The Uribe Administration’s Security Strategy: Balancing Opportunities and Challenges

The Uribe Administration’s Security Strategy: Balancing Opportunities and Challenges

Theme: President Uribe’s Democratic Defence and Security Policy to restore order has seen significant success and has substantially reduced levels of violence, generating a new climate of security. However, to attain total pacification of the country, a number of challenges must yet be overcome, since the guerrillas have a huge capacity for destabilisation and the success of the process of demobilisation of paramilitary units is far from guaranteed.

Summary: After thirty months in government, President Álvaro Uribe can present a positive balance of his public order strategy. The number of high social-impact crimes, such as homicides and kidnappings, has been substantially cut. At the same time, military and police forces have recovered control of broad areas of the country. Also, the number of guerrilla combatants and paramilitary forces who have chosen to lay down their arms, accept the State’s pardon and return to civil life has multiplied exponentially. Nevertheless, the two main linchpins of the government’s security campaign will very likely face serious challenges in the near future. On the one hand, the FARC may escalate their operations prior to the 2006 elections, in order to discredit the government, influence the choice of the next President and force a new peace process which favours their interests. Furthermore, talks to achieve the disbanding of paramilitary forces may fall foul of the requirement that their leaders obtain a full amnesty, which makes them exempt from prison sentences for their part in grave violations of human rights and for their role in drug-dealing activities.

Analysis: The figures speak for themselves. According to statistics by the National Planning Department (Departamento Nacional de Planeación), the first thirty months of President Uribe have seen a substantial improvement in the security situation in Colombia. In 2004, the rate of homicides fell to 44.15 per 100,000 inhabitants, the lowest rate since 1985. Similarly, last year the number of kidnappings with extortion, ie, those performed by armed groups or by organised crime rackets, declined to 776 cases from the 2,986 incidents of this type in 2002. The number of demobilised guerrillas and paramilitaries has grown steadily and the number of combatants who decided individually to lay down their arms and join the government reinsertion programme increased from 2,538 in 2003 to 2,972 in 2004. A further 2,624 members of the illegal self-defence groups also abandoned their struggle as a result of the government’s negotiations to disarm the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia or AUC), the country’s largest paramilitary organisation.

This positive appraisal of President Uribe’s Democratic Defence and Security Policy (Política de Defensa y Seguridad Democrática, PDSD) has been called into question by certain academics and politicians. Some say that the current Administration has merely harvested the results of previous policies. This criticism is based on the fact that modernisation of the Colombian armed forces and the development of critical strategies, such as the anti-kidnapping campaign or the eradication of drug crops, began before the launch of the PDSD and were intensified during the presidency of Andrés Pastrana. But this type of position chooses to ignore the merits of the current government. On the one hand, the integration of the various State-controlled security forces (counterterrorism, anti-drug divisions, programmes for the reinsertion of ex-combatants, etc) within the framework of a coordinated policy aimed at restoring order; on the other hand, the decision to make it a maximum government priority to pacify the country and free all the State institutions to progress along this line. Without these two factors, the substantial reduction in violence in recent years would have been impossible.

