Colombia makes huge leaps forward in its search for enduring peace

By Dialogo
December 20, 2013

This is the last article of a three-part series. Previous articles :
Part 1: An integrated road to Colombian peace

Part 2: Light at the end of the tunnel: the 21st century and Plan Patriota

Under close consultation with the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá in 2004, the territorial consolidation program was established precisely as a strategy to bring a perceivable state presence to rural areas enveloped in the conflict, where until then it had been absent. Then-Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos and his Vice-Minister of Defense, Sergio Jaramillo, chose fifteen priority zones with several ungoverned municipalities in each, based on their rates of illegal armed group activity, presence of coca crops and frequency of use as hubs for weapons and drug trafficking.
The Center for Coordination of Integrated Action was born in 2007, with the mission of designing a pilot program to consolidate one prioritized zone, bringing together military, government, public and private sector efforts to provide services, build infrastructure, establish a justice system and develop sustainable opportunities for local families that had been forced to resort to illegal crops and activities because they had no other choice.
But in 2011, the Ministry of National Defense reorganized the strategy by erecting the Special Administrative Unit for Territorial Consolidation (UAECT) as the national entity responsible for meeting that goal for all prioritized regions, including clearing them from the presence of illegal armed groups, disrupting their support and supply networks, and eradicating illegal coca crops manually and voluntarily with the help of the locals themselves.
Because of its remote location and high insecurity, the areas would be militarized first, paving the way for state actors –including police, prosecutors and development workers– to follow. They would carry out highly visible projects with quick results, such as infrastructure improvements, in which the communities would be engaged and their needs would be heard. Eventually, additional assistance would start flowing in to fund productive projects, including technical and financial support for alternative crops. As these grew, so did the regions’ security and popular trust in the government, which in turn, attracted additional willingness by civilian agencies to step in and provide more services and activities.
Currently under the direction of Dr. Germán Chamorro de la Rosa, the interagency UAECT includes the Counter Illicit Crop Program, under which the Forest Ranger Families initiative resides; the Rapid Response Program, a mechanism to use state resources to develop small projects and actions to respond to the needs and interests established by the inhabitants of the prioritized areas; and the Colombia Answers Program, a government strategy supported by international cooperation to implement the national policy of territorial consolidation and reconstruction in the focus areas.
Colombian Vice Minister of Defense for Policy and International Affairs Jorge Enrique Bedoya, explained that the government’s multipronged Integrated Action approach has allowed to strategically align actions that lead to winning the minds and hearts of populations where it is applied, thus isolating them from the threat of terrorism. “Integrated Action is the non-kinetic component of the war plan that allows the Colombian state to bring territorial consolidation to strategic areas in a resolute and coordinated manner in order to isolate it from the threat.”

The way ahead

Since his election, Santos has continued many of the policies initiated by Uribe’s government, and the military effort continues to press on against the enemy. He also entered into peace talks with the FARC in November 2012, the fourth such attempt in Colombia’s conflict history. A five-point agenda including rural land development; the FARC’s participation in politics; drug trafficking; demobilization and reparation for the conflict’s victims was established. By November 2013, the parties had agreed on the first two topics, being negotiated in Havana, Cuba.
The successes of Plan Patriota paved the road for “Sword of Honor,” a war plan established in 2012 to aggressively counter the FARC and other hostile illegal organizations, including the relatively recently emerged criminal gangs, or BACRIMs. The objective was to reduce the group by 50 percent in two years to prevent it from attacking the state or its interests. In addition, the war plan wanted to eliminate 15 of the FARC’s 67 most economically and militarily powerful units.
In October 2013, President Santos announced the launch of “Sword of Honor II,” an augmented war plan to increase military offensives against the FARC in seven departments to the south of the country. The main objective, according to Colombian daily El Tiempo, is to break down the terrorist group’s southern and eastern blocks –considered to be its strongest military faction, and combat specific high-value targets, including alias “Carlos Antonio Lozada”, “Romaña”, “Fabian Ramírez”, “El Paisa”, and “Joaquín Gómez”, leader of the southern block.
According to Vice Minister Bedoya, updating Sword of Honor resulted in the creation of a joint, coordinated, and interagency attempt guided by the support of the state’s policies and efforts to guarantee its permanent and sustained presence in areas where it is absent, thus strengthening the link between the civil population and the public forces.
He explained that the war plan was designed to achieve specific short, medium and long-term goals –from early victories consisting of developing infrastructure projects to benefit the populations of the affected areas, to strengthening the relationships with the country’s different ethnic groups to reinforce rapprochement and confidence building strategies between these and the public forces, and finally, a total transformation of the forces to achieve greater impact in the coordinated, interagency collaboration of establishing Integrated Action as a multiplying factor of governability.
The world has watched Colombia make huge leaps forward in its search for enduring peace during the past dozen years. Through it all, it has maintained its democratic principles and grown as an economically viable state and become a developing economy. Its public forces have managed to accumulate unique experiences, knowledge and capabilities that can be utilized to support internal improvement processes and capability strengthening in other countries that face similar threats.
In that sense, Vice Minister Bedoya stated that Colombia is in a unique position to offer and share its lessons through mechanisms of cooperation, capacity building, technical and legal assistance, experience exchanges, courses and counseling on security and defense topics, so that those countries can better stand up to their transnational threats.
The Brookings Institution analysis calls Colombia’s turnaround, “one of the best stories on the national security front of the 21st century to date”, and agrees that Colombia can be a future key partner on global security activities for the United States. “It can then help [the U.S.] make progress throughout the region in general, working to stabilize a group of countries that are key to [U.S.] security.”