the Colombian government. Stronger civilian oversight and increasing accountability with regard to respecting human rights were certainly among them. The specific Colombian characteristics explain why there was so little domestic discussion about the necessity for SSR, since the entire political discourse by the government as well as the opposition was dominated by the need to redefine the appropriate role of the armed forces, including police and intelligence, in the ongoing conflict. The principal aim, at least during the last decade, was to make the armed forces stronger and more efficient but not necessarily more receptive to democratic governance and human security, even though a great deal of public relations efforts were made to demonstrate just that. In that respect the core components of SSR, as defined by Heiner Hänggi (14), have only been applied by the Colombian government to a very limited extent. In particular, accountability to the citizens and parliamentarian oversight have not been implemented. Historically, such decisive internal conflict situations tend to produce clear-cut conceptions of the enemy within the political and military establishment. In Colombia, it additionally contributed to the polarisation of the entire political spectrum and created a situation which was hardly conducive to pursuing wide ranging reforms of the security sector but contributed to large popular support for strengthening it (15).

The applicability of the general concept of SSR in the Colombian case cannot only be questioned because of the decisive fact that the range of reform steps had to be taken during an ongoing conflict within the country, but also because of a rather limited multi-sectoral approach in this specific SSR concept and implementation. Defence, intelligence, policing, financial management, disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (of members of paramilitary groups) with varying intensity and coherence have been successive parts of it, while justice reform, the involvement of civil society and increasing civilian oversight have been notably absent or have only been included in part upon US insistence. In that respect, the widespread criticism voiced by civil society of the ‘internationalisation’ of the internal conflict brought about by Plan Colombia (16) underestimated the positive side-effect of the US assistance conditions strengthening the role of Colombian civil society in the SSR policy debate.

If one turns one’s attention to core security actors of SSR in particular, the Colombian case demonstrates once more that most of the reforms have been dominated by the need to increase the effectiveness of the state in fighting the internal conflict, but not necessarily to improve democratic governance. For that very reason, defence spending has nearly doubled since 2002, while intelligence gathering has not only been extended with regard to technical sophistication but also in terms of human participation, through the creation of a very extensive group of paid informers. Also, policing has become more not less militarised, to broaden the capacity of the police to support the armed forces in their fight against illegal groups and also to extend their presence in previously not yet ‘liberated’ parts of the country.

Additionally, the accountability and transparency of the financial management within the armed forces have certainly advanced, but mainly as a result of the need to demonstrate such improvements to the external donor, the US.

The disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), the powerful federation of different regional paramilitary groups, had become a political necessity for the Uribe government to allow for the concentration of all military efforts to Limited Security Sector Reform in Colombia fight the guerrilla groups Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), and to gain, both internally and externally, additional legitimacy for the armed forces, along with reducing the extreme violence for which the AUC members had become known and dismantling their decisive impact on drug trafficking. Since the armed forces had been accused of frequent collaboration with the AUC members, who confessed to fighting the guerrillas and participating in the drug trade but were not considered ‘enemies’ of the state by the military and the major part of the political establishment, the Uribe government decided to exclude these ‘private armies’ from the government’s fight against the guerrilla groups, in spite of the political support it received from politicians allied with the AUC in Congress. On the other hand, for 32,000 AUC members the DDR process between 2003 and 2006 also served to demonstrate the willingness of the government to negotiate with the parties in the internal conflict, as the same process was offered to the ELN and FARC if they laid down their arms – only, in the eyes of many observers from civil society, the AUC was not an enemy of the political and economic establishment of Colombia but rather a ‘criminal’ part of it.

