Ending Colombia’s cycles of revenge
A new president takes office Sunday vowing to uncouple the military and police forces as the country seeks healing after decades of conflict.
Societies torn by conflict sometimes wait generations for a path to peace. In Colombia, which has long been beset with drug and political violence, many hope that moment has come. On Sunday, leftist economist Gustavo Petro will be sworn in as president with a promise to restore trust between the people and security forces, restart talks with rebel groups, and address inflation, hunger, and inequality.
Mr. Petro’s rise to power reflects a yearning among Colombians for an end to violence and corruption. His term starts just weeks after Colombia’s truth commission began releasing reports on a half-century of civil war that left more than 450,000 people dead. That commission grew out of a 2016 peace accord with a large Marxist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym FARC).
“Colombians are teaching reconciliation in the midst of the most brutal pain,” said Francisco de Roux, a Jesuit priest and director of the truth commission. The long pursuit of peace, he said, has taught people that “we need to leave fear aside.”
Mr. Petro brings an unusual perspective to the presidency. As a member of an erstwhile guerrilla movement in the 1980s, he breaks an uninterrupted line of centrist or conservative leaders. He was imprisoned and, he claims, tortured. He eventually turned to politics, first as the mayor of Bogotá, the capital, and later was elected to the Senate, where he exposed corruption in the military and ties between the armed forces, politicians, and rebel factions.
He inherits a society riddled with overlapping conflicts involving drug cartels, urban gangs, and various paramilitary movements. He has promised to boost spending to address the social and economic reasons that drive many former soldiers to join with guerrilla forces. He has also proposed separating the police from the military and putting it under a new agency focused on reconciliation.
The reforms, Mr. Petro argues, are meant to break a culture within the security forces that regards almost any citizen with left-leaning political views as “the internal enemy.” That change, he argues, requires building a foundation for the rule of law based on a mutual respect for the rights and economic development of both soldiers and civilians. “Human security cannot be built if the soldier and policeman cannot be looked at humanely” and without suspicion, he wrote in a newspaper opinion piece.
His chosen defense minister, Iván Velásquez, has long experience in investigating military abuses of civilians. To lessen a fear within the military that the government will seek revenge and retribution in probes of wrongdoing, he tweeted a message last month: “A government for peace cannot generate revenge or promote hatred, but neither can it protect impunity. You can’t persecute, but you can’t cover up either. So should be the magnanimity of the ruler.”
The new president is also up against widespread concerns among Colombians about violence, the economy, and corruption. Yet Mr. Petro walks into the presidential palace bearing cautious hopes of Colombians that cycles of violence can be broken. That means reforms must win over revenge.