Are Colombia’s Armed Forces Out of Control?

The prestige of the Colombian armed forces in fighting the guerrilla has made it difficult to criticize them. (Flickr)
The prestige of the Colombian armed forces in fighting the guerrilla has made it difficult to criticize them. (Flickr)

EspañolThe persistence of the internal armed conflict in Colombia has had many consequences, all of them negative. Beyond the most obvious — the humanitarian crisis, obstacles to growth, and complex rural social divisions — there are other issues of an institutional nature.

Perhaps the most worrying is the role and status given to Colombia’s armed forces. In a country free from conflict, it’s taken as a given that the military is subordinate to civilian authorities, and its margin for independent action is highly limited.

But this isn’t the case in Colombia. For over 50 years, there’s existed a tacit agreement between the civil and military powers that neither intervenes in the affairs of the other. During the two consecutive terms of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002–2010) the situation became even more entrenched. Uribe forcefully took control of the armed forces, but he did so by converting them into a state organization with still greater autonomy, and even superiority, over the rest of government.

It’s important not to exaggerate. It can’t be argued that Colombia’s armed forces are the real power behind the president’s throne, or are completely beyond legal or civil control. But it’s certain that the military enjoys a large degree of autonomy. And what’s more, due to their dangerous work – confronting the guerrilla threat, countering narco-trafficking, and facing down paramilitary groups – they’ve become the recipient of a surge of gratitude felt by many Colombian citizens.

As a result, it’s almost become taboo to criticize the Colombian armed forces, or to argue that they ought to have defined and strict limits on their activities. Among other reasons, this is often due to the fact that the majority of such critiques come from Colombian progressives, some of whom have vocally sympathized with guerrilla groups.

But this shouldn’t be the case. From atrocities committed by some elements of the Colombian military, to recent scandals over the illegal interception of communications, a serious, depoliticized debate is necessary about the role that the armed forces should play in the country, and what limits should be set on that role.

The level of autonomy the armed forces enjoy, and the perverse effect this has on the country and on citizens’ liberty, was brought home at the beginning of this week. A pedestrian bridge under construction by military authorities in a northern section of Bogotá collapsed the moment it was subject to stress testing.

As a result, news story after news story has come to light evidencing unjustifiable errors in public military operations. It’s not a question of a single bridge being badly built: at issue is whether the armed forces should be involved at all in the construction of such works. Worst of all is the fact that they used soldiers themselves – that is, human beings – to test the strength of the bridge. Senior commanders even tried to lie to Colombian citizens about the number of men who were injured as a result.

There are likely many more serious cases that haven’t come to light, so it’s essential to take action to prevent such things from happening again. At issue is the unchecked use of public resources and power, combined with a lack of transparency and no apparent sense that Colombian taxpayers deserve the truth about mistakes.

The armed forces are an important organization in any country. Their essential function is the very reason that the state exists: to provide security. But this function doesn’t give those carrying it out carte blanche to consider themselves superior to their fellow citizens. And as they have exclusive legal control of weapons, strong controls and limits on what the armed forces can and can’t do are crucial.

With the criticism and fears aired after recent scandals, perhaps Colombian citizens now recognize this necessity. A reformed military may prove to be one of the greatest advantages of the ongoing peace process. Perhaps once the guerrilla threat is removed, Colombians will turn their attentions to limiting the threat posed by the forces of order.

Translated by Laurie Blair. Edited by Guillermo Jimenez.

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