The civil society in Colombia has been very active, mainly as a voice of opposition against the consequences of the internal conflict, human rights violations, lack of justice and forced displacement, which have affected almost 10 per cent of Colombia’s population over the 20 years of continuous paramilitary activity (1986–2006) and have thereby contributed to the creation of the second largest group of internal refugees worldwide (circa 3 million). The absence of an effective and powerful political opposition in the country, partly attributed to the political space claimed by the guerrilla forces, has turned the civil society, at least since the beginning of the Uribe government in 2002, into an important actor on the national scene but certainly not into a possible partner in any SSR process of the current dimensions and limitations for a government convinced it must end the internal conflict militarily. Although the current format of a limited ‘SSR’ has been very successful from the government’s point of view after the DDR of the politically organised paramilitary groups of the AUC and the weakening of the military capacity of the main guerrilla group FARC, recent discussions in Colombia are focusing upon the possible long-term effects of SSR for civil-military relations and the most likely position of the armed forces after the end of the internal conflict, at least in its present form. Discussions are beginning to take place within the military establishment with regard to the necessary reform process to diminish the size of the military and police forces from the current 430,000 members and also what their mission should be (17).

A new draft defence bill was submitted to Congress in 2009 (for the first time since 2002, when the previous bill was thrown out for procedural reasons by the Supreme Court for being unconstitutional) (18) with little chance of becoming a law before the next presidential election in 2010. The preparation of the bill has demonstrated the willingness of the government to improve civilian oversight, since the various drafts of the law have been discussed not only with the military but also with academic specialists and previous civilian functionaries in the defence ministry, but without considering a public debate. Given the rapidly changing nature of the internal conflict in Colombia, it could be feasible that a ‘classic SSR’ may become necessary and even politically acceptable in the years to come. Such a future SSR of wide scope and more substance than the current Colombian version might look more like the SSR applied in other post-conflict societies, including the possible separation of functions and political responsibilities for military and police institutions.

II. From ‘Plan Colombia’ to the ‘Democratic Security Policy’

Given the specific conditions of an internal conflict of increasing intensity and the growing importance of drug production and trafficking, which in turn impacted upon the conflict, by the end of the 1990s the reform of the military had come to be seen as a major political and strategic necessity in Colombia. Specific police scandals discovered and widely discussed by the media, mainly related to human rights violations and corruption resulting from their new role in the war on drugs, had led to various reform measures for the police (19) and other elements of the military establishment in previous years. However, the most important effort began in 1999 with Plan Colombia (20), when the US, as a major donor, became the principal external actor in planning, implementing and to certain extent also controlling the SSR in the country; the Colombian institutions appeared to have had no role at all in the creation and implementation of this plan, since the public were never consulted and the plan itself was first presented in the US. (21)

Plan Colombia was, in many respects, a reflection of the domestic and international interests of both governments, even though it was not originally conceived as the cornerstone of a Colombia-US alliance against drug production and trafficking and the rise of guerrilla warfare. President Andrés Pastrana (1998–2002) had originally presented it as an international support Limited Security Sector Reform in Colombia plan (modelled after the former Marshall Plan) for peace talks to end the internal conflict and substantial economic assistance to overcome the drug-related development problems of the country, envisioning US$7.5 billion for the 1999–2002 period, of which 35 per cent was supposed to be covered by international aid. The original structure of Plan Colombia, developed by some members of the National Planning Office of Colombia and selected US experts, reflected those intentions.

Plan Colombia essentially consisted of four pillars:

  • Anti-narcotics strategy;

  • Economic and social recuperation;

  • Institutional strengthening and social development;

  • Negotiation of the armed conflict. (22)

Even though there was a certain political willingness by some European governments to support the negotiation part of Plan Colombia, there was much less willingness to facilitate the improvement of the military capacity of the Colombian armed forces or to provide substantial investments in the economic and social infrastructure of the country, especially since the plan was presented to them by the Pastrana government only after the agreement with the US had already been concluded.

Since the US administration felt threatened by the increased flow of drugs into the United States and was equally fearful of increasing guerrilla activity in the Andes (23), Plan Colombia was seen as a most efficient instrument to meet these domestic and international challenges. Between 1999 and 2009 Colombia received about US$5 billion in support of military and security reforms, which was considered by the US as a major SSR investment. The administration therefore lost no opportunity in the public debate in the US, as well as in Colombia, to stress the effect of SSR upon the reform of human rights practices, the support for the justice system and the inclusion of civil society in Plan Colombia, while it was in public much less forthcoming about the delivery of expensive hardware in support of strengthening the operating capacity of the armed forces.

