Please enable javascript to access the full functionality of this site

More choice in Colombia than bribes and bullets

By Anthony Bergin

Originally published: Australian Financial Review. 14 July 2014.

Some days there just seems to be more bad news: chaos, conflict and general meanness prevailing across the world. So it’s comforting to find a good news story that shows how, with the right resources and strategies, a country can turn around its security problems.

Colombia is commonly thought of as a country overwhelmed by insurgency and populated by narcotrafficking and left-wing guerrillas. For many, former Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar summed up Colombia when he said, “Plata o Plomo", which means silver or lead. If someone got in his way he’d bribe him but if that didn’t work, then he would shoot them. But this perception is out of kilter with modern Colombia.

By the late 1990s, Colombia was on the verge of being a failed state. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) Marxist rebels have been at war with the central government since the sixties. The conflict left more than 220,000 dead.

In 2002, the government controlled just half of Colombia’s countryside. Ten years later, the figure is more than 90 per cent. This has paralleled a surge in economic growth over the past 10 years, averaging more than 5 per cent. Colombia’s now ranked the third easiest place to do business in Latin America. The flow of drugs has slowed and the area under cultivation is now a third of what it was 12 years ago. Violence and kidnapping are down dramatically.

Recently, I visited Colombia with a small group of senior African political leaders and military commanders to observe how the country has achieved this remarkable shift. Our group spoke with military and police officers, community representatives and demobilised guerrillas. We saw the progress being made.

We travelled by military helicopters and aircraft to isolated towns in remote jungles (a third of Colombia is covered by jungle) and sparsely populated coastal areas. We watched a Colombian victory in the World Cup with the bravest of the brave – soldiers who’d lost arms and legs to FARC improvised explosive devices.

We met with the recently re-elected President Juan Manuel Santos, who’d run on a campaign promise to continue the peace talks in Havana that he’d started with FARC in November 2012. He informed us that his aim is to conclude negotiations by later this year, although issues relating to victims rights and the handing over weapons are proving difficult to resolve.

The Colombians have built an incredibly impressive military force and allocated the necessary resources to their armed forces and police (about 480,000 strong). 

The country’s defence budget doubled over the past ten years and it’s been largely paid for by a wealth tax on business.

It was impressive to see how the military had gained community legitimacy through solid training in international humanitarian law in order to respect human rights as a core element in their operational success. The number of FARC combatants has dropped from about 20,000 in 2002 to less than 7000. The Colombian Agency for Reintegration has successfully reintegrated more than 46,000 ex-combatants.

The Colombian armed forces have successfully pushed guerrilla groups out of urban areas, into the peripheries. Some soldiers told us they’d been on station in remote areas for eleven years, visiting their families one month in every six.

The increased pressure placed on the illegal drugs trade in recent years has caused many rebels and criminal groups to expand into illegal logging, oil theft, and criminal mining, with illegal gold mining proving to be the most profitable. We saw how Colombia has worked to improve service and infrastructure delivery at the community level across an extraordinarily rugged countryside. 

Defence Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon told our group that 10 years ago, “we’d lost our country, and now we’ve got it back". What I witnessed during my visit is that, for those countries struggling with insurgency, it’s possible to combine a peace process with a hard-hitting counter insurgency. Colombia s now close to ending its long struggle. We should watch closely to see how it seizes this historic opportunity.

Anthony Bergin is a senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.