NATIONAL SECURITY Armed Forces Overview: The president is commander in chief of the Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas de Colombia—FAC). The civilian-led Ministry of Defense is responsible for internal and external security and oversees both the police and the armed forces, including the army, air force, and navy. Under the Uribe administration, the minister of defense has only administrative duties because the president has assumed personal command of the military. The FAC consist of the army (Ejército Nacional); navy (Armada Nacional), including naval aviation, marines, and coast guard; air force (Fuerza Aérea Colombiana); and paramilitary National Police (Policía Nacional—PN). The commanders of the three services (army, navy, and air force) are responsible to the commander general of the armed forces, who reports directly to the Ministry of Defense. The president is advised by the Superior Council of Defense and Security (Consejo Superior de Defensa y Seguridad—CSDS). The FAC are responsible for maintaining order and security in rural areas and support the PN in urban areas when called upon. In 2004 the active armed forces totaled 207,000, including about 74,700 conscripts. The armed forces strength by service was as follows: army 178,000, including 63,800 conscripts; navy 22,000, including 100 naval aviation, 14,000 marines, and 7,000 conscripts; and air force 7,000, including some 3,900 conscripts. In 2004 the Uribe government’s goal was to increase the number of military and security forces to 850,000 over the next four years.
Foreign Military Relations: Many Colombian military personnel have received training in the United States or U.S. training in Colombia; the United States has provided equipment to the Colombian military and police through the military assistance program, foreign military sales, and the international narcotics control program. In 1999–2001, the U.S. government approved a US$1.3 billion aid package called Plan Colombia, most of which is earmarked for military hardware for antidrug efforts. The US$574.6 million U.S. government assistance package to Colombia, which was approved by the U.S. Congress in late January 2004, includes funds to strengthen the armed forces. This expansion includes the establishment of a new commando battalion and an increase in joint security operations with neighboring countries. U.S. military aid is devoted primarily to training units of the Special Forces and Rapid Deployment Force. In 2004, 320 U.S. military trainers and about 400 U.S. civilian contractors were in Colombia helping the Colombian armed forces to develop commando squads dedicated to capturing or killing rebel commanders.
External Threat: Colombia does not face any known foreign threats. The only neighbor that might pose a potential military challenge over as-yet unresolved territorial disputes relating to the maritime boundary, where there may be oilfields, would be Venezuela. The largely state-controlled Venezuelan media portray Colombia as an external aggressor with U.S. backing. However, the two countries have not allowed the occasional security incidents involving Colombian guerrillas and paramilitaries along their long common border to escalate into a serious issue since both nations concluded a bilateral free-trade agreement in 1991. The already strong cross-border trade links between Colombia and Venezuela were solidified in July 2004 with an agreement to build a US$200 million natural gas pipeline between the two countries. As a friendly gesture on that occasion, President Uribe cancelled the planned purchase of AMX-30 tanks from Spain and their deployment on the border with Venezuela.
Defense Budget: This budget as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) has been expanding during the 2000–04 period (from 3.2 percent in 2000 and 3.4 percent in 2001 and 2002). The Uribe government has committed Colombia to increasing defense expenditures from the 2004 level of 3.6 percent of GDP to 5 percent of GDP by 2005 and 6 percent of GDP by 2006.
Major Military Units: The army is organized into six divisions consisting of 17 brigades (6 mechanized, 2 air-portable, and 9 infantry), the Army Aviation Brigade, the Antinarcotics Brigade, the Special Forces Brigade, the Training Brigade, and two artillery battalions. The infantry includes 46 infantry battalions, 20 counterinsurgency battalions, 4 jungle battalions, 4 high-mountain battalions, 4 military police battalions, and 3 antinarcotics battalions. The navy is organized into four fleet commands (including five marine battalions), a coast guard, and a naval air arm. The 14,000-member Colombian Marine Corps is organized into a single division with two brigades (one amphibious assault brigade and one riverine brigade), each with two battalions. The air force is organized into an air combat command with two fighter squadrons, a tactical air support command, a utility/armed helicopter command, a military air transport command, and an air training command.
Major Military Equipment: The army inventory includes 12 light tanks, 135 reconnaissance vehicles, about 200 armored personnel carriers, 20 antitank-guided weapons, and about 100 helicopters. The navy has 4 submarines, 8 principal surface combatants, 27 patrol and coastal combatants, 5 offshore patrol vessels, 9 coastal/inshore patrol vessels, and 13 riverine patrol boats. The air force inventory includes 57 combat aircraft and 23 armed helicopters. The paramilitary National Police force has 28 aircraft and 10 helicopters. In mid-2004, the air force was planning to make a major purchase of 24 new units by the end of the year. The main competition was between the favored Brazilian Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano and the Raytheon AT-6B Texas II. The latter is the new attack version of the T-6A, used in the United States as a trainer.
In 2004 the state arms manufacturer, Military Industry (Industria Militar—Indumil), in an attempt to make Colombia self-sufficient in small arms and munitions, was planning a large expansion in production to include automatic pistols, mortars, grenade launchers, and a light machine gun.