Plan Colombia became the principal topic of domestic political discussion during the Pastrana government, since it was seen by the opposition as well as a large part of the civil society and their international supporters as a form of ‘militarisation’ of the national strategy dealing with the internal conflict. This militarisation became especially obvious after 2001, when 99.4 per cent of the assigned US assistance constituted the military component; this stabilised at around 80 per cent in the following years and only reached 65 per cent in 2008 (24).

At the same time, the Pastrana government made a major effort not only to strengthen the capacity of the armed forces to fight the guerrillas but also to develop a negotiating strategy for ending the internal conflict. Moreover, it went further than any previous government in creating the necessary conditions for peace talks with the FARC by accepting the creation of a zona de despeje (demilitarised zone, DZ), which in terms of surface area was of a similar size to Switzerland, to facilitate regular peace talks at different levels, including civil society and diplomatic participation. No internal consensus was reached with regard to the type of concessions which should be granted to the FARC should it be willing not only to accept a cease-fire but also to enter into a process of disarmament and reintegration into Colombian society. The guerrilla forces, meanwhile, used the DZ for their own military and economic advantage, and opted thereby for an intensification of the internal conflict. The FARC also established its own form of authoritarian governance over the population living in the DZ, which was hardly considered democratic by the rest of the country and contributed to an even greater decline in the very limited political support for the insurgents.

The disastrous end of that experiment with peace negotiations not only strengthened the role of the military – which had been most sceptical about that process right from the very beginning – but also paved the way for the election of Álvaro Uribe, who had already made it very clear during his campaign that he was in favour of abandoning the strategy of political and peace negotiations with insurgent forces. He wanted to substitute this policy with a new strategy to recover the entire national territory from the control of the irregular forces and to demonstrate through military action the clear capacity of the state to ensure the security of the entire population. This action would, he believed, deny the guerrillas, as well as the paramilitary groups, any access to economic benefits through drug trafficking and kidnapping.

While the Pastrana government had, within the context of Plan Colombia, already begun to strengthen the armed forces by increasing their size and equipment considerably (25), it had also essentially left security matters to the military themselves (26).

The presidential candidate Álvaro Uribe envisioned instead a security-oriented state with strong counterinsurgency efforts based upon a strategy which would include not only the military and public functionaries in establishing security but the entire population supporting the efforts of the state (27).

But it was not only the failure of the Limited Security Sector Reform in Colombia peace negotiations and the change of government which had a decisive effect upon the implementation of Plan Colombia – a quite similar essential impact came from the change in the global US security strategy after the events of 11 September 2001. The focus of SSR was very rapidly narrowed to implement effective anti-narcotics and anti-terrorism strategies and to deal especially within the country with those regions and parts of the population affected by one or both illegal activities. From the US view the SSR, financed to a large degree through funds of Plan Colombia, was to enable above all the armed forces to extend their control over the entire territory of the country, and thereby practically to reduce the production and trafficking of drugs and any guerrilla activity. Part of this strategy was the intention that the overall improvement of security in the country would soon after impact positively upon the investment climate and the development of good governance. The burden of success was thus placed upon the effectiveness of an all-out security strategy implemented not only by the military and the police, but rather by all state institutions.

The Democratic Security Policy (DSP) announced by President Álvaro Uribe in 2003 (28) met all the characteristics of such a strategy and could be labelled as a further militarised version of the original Plan Colombia of the Pastrana government. Because of the involvement of US advisers in the formulation of the DSP, some observers have concluded that the SSR in Colombia has been driven more by foreign policy objectives than by national policy debate. Whatever the osmotic connection between Plan Colombia, as accepted and largely financed by the US, and the DSP of President Uribe might have been, there can be no doubt about the parallels in strategic thinking and political motivation. The DSP has become the central focus of President Uribe’s government programme, and must be considered by far the dominant policy issue in Colombia. The undoubted success in recovering the security situation in a partially failing state has made Álvaro Uribe a most popular president, not only in his own country but also among its peers in South America. Nevertheless, the same policy has generated continuous criticism from the internal opposition and civil society in Colombia, as well as from some actors in the international community, with regard to the political, economic, social and human costs of its implementation. Aside from the continuous increase in the displacement of the population, the large number of extra-judicial killings committed by the armed forces, which were denounced by the United Nations as a systematic policy (29), and the wiretapping of opposition politicians and members of the judiciary have contributed to open and increasing criticism of the DSP.

