Colombia ushers in a new security strategy with defense minister change

Rodrigo Rivera steps down amid the perception that security in Colombia has deteriorated in the past year. Massacres have become almost a weekly occurrence, and kidnappings are up 9 percent.

By , Correspondent

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    Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (C) speaks next to outgoing Minister of Defense Rodrigo Rivera (L) and newly designated Minister of Defense Jaun Carlos Pinzon (R) during a news conference in Bogota on August 31.
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Colombia ushers in a new military strategy today with a brand new defense minister after Rodrigo Rivera resigned from the post yesterday.

The rumors that Mr. Rivera was on his way out had been swirling for months, and each time leftist rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) made a bold attack on government forces or neo-paramilitary groups massacred an entire family those rumors grew louder. Amid mounting concern that Colombia was backsliding in security, the pressure for his ouster mounted.

I had even bet a general in southern Colombia that Rivera would be out by the end of August. The general agreed he would be replaced but figured it would be toward the end of the year. I woke up Wednesday thinking I’d lost. By mid-morning, I’d won.

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President Juan Manuel Santos replaced Rivera with Juan Carlos Pinzon, a highly regarded technocrat who had been the president’s chief of staff since he took office last year. Mr. Pinzon had also been deputy defense minister under Mr. Santos and is generally well regarded among the military. "There is no one more prepared or more capable to take on the role of minister for defense," said the president.

The newspaper El Tiempo calls the change in minister the end of the era of "Democratic Security," the banner under which former President Álvaro Uribe, during his two terms in office, beat back the guerrilla threat. Although Santos was Mr. Uribe’s defense minister, Rivera was considered the die-hard Uribista in Santos’s cabinet. Santos thanked Rivera for his service and for the 2,400 guerrillas killed, captured, or demobilized in the past year.

However, the perception is that security has deteriorated in the past year. While overall homicides continued to decline – with 10 percent fewer this year than last – massacres, which had all but disappeared after the demobilization of more than 30,000 rightwing paramilitary fighters between 2003 and 2005, have become almost a weekly occurrence. Kidnapping is up 9 percent and not even the president believes in the low official figures on extortion “because of what I hear and perceive,” he said.

Pinzon's task will be to implement a new military strategy against the FARC, which after suffering a series of bruising blows is back on the offensive using traditional guerrilla tactics, and the neo-paramilitaries – known as BACRIM, or "bandas criminales," – are blamed for much of the urban violence and attacks on human rights activists. The new strategy reorganizes the military structure, and operations will be conducted by small, specialized units.

Changes are also expected in the military command. Santos, who studied at the naval academy, had appointed an admiral as his armed forces commander, which members of the army took as an offense. Observers say the effects have been seen on the ground, where the army has been reluctant to carry out orders from the general command. Admiral Edgar Cely is expected to be replaced by November.

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