Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s security policy has failed to
attack the roots of violence and is beginning to show clear signs of
weakness as violence in the big cities and rural areas, crucial to drug
trafficking, soars. At best, Democratic Security was temporary shock
therapy against violence. Now, Colombia needs a real cure.
The failure Democratic Security has been, perhaps been most evident for the longest time in major cities. Since 2008, crime rates have risen in Bogota, Medellin and Cali, along with nearly every other large city. While urban homicide rates may not be as high as in the 1990’s, they are steadily rising and the general sense of insecurity is acute. For months, many Colombians have been calling on the government to ‘expand’ the success of Democratic Security in rural areas to urban areas.
Unfortunately, Democratic Security has also begun to show signs of weakness in rural areas. While Colombians can still drive safely on major intercity roads, every day, people living in rural areas feel less safe. Displacement, a largely rural phenomenon, rose by a remarkable 24% this year. According to Amnesty International, 380,000 people left their homes due to violence or the threat of violence this year.
Democratic security also failed to put a dent in drug production and trafficking, the economic fuel behind violence in Colombia. Despite a reduction in drug-growing areas in 2008, overall drug production remains relatively constant. Indeed, 2007’s drug yield was surprisingly high. Consequently, cocaine prices in wealthy countries have continued their general downward trend despite short-term ups and downs. In short, the drug trade is alive and well.
Violent drug trafficking groups have therefore survived the Uribe years and are beginning to thrive once again. Waves of drug violence are affecting many regions of Colombia, from the Pacific Coast to los Llanos to Antioquia. Organized crime remains heavily armed, brutally violent and – for the most part – one step ahead of the authorities. Worryingly, the first six months of 2009 saw a 91% drop in the number of drug gang members killed by the authorities compared to the first six months of 2008.
Finally, even in the fight against the FARC, a personal priority for the President, the path to victory looks increasingly difficult. According to weekly Semana, for the first time since Uribe took power, more soldiers and policemen are dying in combat than guerrillas. One must wonder whether this sudden reversal of fortune is due to a crackdown on so-called ‘false positives’.
Further, the FARC have shown a remarkable ability to adapt to the deaths of their leaders. Uribe’s bold aggression reduced the guerrilla group’s military capacities and territorial control, but the new, leaner FARC are proving tough to eradicate.
Why has Uribe’s progress in terms of security begun to slow down and even reverse? The answer, at least in part, lies in the well-known criticism that the policy fails to address the social and economic roots of violence and has been inconsistent in the fight against drug corruption.
President Uribe has done little to reduce poverty and inequality in Colombia. Although he has overseen a period of impressive economic growth, the country remains marked by drastic social inequities and exploitation. Meanwhile, as the Bogota city administration knows quite well, the national government under Uribe has failed to effectively confront the growing issue of internal displacement, which has become a true social time bomb for nearly every Colombian city.
Meanwhile, Uribe has failed to address one of Colombia’s oldest and most urgent problems: the absence of the state in much of its territory. Sure, the President has sent the army to more municipalities than any President in recent memory, but rural Colombia needs much more than guns if the country is to have an hope of lasting peace and stability. The government simply has no coherent rural development plan. Many Colombian towns are crippled by economic stagnation, unemployment and a general sense of abandonment by the state.
Finally, the Uribe government has also been inconsistent in the fight against the political influence of organized crime. Legal cases relating to parapolitics have advanced remarkably slowly and inefficiently given the gravity of the accusations. Many politicians accused of mafia and paramilitary links are still shaping national policy.
On a symbolic level, government is simply not setting an example for accountability, justice and legality. On a concrete level, as long as the government fails to effectively prosecute the politicians protecting and collaborating with organized crime, drug trafficking will continue to fuel conflict in Colombia.
If Democratic Security seems to have reached its limit, what is to be done? What, if anything, can replace the Uribe doctrine?
One answer often given is that the state should pay more attention to the needs of the poor people at the heart of the conflict, from displaced persons to coca growers. Often, this means improving social services, focusing more on drug crop substitution, etc. This answer has plenty of validity. It is indeed important that people throughout the country, not just in major cities, have a stronger relationship with the Colombian state and its resources, from basic services to political participation.
On the other hand, this answer is a bit simplistic and incomplete. For example, simply in terms of drug trafficking, while it is clear that fumigation has catastrophic environmental side effects and manual eradication is slow, dangerous and costly, there is very little evidence to suggest that crop substitution would be an effective solution to the country’s drug problems. For many reasons, growing coca is simply far more reliable and lucrative than growing most other crops.
Similarly, even in cities where people have plenty of access to social services, such as Medellin, thousands of people still turn to crime and violence. The reason is, again, partly rooted in economics. While most criminals are by no means rich, many poor people see more opportunities for social mobility in the criminal underworld than in the legal job market. Given the weakness of the legal system, widespread corruption, vast social inequality and extremely high unemployment and underemployment rates, urban crime is almost to be expected.
The answer, therefore, must also involve deep changes in the way Colombia is run from the national to the municipal levels. Unfortunately, politics continues to blind, taint and mislead the country’s battle against high-level corruption.
Finally, Colombia’s security policy should be as multifaceted and adaptable as its security challenges. True, Uribe has started to publicly recognize the threat posed by emerging drug gangs and organized crime groups, but the government’s rhetoric continues to treat the armed conflict as a mere battle between Colombia and guerrillas. It is difficult to argue that the FARC bear responsibility for rising urban crime, or even much of the drug violence in rural areas. If counter-insurgency remains the primary goal of Colombia’s security forces, they will be ignoring the vast majority of violent crimes committed in the country.