Military Service: At 18, every non-student male must present himself for military service of one to two years (normally 24 months). However, those from well-off families can buy their way out of serving, and those with high-school diplomas are exempt from combat. In effect, mostly the poor with little education actually serve. After completing active service, conscripts become part of the reserve. In 2004 an estimated 11,252,027 males age 15 to 49 were available, while an estimated 7,495,462 males age 15 to 49 were deemed fit for military service.
Military Forces Abroad: Colombia has one infantry battalion in Egypt in support of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), an independent international peacekeeping organization established by Egypt and Israel to monitor the security arrangements of their 1979 Treaty of Peace. The paramilitary National Police deployed personnel to serve with United Nations peacekeeping forces in Croatia and El Salvador.
Security Forces: In 2004 the security forces totaled 129,000 personnel, including 121,000 members of the paramilitary National Police (Policía Nacional—PN) and 8,000 members of the rural militia. Although the PN and the military forces are formally independent institutions, with their own budgets and personnel, the members of the PN fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense. The PN shares law enforcement duties, with the exception of investigative functions, with the Administrative Department of Security (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad—DAS) and the Prosecutor General's Corps of Technical Investigators. The highly trained Groups of Unified Action for Personal Freedom (Grupos de Acción Unificada por la Libertad Personal—Gaula) have long enjoyed U.S. support and have a fleet of Blackhawk helicopters and aircraft for the tasks of drug crop eradication and antikidnapping and urban hostage-rescue operations.
Internal Threat: Despite endemic violence stemming from left-wing guerrilla activity, paramilitary groups, and drug traffickers, constitutional order and institutional stability have prevailed. Nevertheless, the country’s political and social foundations have been undermined by the violence and corruption associated with the enormous wealth created by the drug cartels. Most Colombian government institutions have a reputation for inefficient, corrupt, and bureaucratic management, with the notable exceptions of the Central Bank, Ministry of Finance, and some other agencies responsible for economic policy formulation.
Common crime is rampant and often carried out with impunity. Officially registered homicides in Colombia reached a historic record of 28,837 in 2002, but declined by 20 percent in 2003 to 23,013. The high homicide rate is also fueled by high unemployment, growing poverty, the ready availability of guns, and the growth of drug trafficking and organized crime. Criminal bands specializing in kidnapping, extortion, and robbery target businesses and civilians. Kidnapping exceeded a record 3,700 reported cases in 2000, but subsequently declined to 2,986 cases in 2002 as a result of improved law enforcement; the figure projected for 2003 was between 2,500 and 2,700. Guerrilla and paramilitary groups are responsible for about 68 percent of kidnappings and organized crime, about 32 percent.
Activities by foreign terrorist or drug-trafficking groups in Colombia have been minimal, consisting mostly of criminal activities involving Maicao-based Hezbollah members or international crime groups, such as the Russian Mafia, which was last reported to have supplied the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—FARC) with sophisticated weapons in 2000. In 1998 an Islamic terrorist was deported for engaging in illegal transactions with the FARC.
Narcotics Production and Trafficking: The country’s principal organized crime activity involves the production and smuggling of illicit drugs, mainly cocaine and heroin, and this activity has also involved the guerrilla and paramilitary forces. Colombia is the world’s leading supplier of refined cocaine and a growing source for heroin; more than 90 percent of cocaine that enters the United States is produced, processed, or transshipped in Colombia. The United States provides military and financial support for the government’s war on drugs. Despite an active aerial eradication program, coca cultivation more than doubled between 1995 and 1999. Despite a 15 percent decline since 2001, Colombia remains the world’s leading coca cultivator.
During the narcoterrorist era (1983–93), narcotics traffickers sponsored assassinations of numerous government officials and politicians. Narco-terrorists assassinated three presidential candidates before César Gavíria Trujillo was elected president in 1990,but since then they have favored low-profile bribery and intimidation over high-profile acts of terrorism because the latter resulted in government crack-downs and dismantlement of the large drug cartels, including the Cali Cartel and the Medellín Cartel. Although extradition was banned in 1991, drug traffickers have again been subject to extradition to the United States since 1997. By December 2004, the Uribe government had extradited more than 170 drug-trafficking suspects to the United States. Seeing an opportunity to be part of an immunity program for the paramilitary groups, in 2004 Colombian drug traffickers were joining or buying their way into the paramilitary militias.
Insurgency and Terrorism: Two major guerrilla organizations, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional—ELN), plus a smaller People’s Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Popular—EPL) group continue to be active. In 1996–98 the FARC and ELN extended their presence in the national territory and scored some strategic gains against the poorly led armed forces by besieging and easily overrunning isolated military garrisons. The Pastrana government responded in November 1998 by granting the FARC a 51,000-square-kilometer demilitarized zone (DMZ) in southeast Colombia as a concession in exchange for beginning peace talks. However, the FARC used the DMZ as a haven to increase illicit drug crops, transport military equipment and provisions, and negotiate kidnappings and extortions. After peace negotiations collapsed in early 2002, security forces retook the DMZ on February 20. Until 2002, the armed conflict was fought primarily in the countryside. Since then, the FARC, having honed its remote-control bombing techniques with the aid of Europe-based terrorist groups, has expanded its operations to include occasional indiscriminate terrorist bombings and other attacks in Bogotá. One FARC car bombing at one of Bogotá’s most exclusive social clubs, El Nogal, on February 9, 2003, killed 36 people, including 6 children, and wounded more than 173 others.
