Following two official warnings to maintain discipline and respect civilian authority, and further corruption revelations from within the armed forces, has the Colombian military developed a habit for stepping beyond its power?
The military continue to provide embarrassments to their civilian commanders, from illegal wiretapping of peace talks with the FARC by army personnel, to General Ruben Dario Alzate supplying a deliberately misleading travel plan before setting off unarmed and in his Bermuda shorts into the waiting arms of FARC guerrillas, to the military’s embezzling of funds in Antioquia.
The first warning to the army was delivered last week by President Juan Manuel Santos, who told Canal Capital Radio: “Any official, regardless of how important he is, who shows lack of loyalty and discipline will have to leave the Armed Forces.”
Days later Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon renewed the order. In what was described as a “scolding” by newspaper El Espectador, Pinzon told newly promoted officers at a Senate plenary.
“I want to give a clear public order in compliance with the orders of the President of the Republic: Gentlemen generals, admirals, colonels and captains of the navy, your mission is to comply with the Constitution and the law,” the minister said loud and clear.
Military forced to face own crimes
The Colombian army, unlike other Latin American military forces hardly have a history of overthrowing governments. However, it is no secret that many in the military are unhappy with the peace talks with their 50-year-long enemy in Cuba, and concerned that many of their own actions could come under the scrutiny of any results that might emerge from the current investigation of a truth commission, which is expected to put the responsibility of thousands of human rights violations with the army.
Members of the armed forces have bugged the Colombian government’s negotiating team, and there are frequent leaks of information from military sources to politicians like former President Alvaro Uribe who are opposed to the peace process.
An anonymous writer claiming to be a serving soldier voiced an additional resentment on “Periodismo sin Fronteras,” an Uribe-loyal website.
“No one explains how Major General Suarez, was paid to sign a report prepared and written by the enemies of Colombia, by the enemies of the army, by a group of communists to advocate the narco-terrorists of the FARC. Nobody understands why Suarez Bustamante put his signature on a document that does not have a single argument to indict the national army in illegal activities.”
Suarez was the officer in charge of the internal investigation into the “false positives” scandal, which confirmed that the Army had been killing thousands of civilians and dressing them as guerrillas in order to receive bonuses and effectively inflate the military’s apparent effectivueness.
The writer continues: “the narco-terrorists of the FARC had to invent something and as they were militarily wrecked… so the ideologists of the FARC supported by a group of communists, invented the phrase of “false positive” to demoralize the army.”
Military undergoing transformation
However far such sentiments extend throughout the security services, there are other dynamics at play, according to Andrei Gomez-Suarez, researcher for Sussex University, Universidad de los Andes, and Oxford University’s Transitional Justice Research (OTJR) network.
“I know of the commitment to peace of important sectors of the armed forces” he says.
“Both the Ministry of Defense and the armed forces are going through an incredibly brave process of thinking themselves in a post-conflict scenario. The leadership of the armed forces knows too well that a post-conflict Colombia can only be achieved by protecting the democratic rule of law. They, as other state institutions, are going through a transformation process to leave behind a state ready-for-war and become state-building-peace,” added Gomez-Suarez.
The Colombian government has recently been emphasizing that security services personnel will share in all the legal benefits provided to FARC guerrillas in the event of a peace agreement, in an attempt to reduce military dissatisfaction towards a potential amnesty for crimes carried out during the conflict.
Such measures will not satisfy the most vocal opponents of the Havana talks, however, with Uribe recently tweeting: “We have an obligation to rebel against Santos’ deceit, which put democracy and its soldiers on the same level as terrorism”.
Claiming to support the armed forces while furthering peace negotiations that promise to transform their role is a key challenge for the current administration, and Gomez-Suarez argued that “Santos’ comments are a warning sign to some sectors within the armed forces who have traditionally opposed the negotiated solution to the armed conflict.”
“This sector, as in many other peace process, could be an inside-spoiler that needs to be kept under control, and therefore President Santos is showing leadership and pointing to the moral values that must guide the actions of democratic armed forces, reinforcing thus it’s moral and obedience to civilian principles,” said the researcher.
- Interview with Andrei Gomez-Suarez
- Rengano de Pinzon a la Fuerza Publica? (El Espectador)
- La Patria y el ejercito estan siendo traicionadas por un general de la republica (Periodismo sin Fronteras)