Last month’s revelation that the Colombian Army, a top recipient of U.S. aid, may have killed more civilians than it did guerrilla combatants during the term of former President Álvaro Uribe raised eyebrows in Washington. Though upsetting, the disclosure should not jeopardize current U.S. contributions to Colombia. At a time when opposition political forces stand a chance at undermining the country’s advances in putting an end to conflict, U.S. support represents war-torn Colombia’s best chance for the successful reform of its military and for the consolidation of peace.
Public scrutiny of the Colombian military’s human rights record emerged out of a 2008 Colombian media exposé that implicated dozens of senior officers and soldiers in the murder of innocent civilians whose corpses were presented as insurgents killed in combat. The executions, which the military used to pump up its number of successes in the field, became known as “false positives,” as army leadership rewarded the units that killed the most insurgents with promotions and extra vacation time.
Uribe, whom many credit with beating back Colombia’s myriad insurgent groups during his presidency (2002 to 2010), used these same inflated numbers to entice the U.S. government to carry on with its security and economic assistance program known as Plan Colombia. From 2000 to 2016, the U.S. contributed more than $10 billion to Colombian efforts to eradicate drug crops, defeat rebels, expand state presence to rural areas, and professionalize Colombia’s security forces. Not surprisingly, U.S. foreign aid contributed directly to an escalation of Colombia’s decades-old conflict, and from 2000 to 2006, military operations and insurgent terrorist attacks crept toward record levels.
Human rights violations also spiked. Between 2008 and 2015, the Colombian justice system filed investigations into thousands of government troops implicated in at least 4,475 extrajudicial murders, and hundreds of military members, mostly low-ranking soldiers, have been dismissed or sentenced to prison for their involvement in these crimes.
However, a new study contends that the count is actually much higher, possibly reaching more than 10,000 extrajudicial homicides during Uribe’s presidency. The authors, who include a former Colombian police colonel, collected data from interviews with judicial investigators and soldiers allegedly involved in the killings. Their comments paint a worrying picture that political leadership and the justice system were complicit in the commission and cover-up of the abuses, and their accusations, if corroborated, would mean that the army murdered nearly two civilians for every one rebel killed in combat. Although other civil society organizations place the figure at a more conservative estimate of 5,763, one thing remains clear: thousands of extrajudicial murder cases attributed to the state remain unopened.
From pariah to preferred partner
Renewed scrutiny of Colombia’s human rights record comes at a pivotal time for the country’s international reputation. Just last week, President Juan Manuel Santos announced Colombia’s entry into the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and affiliation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Admission to these elite multinational bodies is a symbolic recognition of the country’s progress in adhering to democratic principles and in tackling extreme poverty.
Colombia has also made remarkable strides in reducing crime and violence. From 2012 to 2016, Mr. Santos negotiated a hard-won peace deal with the country’s largest insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The costly price tag for the implementation of the accord totals at least $44 billion over ten years, and the international community has demonstrated its resolve to assist the Colombian state by sponsoring a United Nations verification mission and by donating nearly $1 billion to date. The FARC and the Colombian government made good on these investments in 2017, when Colombia reported its lowest homicide rate in 40 years.
Notwithstanding these advances, the specter of impunity for war crimes will continue to weigh heavily on the Colombian government as it tries to reshape its global image until those responsible are brought to justice. To this end, the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump should extend a helping hand to Washington’s long-time ally.
An ally for peace
Building on the perceived success of Plan Colombia in helping bring the FARC to the negotiating table, the administration of President Barack Obama committed $450 million to the implementation of the peace accord—a modest but encouraging sum from Colombia’s wealthiest ally. On the contrary, Mr. Trump’s State Department, loath to endorse gestures that fail to put “America first,” has proposed an aid reduction for Colombia to $251 million for the 2019 fiscal year. Such reductions risk undermining U.S. geo-strategic interests in the region and squandering the momentum of peace helped by decades of U.S. investment.
Instead, the U.S. should sustain and reorient assistance for the Colombian military, which in the wake of the 2008 scandal started its own a process of reorganization and transformation. Accusations of human rights violations have dropped dramatically, and the military’s endorsement of the FARC peace agreement demonstrates a resolve to improve its badly damaged public image. The U.S. military, which was a key partner in the implementation of Plan Colombia, has both the credibility and influence to bolster the reformist instincts of the Colombian army’s leadership by facilitating efforts to tackle corruption and retool the military for post-conflict roles.
The U.S. government should also channel assistance to judicial authorities to investigate and expedite justice for extrajudicial murders. Since 2005, the U.S. Embassy has helped retrain Colombian prosecutors, judges, and investigators as Colombia transitioned to an accusatory legal model based on oral, transparent trials. Although the new legal code has reduced overall processing times by 76%, the justice system’s sluggish pace in handling “false positives” undermines post-conflict reconciliation. The FARC have committed to coming clean about abuses committed during the conflict in a transitional justice tribunal. Their willingness must be matched by state actors implicated in similar crimes if peace is ever to take hold.
Robust U.S. assistance on these fronts can help ensure that peace and justice remain priorities for the Colombian government regardless of the shifting political winds afoot. On June 17 Colombians head to the polls to vote in a hotly contested presidential runoff that is partly a referendum on the FARC accord. Any reduction in U.S. aid would serve only to embolden potential saboteurs of the peace process, including frontrunner Iván Duque. Mr. Duque, who is backed by former president Uribe and his conservative coalition, has promised to make “structural modifications” to the peace pact, which he believes confers too many judicial and political advantages to former guerrilla fighters. His closest advisers have repeatedly encouraged the dissolution of the accord and have attempted to protect the military from independent investigations into the “false positives” scandal.
He will go head to head with former Bogotá mayor Gustavo Petro, a progressive firebrand and former insurgent from the long-disbanded M-19 guerrilla group. Mr. Petro has promised not only to carry out the FARC peace deal but also to overhaul Colombia’s social welfare system by raising taxes on the wealthy. His polarizing candidacy, while a safe bet for those in favor of the existing peace agreement, has managed to isolate Colombia’s political elite and the large block of centrist voters who compare his ambitions to the disastrous left-wing regime in neighboring Venezuela
Regardless of who comes out on top in next month’s contest, Colombia and its benefactor to the north cannot afford to sacrifice the country’s tremendous progress—or to ignore growing demands for justice for state-sponsored abuses. The U.S. government, by sustaining its aid to the Colombian security and justice sectors, can help the country stay its course. In doing so, it would not only double down on the gains made to date but also send a compelling message that the U.S. is as much a champion of peace as it was of war.
Paul J. Angelo is a PhD Candidate at the Institute of the Americas, University College London. From 2010 to 2011, he served as a U.S. military adviser to the Colombian Ministry of Defense under Plan Colombia. He previously completed an MPhil in Latin American Studies as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford and is a Foreign Area Officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of the U.S. Department of Defense.