In contrast to previous SSR efforts in Colombia, the DSP was designed from the beginning of the Uribe government as a coherent strategy to include all military and economic as well as all legal and bureaucratic capacity of the ‘democratic’ state. It was formulated by Colombian and US experts and directly launched by President Uribe on 21 June 2003. The strategic objectives, which are at the same time the principal priorities of the Uribe government, have been clearly defined as:

  • The consolidation of state control of the entire territory;

  • The protection of the population through an increase in the state presence and the reduction of violence;

  • The elimination of the illegal drugs trade in Colombia;

  • The maintenance of a military deterrent capability;

  • The efficient and transparent management of resources.

Contrary to Plan Colombia, the DSP does not include economic or social development goals or any strategy of negotiations to end the internal conflict, but it continues the military objectives of Plan Colombia and foresees additional national financing for the modernisation of the military.

A number of institutional reforms have been carried out to implement these strategic objectives. The most important new body created was the Consejo de Seguridad y Defensa Nacional, chaired by the president and serving as the coordinating institution for all state activities related to the DSP. A joint intelligence committee was also established to increase intelligence capacity and unify the concepts of the different civilian and military intelligence agencies. Other significant but less formal innovations to bolster the efficiency of the armed forces have been the creation of a network of more than a million informants and civilian collaborators, who are paid to provide information about the insurgents; the organisation of groups of ‘support soldiers’ who would be stationed in their home communities and thereby increase military presence in rural areas; and the extension of a variety of police powers to the military with neither judicial approval nor oversight (30).

These less formal decisions to strengthen the capacity of the armed forces, which ran totally counter to the ‘classic’ SSR objectives, were confronted with severe criticism about their likely negative impact upon due process and civil liberties from various civil society institutions and independent lawyers. This public debate was key for the increasing ideological polarisation between many NGOs and the Uribe government.

III. From the Demobilisation of the AUC to the ‘Democratic Security Consolidation Policy’

The main point of disagreement between large parts of the opposition, civil society and the Uribe government developed because of the first of the AUC’s DDR measures in 2003. In December 2002 the AUC had declared a unilateral cease-fire and thus met the conditions that President Uribe had set for formal peace talks with the government. In July 2003 the peace talks were officially opened and the AUC promised to demobilise all its members by December 2005. At that time the membership was estimated at between 15,000 and 20,000 paramilitaries. By the time the demobilisation came to an end, some 32,000 ‘self-declared’ members of the AUC had taken advantage of the Ley de Justicia y Paz (Ley 975 of 2005), the Justice and Peace Law, which foresaw the dismantlement of paramilitary structures; it offered monthly payments and various integration schemes, as well as the option to collaborate with the process and thereby avoid extradition to the US in cases where serious drug-related crimes had been committed. This law stipulated not only the disarmament and imprisonment of the AUC leaders, but also a general withdrawal of all paramilitary forces from the armed conflict and the loss of their economic and political influence through local political élites, who had collaborated with and benefited from the paramilitary forces. A great deal of discussion evolved about the political usefulness of DDR for the government and the need for justice, which should be reached by due legal process for the victims (31).

While the government emphasised the enormous advantages of the AUC demobilisation, there was less enthusiasm within the population about the process, since it seemed much too lenient towards the human rights violators from the AUC and too restrictive in facilitating the reparations and rights of the victims. Additionally, the public fear of the possible regrouping of former members of the AUC in new criminal organisations was very well founded. A new generation of criminal groups appeared after 2006 (32), and by 2009 there were an estimated over 10,000 irregulars, distributed in 102 groups and active in 246 municipalities, consisting of not only demobilised but also reintegrated members of the paramilitaries, plus former members of the guerrilla groups (33).

