Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is unfairly taking the heat over the country’s apparently failing security policy.
The main security challenges Colombia is facing now are rebounding guerrilla groups, urban gangs and paramilitary groups. These illegal armed groups did not rebound after mid 2010 when Santos took the presidency but since 2008 because of factors that have nothing to do with who occupies the presidential palace.
Colombia’s problem is not the government, it is the state. More precisely, the corruption of the state.
It is important to recognize that Colombia is a democracy with three branches of power: the executive, the legislative and the judicial. The success or failure of any state depends on the quality of these three branches. Only in a feudal or dictatorial system is the success of the state determined only by the executive power.
Over the past decades, the main weakness of Colombia’s developing democracy has been corruption. It has impeded the country’s democratic and economic development by weakening its institutions and the effectiveness and credibility of all three branches of power.
The massive amounts of drug money that started flowing in the 1980s made the state even more corrupt and began a long process of delegitimization.
Cartels, leftist rebel groups and later the paramilitary AUC got their hands on drug money and corrupted judges, governments, congressmen and members of the security forces alike. The same drug money corrupted Colombia’s private sector, the media and popular culture.
The corruption promoted by the late Pablo Escobar delayed both his capture and death because members of the security forces were carrying out intelligence work for Colombia’s most infamous drug lord.
The Cali cartel even had money invested in the 1994 election of former President Ernesto Samper.
The AUC, formed in 1997 by members of the paramilitary search bloc involved in the hunt for Escobar, took over the remnants of the Medellin cartel and made alliances with high army officials, businessmen, land owners and politicians securing its mutual business interests and gathering so much political power that by the time they demobilized between 2003 and 2006 they were offered generous compensations for their surrender.
Between 2005 and 2009, high-profile scandals revealed widespread ties between state officials and the AUC, state officials’ involvement in money laundering pyramid schemes, the infiltration of Colombia’s secret service by the paramilitaries, the murder of an estimated 3,000 civilians by the armed forces and illegal spying on the Supreme Court, journalists and human rights workers.
These scandals were really nothing new. They took place after the creation of the International Criminal Court and at the beginning of an internet era that allowed people easier access to information, so generated more disgust and international attention than ever before.
Because of the scandals, hundreds of congressmen, judges and members of the military were suspended or sent to jail, dozens of national and multinational companies were implicated in horrendous crimes, the judicial system clogged, the executive branch and judicial branch clashed like never before and foreign governments shut down vital aid.
Colombia’s security policy but moreover its whole state apparatus practically crashed — and it was precisely at this point when the illegal armed groups began their rebound.
The guerrillas decided to change their strategy from territorial to guerrilla warfare, and former paramilitaries rearmed to fill the power vacuum left by the demobilized AUC.
The security forces were demoralized by the literally thousands of human rights investigations against their friends and colleagues. At the same time they were now fighting enemies on both the left and the right wing of the political spectrum, in both the north and south of the country and in both rural and urban areas, their worst strategic nightmare.
Those blaming then-president Alvaro Uribe for the corruption scandals are as misguided as those blaming Santos for the now-failing security policy. Both presidents were elected into the crises, they didn’t personally cause them. In fact, Colombia’s violence, its corruption and its subsequent incapacity to provide justice for its citizens are much older than its 1991 constitution.
Uribe’s rage and despair about being the first former head of state whose political allies are actually prosecuted is understandable. The fact that he and his supporters interpret this as political persecution is equally understandable. Why is former President Ernesto Samper not in jail over the 8000 process scandal, for example? Why is Samper’s predecessor Cesar Gaviria not being investigated for his security forces’ ties to the “Pepes” or the forming of the CONVIVIR? Whatever happened to the case against former Senator Piedad Cordoba who is widely believed to be acting on behalf of the FARC?
Having said that, Santos and Prosecutor General Viviane Morales are doing the right thing by prosecuting Uribe allies who are suspected of corruption. By doing so, the president and the prosecutor general are relegitimizing the Colombian state and are setting a precedent for their own state officials who, if suspected of corruption, can be expected to be prosecuted by the succeeding administrations and their public prosecutors.
The Colombian state must undergo an ongoing and thorough purge of its own corrupt elements not only to strengthen its democracy, but to be able to fight effectively against society’s illegal elements.
Only in this way can the Colombian state make an effective, long-lasting fist against crime and illegal armed groups and take the lead in creating the peaceful society we so desire.