With a change of defense minister Wednesday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos broke both strategically and personally with the military strategy of the “Democratic Security” policy that was initiated under former President Andres Pastrana and consolidated under his successor Alvaro Uribe, but which has been increasingly ineffective since 2008.
Strategically, the Santos administration is moving from “Democratic Security” towards the “Citizen Security” and “Integrated Security and Defense for Prosperity” policies introduced by Santos during his first year in office.
When the military strategy that was embedded in the Democratic Security policy was launched, guerrilla groups controlled over a third of Colombian territory. By focusing on seizing and controlling territory, the policy helped reverse these gains and pushed the guerrillas back from economic hubs, cities and important highways.
The FARC responded to their territorial losses with “Plan Pistola” – a reversion to the hit and run tactics of guerrilla warfare. Democratic Security has been ineffectual confronting these tactics and security has been progressively deteriorating since 2008. Confrontations between the guerrillas and the armed forces have been increasing steadily and last year approached the peak of violence seen in 2002.
The past military strategy has also had no answer to the smaller, more fragmented neo-paramilitary groups that have evolved since the official demobilization of the AUC. Over the same time period, these groups have expanded their influence, leading to a rise in violence.
Under Pastrana and Uribe, the armed forces were waging an offensive territorial war. In the current situation, Santos’ war is aimed at minimizing the FARC’s capacity to cause damage, while further decimating the organization through demobilizations, catching or killing its leaders, and eventually a mass demobilization through political negotiation.
However, the change in minister is not just a change in military tactics. The resignation of Rodrigo Rivera sees not only the removal of the last supporter of the apparently failing military part of the Democratic Security policy from the top of the Ministry of Defense but also the removal of a loyal Uribe supporter: Rivera was one of the main forces behind Uribista attempts to have the former president re-elected for the second time in 2010, until the Constitutional Court sunk the initiative, and was one of Uribe’s last allies within the Santos administration and military leadership.
Juan Carlos Pinzon, born into a military family, has been a Santos loyalist for years. He served as vice minister of defense under Santos and until Wednesday was the president’s chief of staff. Following an almost complete renewal of military commanders after Santos’ inauguration in August last year, Pinzon is the last piece of a longer process in which all Uribe-appointed defense personnel have been replaced.
The new chief of defense will soon outline his new security policy before Congress. Details have yet to emerge but according to an analysis in El Tiempo, the new approach will rely on smaller, more mobile units. Ground offensives will be launched by joint task forces formed with specific objectives in areas with high concentrations of guerrillas, drug traffickers or neo-paramilitaries. Army units will be supported by marines, the air-force and Special Forces operating without jurisdictional boundaries.