Politically this demobilisation process was used by the Uribe government as an argument to demonstrate its willingness to follow through with peace processes in an ongoing conflict situation (34). Moreover, the disappearance of the organised AUC forces was immediately reflected in a reduction in the numbers of homicides and forcibly displaced persons. It did not, however, affect the anti-narcotics strategy or, for that matter, even the anti-insurgency strategy, since the military had to cover more ground against the guerrillas in those territories previously controlled by the AUC blocs. The Justice and Peace Law was also considered to be open for a future demobilisation of the guerrilla groups, once they were willing to accept an unconditional cease-fire. From the institutional point of view of SSR, the Justice and Peace Law serves as a clear example for intensive discussions about a process of conflict reduction, even though many of the demobilised members of the AUC were rather unhappy with their slow and incomplete reintegration process, while many of the victims felt that the Justice and Peace Law, with a limit of a maximum eight years of imprisonment for crimes against humanity, was much too lenient given the cruelty of the crimes committed and the lack of restitutions of property taken by the paramilitaries (35).

Another part of the Justice and Peace Law reflects a certain advancement of SSR concepts in Colombia. The National Commission on Reparation and Reconciliation (CNRR) was founded by Ley 975 to guarantee the rights of the victims of the illegal armed groups to truth, justice, reparations and non-repetition. The way that the CNRR functions is in some aspects similar to the truth commissions that have been established in many Latin American countries after democratisation, but in this case its mandate is limited to elaborating the system by which justice and reparations for the victims will be established and later applied by the justice system. The commission enjoys a great deal of public acceptance because it includes not only government representatives but also independent members from civil society and representatives of the victims, which could explain its strong support from the international community. The process of its work has, however, been rather slow. This is not only because of lack of government funding but also because after many decades of impunity (36) it has become rather difficult to establish a culture of reparation and reconciliation in Colombia. This is reflected in the exclusion of victims who have suffered from military and police abuses from the CNRR. The success of its work over time could be considered as an important indicator about the effects of SSR on democracy and governance in a society with an ongoing internal conflict.

Without any substantial changes in the original priorities of the DSP, in 2007 the Uribe government presented a new strategy called the Política de Consolidación de la Seguridad Democrática or PCSD (Democratic Security Consolidation Policy) (37), which offered an ‘integral’ concept of security for the second term of President Uribe’s government (2006–2010). This concept Limited Security Sector Reform in Colombia envisions the integration of all state, private sector, NGO and international cooperation activities with the military presence in ‘certain’ areas, to demonstrate state presence and development benefits not only through military institutions. The statistics of the achievements of the DSP between 2003 and 2007 were certainly impressive, especially with regard to the success of the measures taken by the armed forces to reduce the numbers of homicides and victims of massacres, kidnapping and forced displacement of persons (38). But it was considered, even by the government itself, as a reduction in the number of negative indicators within the society and not as a creation of positive ones. The philosophy behind the PCSD is the need not only to control the national territory militarily, but also to offer (through the agencies of the state and its partners) sufficient positive incentives for the population to identify with this government. Winning the hearts and minds of a population tired of violent conflict and lack of justice could be seen as the main objective of this new security strategy. Some have interpreted the success in improving the security situation in general in the country as a reason to extend this strategy, since the population now also demands better infrastructure, social services and a general improvement of their economic condition (39). If such improvements are not forthcoming as clear support for the security strategy of the government, and at the same time the armed forces do not fully comply with the envisaged standards for human rights, public opinion might easily change. By 2005 the Uribe government already seemed to be fairly preoccupied with the ‘sustainability’ of its flagship project (40).

To consolidate the positive effects of the DSP on security in the country, the new strategy of the Democratic Security Consolidation Policy, which incorporates some elements of ‘classic’ SSR, is based upon five objectives:

  • Consolidation of territorial control and strengthening the rule of law;

  • Protection of the population and maintaining the initiative against all security threats against citizens;

  • Increasing drastically the cost of drug trafficking;

  • Maintaining a legitimate, modern and efficient armed force that can count on the confidence and support of the population;

  • Maintaining the decreasing trend of all criminal indicators in the cities (41).

