When Colombian President Iván Duque announced his new security plan, he told the media that security “shouldn’t be confused with war.” In his actual plan, however, that distinction seems to be of little importance.
The plan, released this month, says the Colombian government will not negotiate “bilateral ceasefires” when taking on what it calls Organized Armed Groups (Grupos Armados Organizados – GAO). These groups include guerrillas, like the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional -- ELN); former paramilitaries, like the Urabeños, or Gulf Clan; and vestiges of these groups. The one common factor among them is that they are all involved in drug trafficking and other crimes.
Security forces will seek the “disarticulation” of these groups to prevent them from being able to form new criminal structures, according to the document called the Politics of Defense and Security (Política de Defensa y Seguridad – PDS).
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A second principle stated in the plan is the recovery of institutional presence throughout the country. To do this, security forces will be focused on what are described as Strategic Zones of Integral Intervention (Zonas Estratégicas de Intervención Integral – ZEII). These zones are high in crime and violence, as well as located in poor, remote stretches of the country that are rich in natural resources. The government will also bring social services to these territories, though the plan mostly describes military and police interventions.
Citizen security networks, which will “give support to the armed forces,” are included in this strategy to retake zones under the control of criminal groups. Rafael Guarín, Duque’s security minister, was quick to explain that these citizen networks will merely provide information to authorities, adding that their weapon “is a cellphone.” More than 800,000 Colombians have already registered with these networks, El Tiempo reported.
To combat transnational organized crime, the plan calls for security collaborations with neighboring countries and increased intelligence capabilities, such as satellite technology to control Colombia’s borders.
InSight Crime Analysis
Duque’s security plan is bellicose, short on details and a rehash of controversial strategies implemented by his predecessors -- notably his political mentor, Alvaro Uribe.
Uribe, president from 2002 to 2010 and currently a senator, was the first to designate areas that were the focus of armed forces. Uribe’s successor Juan Manuel Santos, president from 2010 to 2018, also went after red zones.
Their administrations used funding from Plan Colombia, a two-decade-long $10 billion US assistance program, to combat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), dubbed a narco-terrorist organization. Plan Colombia provided the military new weapons and improved their intelligence capabilities. The forces made important security gains, restoring military presence in neglected areas of the country and driving out illegal armed groups.
But security forces also drew fire for the killing of civilians. In the early 2000s, young men were kidnapped, killed, then dressed in army uniforms and reported as enemy combatants in a scandal known as the false positives. In 2015, prosecutors said that they were investigating cases involving nearly 5,000 false-positive victims.
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At the same time, Duque’s citizen security network harkens back to Uribe’s Convivir, citizen security groups launched in the mid-1990s ostensibly to bolster the state’s fight against violence and crime. InSight Crime reported in 2015 that these groups went on to become shadow criminal organizations and fronts for the right-wing paramilitary movement.
The notorious legacy of the Convivir squads, which were armed with the blessing of the government, is likely the reason Duque’s security minister immediately made clear that those involved in the new citizen security network will not be armed, and will merely act as intermediaries with authorities.
Yet the quick enlistment of hundreds of thousands of Colombians shows that the idea remains popular. Such a large number of informants could provide authorities with vital information about zones under gang control, as in Medellin’s hillside districts where the so-called combos have recently stepped up killings.
The plan also acknowledges past shortcomings in protecting natural resources from criminal groups, which are increasingly involved in land trafficking, the clear-cutting of forests to make room for coca-cultivation and illegal gold mining, both of which have devastating effects on the environment. It also says that the government will increase its efforts to protect social and community leaders, who have been killed with chilling regularity in recent years.
Other valid priorities in the plan include focusing intelligence resources on Colombia’s borders, and increasing security cooperation with neighboring countries. Criminal groups of all stripes -- the ELN, FARC dissidents, and drug traffickers like the Urabeños -- are using Ecuador and Venezuela as staging grounds for Colombian drug shipments, illegal gold mining and other illicit economies, such as contraband cattle and other goods.
The Duque plan also attempts to take on Colombia’s record-high coca cultivation, increasing its annual goal to 100,000 hectares destroyed. But it concentrates on forced eradication efforts, such as aerial fumigation, seemingly at the expense of the crop substitution program implemented as part of the peace agreement with the FARC.
Duque’s plan hews so closely to his mentor’s vision, which Uribe outlined in a plan in 2003, that El Espectador found similar wording in both documents. Both studiously avoid the phrase “armed conflict.”
Tellingly, Duque’s security strategy veers from that of his predecessor Santos in an obvious and glaring way. Santos negotiated a peace deal with the FARC, and he was willing to consider such an accord with the ELN. Duque’s plan leaves little doubt that no such negotiations will occur under his watch, by making “bilateral ceasefires” illegal and stating that armed groups have only one way out: the total “dissolution” of their organizations.
The rebel group’s recent car bombing of a Bogotá police academy calls back to the worst of Colombia’s bloody past -- Pablo Escobar’s bombing campaigns and M19 guerrillas storming the Palace of Justice. With peace negotiations called off, the ELN’s attacks are only likely to increase.
To confront Colombia’s current threats, however, what is needed is not a return to the past, but new ideas.