- The End of Civil Conflict in Colombia: The Military, Paramilitaries, and a New Role for the United States
Until recently, anyone who advocated a greater role for the military in a Latin American country as a way to bolster democracy, peace, and the rule of law would not have been taken seriously. After decades of military rule in the 1960s, 1970s, and even 1980s, most Latins were relieved when militaries throughout the region finally went “back to the barracks” as civilian regimes returned to power. Not surprisingly, Latin militaries were seen as antithetical to democracy. Yet, in the case of Colombia, a strong, reformed military is exactly what the country needs in order to achieve a lasting and democratic peace. Indeed, the situation in Colombia is an interesting paradox: it is Latin America’s longest-standing “democracy” that has the biggest need for a stronger military.
The current armed conflict in Colombia is, if anything, complex. Even those who make a career out of tracking events in this Andean country are often unable to clearly differentiate between the currently active belligerent groups, let alone their goals, funding sources, and degree of popular support. There is, however, one given in the conflict that is accepted by almost all observers, and that is the Colombian military’s inability to defeat the guerrillas, or even to establish areas that are free of guerrilla influence. Additionally, most Colombians living in areas of conflict have little faith in the military’s ability to protect them from either guerrilla groups or paramilitary forces. [End Page 223]
With peace talks between the Colombian government and guerrilla groups once again grabbing the headlines of Colombian newspapers, the question remains as to what are the major factors preventing more serious talks from getting underway. While the answer to this question undoubtedly involves many elements, one major obstacle to a peace agreement and an end to paramilitary violence is the continued ineffectiveness of the Colombian military. The military’s ineptitude is allowing the guerrillas to dictate the terms of peace so far, a fact that makes reaching a final agreement acceptable to the government very unlikely. Moreover, the military’s tacit and sometimes overt support of the paramilitaries greatly compounds a human rights crisis in the countryside, which will also need to be addressed before a true peace is reached. These two mutually reinforcing problems must be confronted by promoting the military’s institutional reform and improving its ability to combat the guerrillas. And as we will see, due to its incredible political, economic, and military influence in Colombia, the United States will, for better or worse, undoubtedly play a major role in this process.
In other countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala the close of the Cold War and demise of Marxist-Leninist ideologies prompted an end to the civil wars and the subsequent integration of the guerrillas into the political system. However, in Colombia the conflict between the government and guerrilla groups continues, with the fighting heaviest in just the last few years. Also, the Colombian case is unique in that the guerrillas have gradually increased their size and strength, allowing them to now control more than 40 percent of Colombian territory. This presents the unusual situation in which it is the guerrillas, and not the government, that will be negotiating from a position of strength. Thus, unlike El Salvador and Guatemala where it was felt that the military needed to be taken out of the equation during the peace negotiations, in Colombia a reformed, legitimate military that at least is able to achieve a strategic stalemate with the guerrillas will be a key component of the negotiations.
For years the poorly equipped, ill-trained Colombian military has been forced to tacitly acknowledge guerrilla-controlled areas of the country, and various agreements have existed between the two groups to leave each other alone. This in part explains the long period (from the late 1940s through today) that the insurgency has endured, with no apparent end in sight. Recent years have seen an increase in the presence and brutality of privately funded paramilitary groups that has brought a whole set of new and pernicious dynamics...