The main points in this new strategy are the emphasis upon the rule of law, formally guaranteed by a well-established civil court system and some military courts covering specific issues, and the confidence of the population in the armed forces. The SSR employed in Colombia has, thus far, not been very successful on either count, since extra-judicial killings and the lack of application of the established laws relating to the members of the armed forces have been at the forefront of criticism from civil society as well as from the international community (42).

Even though all necessary rules exist within the military code, a willingness to apply and enforce them on all levels and a general respect for human rights and those within Colombian society who defend and reclaim them still appear to be missing, due to the continuous impact of the internal conflict, which also seems to limit further democratisation of civil-military relations.

A new major effort to improve the education of the military has been organised by the armed forces themselves in the context of the reforms outlined in the PCSD to prepare them for a different future and a more accepted role in Colombian society (43).

Other shortcomings, which are not even addressed in the PCSD, include transitional justice beyond the CNRR for the AUC members and prison reform, as well as parliamentary oversight.

The very sophisticated and multi-levelled Colombian justice system seems to be overwhelmed with the cases of AUC members; additionally, the numerous extraditions of leading drug traffickers among them to the US has not contributed to a clearer picture of criminal responsibilities. Those who are serving in Colombia’s overcrowded prisons have been known to continue their criminal activities from within their prison cells, using the traditional channels of corruption. Another weakness of the PCSD can be found in its failure to address the shortcomings of parliamentary oversight, which reduce civilian control to executive control. In the Colombian two-chamber Congress, only the Senate commands some formal oversight functions with regard to security policies and armed forces (44).

The two Senate commissions dealing with defence and security-related issues are the First, called the Constitutional Commission, and the Second Commission, which deals with foreign trade, foreign policy and border issues. There is no parliamentary committee that specifically deals with defence and security issues, and the interest of the senators in such issues is rather limited (as the reports of an independent NGO demonstrate (45), which not only reflects the general Latin American problem of their preference for leaving security and defence policies in the hands of the presidency or the militaries themselves (46), but can also be interpreted as a specific reluctance by Colombian politicians to enter into a Limited Security Sector Reform in Colombia process of opinion and control in regard to what must be called the most sensitive issue of the Colombian state. Parliamentary oversight will probably not be achievable by any SSR, and might not only require constitutional reform but also a change in the political culture of Colombia. This, however, is unlikely to happen without ending the internal conflict.

The Colombian experience with limited SSR demonstrates very clearly how specific national, historical and political conditions reduce the options for restructuring the security sector to further democratic governance. While the ‘classic’ SSR has been identified with post-conflict societies in democratic construction or reconstruction, the experiences in Colombia with limited SSR have been shaped not only by the impact of a continuous internal conflict involving multiple armed non-state actors, but also by the need to engage an external power in the process to guarantee the strengthening and modernising of the core security actors and advances in security management, especially in the application of justice and the rule of law.

While some very visible progress on these accounts has been made since 2002, under the current presidency of Uribe not all opportunities which presented themselves through the reduction of guerrilla activity, the DDR of the paramilitaries and the wide domestic and international support for the DSP have been used to further SSR. A strong presidential leadership, with a very limited interest in institutional channels of change, and a largely discredited parliamentary institution lacking agreement and resolve to control the limited SSR process hardly constituted an example in upholding the principles of democratic governance. The absence of parliamentary oversight, the limited space for civil society involvement, the by no means automatic acceptance of the rule of law by the government and the core security actors and the lack of provisions for the treatment of non-statutory security forces could be seen as the main indicators for the need to extend and complete the limited SSR in Colombia.


  • (*): « Security Sector Reform in Challenging Environments », Editors: Hans Born and Albrecht Schnabel Bibliographic Details: LIT Verlag, 2009. ISBN: 978-3-643-80013-8, Series: Yearbook.

  • (1): Francisco Leal Buitrago, ed., En la encrucijada. Colombia en el siglo XXI (Bogotá: Norma, 2006).

