The controversial role of the Colombian army

. Jul 20, 2020
colombia armed forces farc Soldiers march past cheering crowds at the Colombian Independence Day military parade. Photo: James Wagstaff/Shutterstock

Since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) became Latin America’s biggest guerrilla movement in 1964, the role of the Colombian army has been shrouded in controversy. After more than 50 years of crossfire between the FARC and the military, the Colombian National Center for Historical Memory estimates that at least 260,000 people were killed. Of those, 82 percent were civilians.

Sexual violence has also been a persistent problem, brought back to light by a horrific case this year involving the gang rape of a 12-year-old indigenous girl by a group of Colombian military officers. In the last four years alone, at least 118 members of the Armed Forces are under investigation for sexual violence. According to prosecutors, rape is a practice that is ingrained in the Colombian military, though it is dismissed by high-ranking officers as “individual conduct.”

</p> <p>The recent case involving the indigenous minor from the small western town of Pueblo Rico dominated headlines in Colombia, coming just a few days after Congress approved a constitutional amendment to reinstate life imprisonment after 110 years. With the massive support of conservative President Iván Duque, the “new old law” targets those convicted of rape and murder of vulnerable individuals.&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, as Colombia waits for the Constitutional Court to deliberate whether the law from 1910 will in fact be reinstated, the army faces growing criticism. While the left-wing sees it as a monument to a history of institutionalized violence, right-wing movements claim the military has been corrupted. So, what is the future for the Colombian Armed Forces?</p> <iframe src="" width="100%" height="232" frameborder="0" allowtransparency="true" allow="encrypted-media"></iframe> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>According to Sebastián Ronderos, a Colombian professor of politics at the University of Essex, among the Latin American countries that live through a <a href="">military dictatorship</a>, Colombia is an outlier in terms of the prominence of its military and its impact on politics. But this logic — that has defined Colombian society for the last 60 years — is slowly changing.</p> <p>“Even without having had military regimes like Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, Colombia has a longstanding culture of militarization. It is still one of the nations that spend most on defense, at around 3 percent of the GDP. However, the ‘false positive’ scandals and rape charges have been weakening the military&#8217;s image and opening a public debate regarding their role in the country,” Mr. Rondéros told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>The ‘false positive’ debacle relates to the massacre of civilians at the hands of the military, who were presented erroneously as members of guerrilla movements. Like the recent rape cases among army officers, the numbers of civilian killings only came to light in recent years, revealing the role of the Armed Forces in summary extrajudicial executions. Prosecutors say that the Army carried out more than 2,200 executions between 1998 and 2014.</p> <h2>Has peace really been restored?</h2> <p>In 2016, Colombia&#8217;s then-President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for being the first leader to officially sit down and come to a truce with the FARC, with a view to ending the 50-year-long conflict. The guerrilla movement laid down its guns and became a political party, the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, cheekily maintaining the FARC acronym.&nbsp;</p> <p>The peace deal was, however, an extremely divisive issue among the Colombian population. Asked to vote whether they wanted the agreement to be signed, 50.2 percent of Colombians said “no.” The majority held that the creation of special courts under the new deal would forgive war crimes, erasing the lines of a violent history that deserve fair punishment.</p> <p>Now, almost four years after the controversial deal was signed, the country faces new problems: FARC dissidents have taken up arms by forming splinter groups and conservative sectors have mounted enormous pressure to rip up the peace agreement.</p> <p>As Mr. Rondéros explains, this could be an opportunity for the Colombian Army. “The <a href="">militarized speech</a>, especially in the last decades, is associated with the existence of an ‘internal enemy.’ Even though the Armed Forces have an image crisis, the conservative sectors which support the military&#8217;s role in Colombia find strength by arguing that the armed conflict still exists.”</p> <p>As it seems, ending half a century of conflict requires much more than just half a decade, and support for the Colombian military continues, albeit as a &#8220;necessary evil.&#8221;

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs—specializing Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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