Colombia's new security push

President Juan Manuel Santos announced a strategic shift in Colombia's struggle against guerrilla rebels and narco-paramilitaries, in part via improved cooperation between government agencies.

By , Guest blogger

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    Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos speaks during Army Day, the 192nd anniversary of the Battle of Puente de Boyaca, in Boyaca, August 7, 2011.
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Amid accusations that the security situation in Colombia is taking a turn for the worse, President Juan Manuel Santos has announced an overhaul of security doctrine, to counter new tactics adopted by the Marxist rebels and the increasing threat presented by narco-paramilitary gangs.

The president made the announcement as he looked over the ground where 192 years ago, the Spanish were decisively defeated at the Battle of Boyaca. Even as he celebrated the definitive moment in the liberation of the Americas, he must have wondered what it was going to take to bring an end to the current 47-year civil conflict.

President Santos has recognized, perhaps belatedly, that the civil conflict has entered a new phase. The Marxist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberacion Nacional - ELN) are now presenting fewer targets for an army geared up for a traditional counterinsurgent war. The rebels are relying more and more on militiamen, who operate in civilian clothing and hide amongst the civilian population, rather than uniformed and heavily armed guerrilla fighters.

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Their relationship between the rebels and the new generation narco-paramilitary groups, called BACRIMs ("'bandas criminales" - criminal bands), means that all illegal actors in the conflict are now united not only in the interests of resisting the advance of central government, but for the drug trade.

"We have to adjust our doctrine, our operations, and our operating procedures, without falling into the trap of undermining the efficiency and vigor of the operations that we will continue to conduct against them, be it in the depth of the jungle or the altitude of the mountains; wherever is necessary," said the president as he looked over ranks of soldiers, many dressed in colonial-era uniforms.

The president did not talk about increasing the security forces yet further, but rather mimicking the actions of the rebels, by operating in small units. He placed particular emphasis on intelligence, announcing the creation of the Center for Fusion of Intelligence of the General Staff of the Armed Forces. While its title may be long-winded, the mission of the new Center is short and necessary: to unify intelligence gathering, and to overcome rivalries between the different intelligence agencies that at the moment sees duplication of effort and a resistance to the sharing of information. Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera later said that the personnel within the armed forces dedicated to intelligence gathering would be tripled, while the police would see its intelligence staff doubled.

Santos also mentioned the Achilles heel in the entire system, which is the administration of justice. Impunity levels are running at some 90 percent, meaning that the vast majority of those arrested end up walking free, which in turn undermines the credibility of the police. However instead of promising more resources to the justice system, the president simply said that the security forces would work more closely with those who prosecute crimes. This does not inspire a great deal of confidence, nor promise any reduction in the enormous backlog of cases that the attorney general's office and the courts are currently dealing with.

While his predecessor, President Alvaro Uribe, had the Democratic Security Policy, Santos has dubbed his efforts the Democratic Consolidation Policy. During his speech he again mentioned consolidation, yet his government has had very little success with its policy of establishing specific consolidation zones. These zones are designed to pacify areas so that other organs of the state may slipstream behind the security forces and win over the local population by providing health, education, and social security. However so far these consolidation zones have not only failed to consolidate state presence, but instead in many cases, have become the centers of the civil conflict.

Santos, as defense minister under Mr. Uribe, understands well the security threats. However since 2008, the guerrillas and the BACRIMs have stepped up their actions, and in certain parts of the country retaken the initiative from the security forces. This loss of initiative is most obvious in provinces like Arauca, Cauca, Chocó, Nariño, and Vichada. During this period, the smaller ELN has actually grown from 1,500 to 2,000 fighters, and deepened its involvement in the drug trade. The BACRIMs, foremost among them the Rastrojos and Urabeños, have increased their cooperation with the Marxist rebels, and in at least 11 of the country's 32 departments of provinces, are working with the guerrillas in the interests of the drug trade.

While the perception is that the security situation has worsened, this is not affected the popularity of President Santos, who has just celebrated his first year in office with approval ratings of over 70 percent.

--- Jeremy McDermott is a director at Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region.

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