  • (2): Armando Borrero Mansilla, ‘El futuro de las Fuerzas Armadas: hacia la modernización militar en Colombia’, Razón Pública (February 2009), available at

  • (3): Russell Crandall, Driven by Drugs: U.S. Policy toward Colombia (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2002): 148.

  • (4): Luz E. Nagle, Plan Colombia: Reality of the Colombian Crisis and Implications for Hemispheric Security (Carlisle, PA: US Army War College, 2002).

  • (5): United States General Accounting Office, Drug Control: U.S. Nonmilitary Assistance to Colombia is Beginning to Show Intended Results, but Programs Are Not Readily Sustainable (Washington, DC: US GAO, July 2004).

  • (6): Presidencia de la República de Colombia, Ministerio de Defensa Nacional, Política de defensa y seguridad democrática (Bogotá: Imprenta Nacional de Colombia, 2003).

  • (7): Catalina Perdomo, ‘International Assistance for Security Sector Reform’, Oasis, no. 12(2006): 90.

  • (8): International Crisis Group (ICG), The Virtuous Twins: Protecting Human Rights and Improving Security in Colombia, Latin America Briefing, no. 21 (2009): 8.

  • (9): Hans-Georg Ehrhart, Albrecht Schnabel and Monica Blagescu, ‘Towards More Effective Assistance in Security Sector Reform’, Hamburger Informationen zur Friedensforschung und Sicherheitspolitik, no. 34 (2002): 1–6.

  • (10): Armando Borrero Mansilla, ‘Los militares: los dolores del crecimiento’, in En la encrucijada. Colombia en el siglo XXI, ed. Francisco Leal Buitrago (Bogotá: Norma, 2006): 121.

  • (11): Alejo Vargas Velásquez and Carlos Alberto Patiño Villa, eds, Reforma Militar en Colombia: Contexto Iinternacional y Resultados Esperados (Medellín: Universidad Pontificia Boliviarana, 2006).

  • (12): Armando Borrero Mansilla, ‘Las Fuerzas Armadas en el año 2000’, in Síntesis Colombia 2001, ed. IEPRI/Universidad Nacional (Bogotá: Tercer Mundo, 2001): 75; Sandra Borda Guzmán, ‘The Internationalisation of the Colombian Armed Conflict after 9/11: A Wise Diplomatic Strategy or the Simple Occurrence of the Inevitable?’, Colombia Internacional, no. 65 (2007): 67–89.

  • (13): Andrea Escobar, Nathalie Pabón and Laura Mendívil, ‘La actual reforma militar en Colombia. La renovación de las Fuerzas Armadas’, in Reforma Militar en Colombia: Contexto Internacional y Resultados Esperados, eds Alejo Vargas Velásquez and Carlos Alberto Patiño Villa (Medellín: Universidad Pontificia Boliviarana, 2006): 188.

  • (14): Heiner Hänggi, ‘Security Sector Reform’, in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding – A Lexicon, ed. Vincent Chetail (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009): 341.

  • (15): Perdomo, note 7 above.

  • (16): Instituto de Estudios Políticos y Relaciones Internacionales (IEPRI), El Plan Colombia y la internacionalización del conflicto (Bogotá: Planeta, 2001).

  • (17): Freddy Padilla de León, Más allá de la victoria: el futuro de las Fuerzas Militares de Colombia (Bogotá: ASOCACI, 2009): 11.

  • (18): Fernando Cepeda Ulloa, ed., Las relaciones cívico-militares en tiempos de conflicto armada (Bogotá: Embajada de Estados Unidos de América, 2003): 380.

  • (19): María Victoria Llorente, ‘Demilitarisation in Times of War? Police Reform in Colombia’, in Public Security and Police Reform in the Americas, eds John Bailey and Lucía Dammert (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005): 180–212.

  • (20): Departamento Nacional de Planeación República de Colombia, Plan Colombia: Balance 1999–2003 (Bogotá: Imprenta Nacional de Colombia, 2003).

  • (21): Nagle, note 4 above: 4.

  • (22): Departamento Nacional, note 20 above: 9.