Other sources have also called into question that the undisputed improvement in the security conditions is merit of the PDSD. It has been argued that the decline in high social-impact crime, such as homicides and kidnappings, are due more to the citizen security policies enforced by the municipal governments of Bogotá and Medellín than to the counter-rebel and anti-drug strategies implemented by President Uribe. There is no denying that these affirmations are based on some truth, given the success of the municipal administrations and the national police deployments in both cities in reducing urban crime levels. There is no doubt that the security plans implemented by the Mayors of these two major cities have contributed significantly to cutting back global violence figures in Colombia. But it is overlooked that the improvement in security in Bogotá and Medellín in recent years would be hard to explain without considering the beneficial impact of some of the strategies rolled out under the PDSD umbrella. At the end of 2003, the demobilisation of the Bloque Cacique Nutibara as the first outcome of the talks initiated by the Government with the AUC did not put an end to paramilitaries in Medellín, but it did substantially reduce the levels of violence in the suburbs of the capital of Antioquia. Similarly, the decline in terrorist actions and kidnappings by the FARC in Bogotá is associated with Operation Freedom I (Operación Libertad 1) by the Colombian public forces within the PDSD framework. In 2003, this offensive intensified military and police actions to undermine the rebel units and to destroy the guerrilla’s infrastructure in regions near Bogotá. The strategic impact of this effort was highlighted the following year. Deprived of their bases in rural areas, the FARC were unable to carry out major operations in Bogotá in 2004. In short, although it could be argued that the improvement in the national public order figures is linked to the reduction in violence in Bogotá and Medellín, it is no less true that the increase in security in both cities cannot be understood without taking into account the impact thereupon of the PDSD as put into action by the Uribe Administration.

From this standpoint, there can be little doubt as to the progress on the security front by the Uribe Administration, although the question now is whether it is a temporary improvement or an irreversible process which will eventually lead to lasting peace in Colombia, which means assessing just how sound a footing the progress is built upon. Some uncertainties may arise here in regard to the two main linchpins of the PDSD: the counterinsurgency campaign against the FARC and the talks with paramilitary organisations grouped into the AUC.

In regard to the first of these aspects, the beginning of the year has brought worrying signs about the operating capacity still maintained by the FARC, whose military actions escalated significantly in early February. On 1 February they attacked a Marine Infantry outpost in Iscuande (Nariño), causing l5 deaths; on 2 February they activated a minefield as an army patrol went by in Puerto Asís (Putumayo), killing eight soldiers and one civilian; on 8 February they laid an ambush for members of the XVII Brigade in Mutatá (Antioquia), resulting in 19 dead soldiers; and on the 21 February they set off a bomb in Puerto Rico (Meta), taking the lives of three soldiers and two civilians. The frequency of the attacks declined in March, but the rebels continued to give signs of considerable initiative. In the first few days of the month, the FARC increased the military pressure on Puerto Inírida, the capital of the Guainía Department. At the same time, they continued to take advantage of any opportunity to execute small ambushes or terrorist acts to wear down the security forces. This was the case with the joint FARC-ELN operation in Tame (Arauca) on 7 March, which cost the lives of three soldiers, or the ambush of a mixed contingent of Marine and Army Infantry near Puerto Leguizamo (Putumayo) on 23 March, which left 10 dead.

In the context of this series of attacks, the debate about the real efficiency of the government’s counterinsurgency strategy has heightened. Politicians, academics and public opinion are divided into two apparently irreconcilable blocks: on the one hand are those who interpret this chain of incidents as the last gasp of an organisation on the brink of disintegration, and on the other hand are those who view the escalation as proof that the guerrilla groups have remained intact and willing to take the offensive in this pre-election year. This controversy was further enflamed when Raúl Reyes, a member of the Secretariat of the FARC, asserted on Channel 1 of Colombian television in mid-February that the intensification of guerrilla actions marked the end of the insurgents’ withdrawal and that the organisations’ urban militias would soon be activated.

Above and beyond statements by FARC spokespersons, analysis of the recent escalation in violence allows us to make a fairly accurate deduction as to the direction which confrontation between State and guerrilla may take. First, it has to be said that all the armed actions implemented by rebels in recent months are characteristic of an organisation which practices guerrilla warfare, but which does not feel strong enough to undertake a mobile conflict implying a higher-intensity campaign, involving major operations. Small ambushes, attacks on isolated patrols and the use of mines and explosive traps are actions designed to wear down the security forces as much as possible; but they are also aimed at reducing contact with the enemy to a minimum, since the former is perceived to be greatly superior. They are a far cry in terms of complexity and volume from the capturing of fortified bases and major ambushes of entire areas which the FARC executed when they engaged in mobile warfare between 1996 and 2001.