With the support of the United States, the administration of President Uribe has sought to professionalize the armed forces and to engage them more fully in the counterinsurgency war; as a result, the armed groups have suffered a series of setbacks. The president’s plan includes the formation of platoons of “peasant soldiers,” or locally recruited men, to provide guard duty around previously unguarded municipalities in support of the police and regular troops. By August 2004, more than 8,000 peasant soldiers had been recruited and trained, and plans called for increasing that number to 15,000 across the country by 2006.
In 2003 the FARC had an estimated force of as many as 18,000 active members plus a 5,000-member urban militia; the ELN had an estimated 3,500 members plus an urban militia; and the EPL had an estimated 500 members. In August 2003, under increasing pressure by the armed forces, the FARC and the ELN announced an alliance. This partnership had already been a reality in certain parts of the country where ELN and FARC units fought side by side, and has been broadened to include the whole country. The alliance has not made any significant difference yet, but in the long term the two groups pose a much greater threat jointly than they do separately, as the military power of the FARC and the political strength of the ELN complement each other.
The Uribe government has rejected the guerrilla demands for prisoner exchanges and demilitarized zones as a precondition for peace talks. By 2004 stepped-up government actions against the guerrillas with the help of significant U.S. military aid had kept the guerrillas mostly withdrawn into the countryside, while government efforts to improve the economy and reduce cocaine production were showing results. Although it is generally believed that the left-wing guerrillas have little chance of taking power in Colombia, they and the right-wing paramilitary forces control as much as half of the country. Analysts believe that it would take years for the armed forces to make any significant progress in reducing the territory held by the armed groups. The main guerrilla groups remain well funded and well equipped and are capable of carrying out an occasional act of urban terrorism in Bogotá.
Right-Wing Illegal Paramilitary Forces: The largest paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia—AUC), has an estimated 10,600 members. It operates as a loose confederation of disparate paramilitary groups, the largest of which is the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá—ACCU). Other important paramilitary organizations include the Cacique Nutibara Bloc (Bloque Cacique Nutibara—BCN), the Central Bolivar Bloc (Bloque Central Bolívar—BCB), and the Middle Magdalena Bloc (Bloque del Magdalena Medio—BMM). These groups are all involved in battling the guerrillas and terrorizing their supporters or sympathizers among the civilian population.
The Uribe administration opened formal negotiations with the AUC in July 2003 with the goal of demobilization of the AUC by late 2005. Obstacles include immunity from prosecution for their crimes and U.S. extradition warrants for AUC leaders, several of whom have been indicted for drug trafficking. Nevertheless, at the start of October 2004 the AUC announced unilaterally a partial disarmament, with 3,000 of its fighters located along the border with Venezuela disarming by the end of the year.
Human Rights: According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2003 human rights report, Colombia’s human rights record, despite significant improvements by police and military forces in some areas, remained poor. Although an increasingly small percentage of total human rights abuses reported were attributed to security forces, some members continued to commit serious abuses, including unlawful and extrajudicial killings. Some members collaborated with the AUC paramilitary terrorist group, which has committed serious abuses. Allegations of forced disappearances and kidnappings remained. In 2003 there were allegations of arbitrary arrests and detentions, and prolonged pretrial detention remained a fundamental problem. Impunity remained at the core of the country's human rights problems.
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. Individuals criticize the government both publicly and in private, and the media express a wide spectrum of political viewpoints and often sharply criticize the government, all without fear of government reprisal. However, journalists practice self-censorship to avoid retaliation and harassment by criminals and members of illegal armed groups. Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in which to practice the profession of journalism; a number of journalists are killed almost every year, and journalists continue to work in an atmosphere of threats and intimidation, in some instances from corrupt local officials in collaboration with paramilitary groups, but primarily from terrorist groups. A key component of the government's "Democratic Security Strategy" to combat terrorism and restore order throughout the country is a network of civilian informants who are paid to identify terrorist activists and sympathizers. Many national and international human rights groups have criticized the network as vulnerable to abuse and as a threat to privacy and other civil liberties.
The National Penitentiary Institute (Instituto Nacional Penitenciario y Carcelario—INPEC) is in charge of the prison system. Many of INPEC's 8,756 prison guards are poorly trained or corrupt. Police, prison guards, and military forces routinely mistreat detainees. Conditions in the severely overcrowded and under-funded prisons are harsh, especially for prisoners without significant outside support, and prisoners frequently rely on bribes for favorable treatment. The government does not hold political prisoners, although in 2003 it held approximately 6,800 prisoners accused of terrorism, rebellion, or aiding and abetting insurgency.