  • (23): Crandall, note 3 above: 148. Limited Security Sector Reform in Colombia

  • (24): Hernando Gómez Buendía, ‘De Manta a las bases en Colombia: tres liebres en de un gato’, Razón Pública (July 2009), available at

  • (25): Mansilla, note 12 above: 119.

  • (26): Thomas A. Marks, Sustainability of Colombian Military/Strategic Support for ‘Democratic Security’ (Carlisle, PA: US Army War College, 2005): 2.

  • (27): Álvaro Uribe Vélez, ‘La nueva política de seguridad en Colombia’, in El papel de las Fuerzas Armadas en una democracia en desarrollo, eds Escuela Superior de Guerra/Universidad Javeriana (Bogotá: Escuela Superior de Guerra, 2000): 57.

  • (28): Presidencia Colombia, Política de Defensa y Seguridad Democrática, 2003. For an evaluation see Alejo Vargas Velásquez, ‘La especificidad colombiana: la seguridad democrática’, in Seguridad Humana y nuevas políticas de Defensa en Iberoamérica, ed. Isidor Sepúlveda (Madrid: Instituto Universitario General Gutiérrez Mellado, 2007): 121–150.

  • (29): ‘La ONU denuncia que las ejecuciones extrajudiciales fueron sistemáticas en Colombia’, El Pais, 19 June 2009, available at

  • (30): International Crisis Group (ICG), Colombia: President Uribe’s Democratic Security Policy, Latin America Report, no. 6 (2003).

  • (31): Cynthia J. Arnson, The Peace Process in Colombia with the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia-AUC (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center, 2005).

  • (32): Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Findings of Recent Trip to Colombia (Washington, DC: WOLA, 2007): 3.

  • (33): Francisco Leal Buitrago, ‘Evaluación de la política de seguridad democrática’ (Bogotá: unpublished manuscript, 2009): 7.

  • (34): Alexandra Guáqueta, ‘The Way Back In – Reintegrating Illegal Armed Groups in Colombia Then and Now’, Conflict, Security and Development 7, no. 3 (2007): 440.

  • (35): Cynthia J. Arnson, ‘The Agony of Álvaro Uribe’, Foreign Affaires en Español 7, no. 4 (October–December 2007).

  • (36): International Crisis Group, note 8 above: 12.

  • (37): Ministerio de Defensa Nacional República de Colombia, Política de Consolidación de la Seguridad Democrática (Bogotá: Imprenta Nacional de Colombia, 2007).

  • (38): Ministerio de Defensa Nacional República de Colombia, Achievements of the Democratic Defense and Security Policy (Bogotá: Imprenta Nacional de Colombia, 2008).

  • (39): Román D. Ortiz and Gersón I. Arias, ‘Nuevos retos en un viejo conflicto: el futuro de la seguridad democrática’, Siguiendo el conflicto, no. 46 (2007): 8.

  • (40): Fernando Cepeda Ulloa, ed., Sostenibilidad de la política de seguridad democrática en Colombia (Bogotá: Embajada de los Estados Unidos de America, 2005).

  • (41): Ministerio de Defensa, note 37 above: 31–43.

  • (42): International Crisis Group, note 8 above.

  • (43): Ministerio de Defensa Nacional República de Colombia, Proyecto educativo de las Fuerzas Armadas (Bogotá: Imprenta Nacional de Colombia, 2008).

  • (44): Nicolás Urrutia Iriarte, ‘Informe Nacional Colombia’, in Reporte Sector Seguridad en América Latina y El Caribe 2006, ed. Lucía Dammert (Santiago: FLACSO Chile, 2006): 1–59.

  • (45): Fundación Seguridad y Democracia, ‘Balance Legislativo 2008’, Coyuntura de Seguridad, no. 23 (2008): 86–92.

  • (46): Philipp H. Fluri, ‘El Fortalecimiento de la reforma del sector de seguridad en Latinoamérica – Elementos para una cooperación estratégica Europea’, in Seguridad y Cooperación: Aspectos de la seguridad y las relaciones entre la Unión Europea y América Latina, eds Frank Kernic and Tomás Chuaqui Henderson (Wien: Landesverteidigungsakademie, 2006): 102.