The current strategic balance renders inconceivable a return to the period in which the insurgents moved columns of hundreds of guerrillas throughout south-western Colombia, forcing government soldiers to withdraw from wide areas of the country. Beyond the substantial increase in police officers and military personnel, modernisation of the security apparatus has led to better intelligence and greater mobility. Government forces now detect guerrilla movements earlier and project their forces faster towards the point of deployment which is potentially under threat. This increase in their reaction capacity enables the high command to anticipate the FARC’s movements and to cancel out any major concentration of rebel forces before they are able to launch a significant attack. From this standpoint, it does not ring true that the recent intensification in the insurgents’ actions could be the prologue to a new leap from a guerrilla war to a mobile war. This military option does not exist unless the Colombian State suffers a political-financial collapse or the FARC make a technological leap and deploy new weapons (surface-to-air missiles, surface-to-surface rockets, etc) in large amounts. These are two very remote possibilities.

The wave of attacks last February does however prove that the FARC still have significant offensive potential. The insurgents’ capacity to speed up the pace of their operations indicates that they do maintain a reserve volume of military resources, ready for use in critical political and strategic situations. The easing of armed activity by the FARC in the last two years is a response to pressure by the government forces, but it is also partly a strategic decision by the guerrilla itself to reserve part of its offensive potential for future use. Last month’s operations also show that the rebels have channels through which to coordinate operations at nationwide level, since throughout February there were simultaneous attacks by the FARC in Putumayo, Nariño, Meta, Guainía, Antioquia and Chocó. From this standpoint, the guerrilla obviously has the instruments (combat capacity and coordination mechanisms) to orchestrate an escalation in the near future.

The political climate is favourable. Half-way through the year, Colombia will enter a presidential election campaign in May 2006. Regardless of whether or not constitutional reform is approved enabling President Uribe to stand for re-election, the political debate will focus on the PDSD’s contribution to pacifying the country. Pro-government candidates will try to explain that Uribe’s security strategy has substantially improved public order, and opponents will emphasise the fragile nature of the progress made and the impossibility of sustaining the current war efforts in the long term. The FARC will be obliged to launch a military offensive to tip the balance in their favour, and they need to show that they cannot be vanquished by the State, in order to force a negotiation process with the new administration elected in 2006 that would relieve the huge military pressure which they are under. It seems likely that, as from this year, the guerrilla will use all the resources available to launch an escalation in violence in both rural and urban areas.

The other main linchpin of governmental security policy, namely negotiations with paramilitary groups, raises important questions. After the demobilisation of a number of regional formations of the AUC, the government is facing two major problems: on the one hand, how to manage the success of the regions where the AUC has disarmed; on the other hand, making headway in the conversations to achieve total demobilisation in the remaining active combat units. In regard to the first issue, demobilisation of the paramilitary units in the departments of Norte Santander, Magdalena, Cundinamarca, Antioquia and Valle has generated new problems. First, dismantling the AUC combat units has created a strategic vacuum which the FARC seek to quickly fill. Massacres such as the one committed in the Tibú region (Norte Santander) in the middle of last year are down to an attempt by rebels to win back ground in the area, pushing back those sectors of the population who had collaborated with the self-defence forces. Consequently, the regions where ‘paras’ have been demobilised require an increased presence by government forces, which looks unlikely since the State’s military resources are largely absorbed by the campaign against the FARC.

The significant volume of demobilisation generates additional problems. The mechanisms implemented by the government to facilitate the return to civilian life for demobbed paramilitaries seem insufficient to manage what already (with scarcely 20% of the AUC forces disarmed) amounts to the greatest demobilisation of Colombia’s recent history. Specifically, it is proving difficult to provide a legal livelihood to a huge number of ex-combatants with little employment experience in regions undergoing economic setbacks. The consequences of this lack of resources for the reinsertion of paramilitaries are already visible. In fact, criminal activity seems to be growing wherever the paramilitary groups are disbanded, a clear sign that many former fighters may have ended up as petty criminals after leaving the illegal defence forces.

A successful end to negotiations for the full demobilisation of the paramilitaries is facing serious obstacles. For the moment, there is no legal framework which establishes the mechanisms by which AUC combatants would be reinserted. Congress is processing a Justice, Truth and Reparation Bill, which should fill the vacuum; but the wording of the text is the subject of numerous disputes. These difficulties are natural, given the underlying tension in any process of demobilisation, balancing the need to offer a broad amnesty to members of armed groups in order to encourage them to disband and the obligation of affording justice to the victims of the violence. Furthermore, the characteristics of the illegal self-defence forces make it more difficult to find this indispensable balance and unblock the peace process.

Firstly, there are the serious violations of human rights attributable to the illegal self-defence forces. These formations were responsible for most of the massacres in Colombia in the second half of the nineties, when the paramilitary movement was trying to assert its influence throughout the country. In view of this background, broad sectors of public opinion and the political classes are against offering a general amnesty to these groups and ignoring such heinous crimes. At the same time, over the years the AUC developed a close relationship with the drug-dealing business, and the government is therefore in a tight corner. On the one hand, it could opt to include drug trafficking in the list of crimes eligible for amnesty in the demobilisation process; but it would run the risk of making the negotiations an escape hatch for drug mafia bosses. On the other, they could exclude the drug trade from the crimes eligible for amnesty; but this measure would cut the legal benefits which members of self-defence forces accused of drug-dealing are expecting to receive under the peace process’s umbrella, and this would probably mean that some of them would withdraw from the negotiating table and the process would collapse. Somewhere between the two extremes the government must find a path which makes dismantling the paramilitary groups viable without undermining the fight against drug dealing.

Demands for clarification of violent acts which accompany any peace process are particularly significant in the case of paramilitary demobilisation. The expansion of the AUC is impossible to understand without considering the web of complicity which they wove with certain political and business sectors where they operated. On this basis, the dismantling of the self-defence groups must go beyond demobilising their armed apparatus to include the political and economic networks which backed them. Otherwise, there is a risk that the interests which fed the AUC will remain intact after the current peace process ends, and that they rebuild the paramilitary formations as soon as they see fit. However, this demand for clarification of complicities with paramilitary groups would come up against strong opposition in some regions, where the presence of the self-defence forces was particularly intense and enduring.

The success of negotiations with the self-defence forces also hinges on the international community’s attitude. Initially, both the European Union and the US were sceptical about the dialogue started by the Colombian government, but the demobilisation of the AUC combatants throughout the year has substantially boosted the image of these talks abroad. In any event, Europeans and Americans still have reservations about the process. The EU has made its political and financial support conditional upon the establishment of a legal framework for demobilisation which affords justice and establishes mechanisms of reparation to victims of paramilitary groups. For its part, the US maintains its extradition requests for many of the AUC leaders accused of having links with drug dealing. In this context, the leaders of the self-defence units have made one of their main demands at the negotiating table the introduction of guarantees that they will not be handed over to Washington. Consequently, the US’s decision to pursue or freeze extradition requests may determine whether the paramilitary leaders decide to move on with disarmament or lose interest in peace and opt for a return to violence.

Conclusion: This long list of difficulties facing the government in its efforts to restore order does not mean that the results obtained so far by the PDSD are few or insignificant. In fact, the decline in the homicide rate and the lower number of kidnappings translates into something as essential as a tangible reduction in the suffering which Colombians have experienced in the last few decades because of the violence. However, there is no denying that the importance of the unresolved security challenges highlights the long way Colombia still has to go before calling itself a peaceful country.

Román D. Ortiz
Professor and Researcher at the Political Science Department, Social Sciences Faculty, Universidad de Los Andes (Bogotá)