“Peace in Colombia will Come by Means of Reason”
By Dialogo April 16, 2013
Interview with the Colombian Minister of Defense, Juan Carlos Pinzón
Juan Carlos Pinzón, Colombian Minister of Defense, believes that his children will grow up in a country at peace. During a recent visit to the United States, Pinzón talked to Diálogo about the weakened guerillas, disrupted criminal gangs, and a nation that is getting closer to living a normal life. He said that thanks to the work of the Military and Police Forces, Colombia can now start dreaming of peace and prosperity.
Diálogo: Minister Pinzón, you said that you hope Colombia becomes the most hostile territory for drug trafficking and that you aspire to reach a level of security that allows the State to access areas that were unreachable before. What steps is Colombia taking in this respect?
Juan Carlos Pinzón, Colombian Minister of Defense: Drug trafficking is perhaps one of the greatest tragedies that affected Colombia, because it arrived several decades ago and found areas where state and public force presence was not strong enough, undoubtedly a situation with little opportunity. Hence, drug trafficking colonized these areas, and through the money it generated – because undoubtedly there’s consumption from richer countries – produced corruption, terrorism and violence. The influence and expansion of the drug trade was such that it became a threat against the Colombian state, not in terms of public health, but specifically of national security.
Colombia has made tremendous efforts and sacrifices to counter drug trafficking in a decisive way. It is due to these efforts that drug trafficking today is roughly 30 percent less than what it was 10 or 12 years ago. This means that we still have a challenge; we have to keep reducing that destabilizing factor in the Colombian society. However, we are exerting more and more pressure, and we have limited their operations severely, lessening the threat to the nation.
We have to come up with a strategy for eradication, interdiction, and prosecution in areas where coca crops and cocaine production centers are still operational, but also have options and alternatives available for social order. About a year and a half ago, the Colombian government created the National Consolidation Agency in order to formalize, among other things, the state’s ability to introduce permanent policies that complement the use of force in isolated and deprived areas, and coordinate those with social policies from the rest of the government agencies. Now we must ensure that this agency is producing effective results in order to have a combination of a firm hand against drug trafficking and criminal organizations, and a helping hand ready to provide opportunities and alternatives to the community.
Diálogo: Criminal gangs have also been a real scourge for the Colombian society. Are they still a serious problem today?
Minister Pinzón: Criminal gangs are the heirs to regional cartels and inaccurately-called paramilitary groups. These organizations used to have a national presence, and exercised control through violence and intimidation of territories where they had special interests in business involving drug trafficking and criminal mining. Through the efforts made by our current government and the National Police’s ‘Corazón Verde’ strategy against criminal gangs, in which the legal system and law enforcement are employed instead of military force, we have been able to disrupt each one of these gangs in the last 15 months. All those who in early 2012 led these organizations are now either dead or serving time in Colombian or U.S. prisons. As a consequence, we have destroyed their national command structures, and they now survive as local criminal organizations. The challenge now is to dismantle these local and regional criminal groups, which will obviously be affected by the strategies I previously referenced.
Diálogo: What impact do the recent changes to the Colombian Constitution have on the work performed by the Colombian Military?
Minister Pinzón: We have been working on a comprehensive reform of the legal framework upon which the Armed Forces are allowed to act and operate. This involved a constitutional amendment that very clearly defined the setting in which the Armed Forces can operate, in relation to International Humanitarian Law (IHL). This defines the limits of military penal law, defines its autonomy and generates basic guidelines to investigate cases that are familiar to that law under the framework of IHL. More recently, a statutory law was introduced in Congress to support these constitutional reforms. By blending Colombian Law with IHL, the law defines what are potentially legitimate targets as well as what can be considered an armed group, without implying that an armed group has political rights. With that in place, we can identify that an organization with a unified command and control could be considered an armed group if the intensity of violence they exert and the amount of weapons it uses surpasses its capacity to be handled by law enforcement or competent local authorities, and which, at the same time, supresses the authorities with that violence, generating certain control on the territory.
Within the framework of IHL, this measure allows proportional military force to be used against these organizations, or even that law enforcement authorities may act against them. This puts in place a proportional state response supported by a clear legal framework, depending on the type of threat that the Colombian society is facing. Furthermore, it assures the Armed Forces that if the necessary protocols for the use of military force are established, they will be legally allowed to operate whenever necessary, which also gives the Military and Police Forces legal certainty, an essential factor for their effective operation.
More importantly, we are moving forward towards establishing the necessary measures to guarantee the protection of the civil population. By incorporating IHL standards into our legislation, we are incorporating the principles and concepts promoted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for internal armed conflict situations.
Diálogo: Illegal mining has become a very important source of profit for the FARC. How are you addressing this problem?
Minister Pinzón: Drug trafficking is still the main source of profit for terrorist groups. However, since this source of profit has been reduced by counter drug efforts from the Colombian government in close cooperation with the United States, some of of the armed groups have migrated to mining, exploiting it illegally to generate a similar significant income. We are confronting this problem through prosecution, with the National Police ‘carabineros’, whose mission is to protect rural areas and the environment, and the Military in support of that effort. The Military is responsible for pursuing armed groups that are profitting from this activity, while the Police operate in areas of illegal mining along with environmental and administrative authorities from each region.
Diálogo: What are the consequences of illegal mining on the Colombian environment?
Minister Pinzón: The impact is very serious. It is perhaps our biggest concern. One of Colombia’s main assets – and of other countries in this hemisphere – is environmental wealth: non-renewable resources. As its main asset, it should be exploited in a sustainable, balanced way, with regulation that guarantees the use of that resource for centuries. Illegal mining, as well as drug trafficking, are predators. They pillage the environment and tropical forests; they leave pools filled with poisonous cyanide and mercury that are not degradable for hundreds, even thousands of years, according to experts.
Illegal mining is not only an attack on the Colombian environment, but against the planet and humanity as a whole.
Diálogo: Let’s talk about the future, hopefully the immediate future… What role will the Armed Forces have if peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are successful?
Minister Pinzón: First, let me respond to the present, and then the future. Currently, the Colombian Military and Police Forces will continue – and must continue – to exert pressure and weaken all criminal and terrorist organizations that are threatening civil rights. The pressure will not only be maintained, but it will be intensified if possible, so that we can establish peace. If peace is ever achieved in Colombia, it will be due to the heroic work of Soldiers and Police members that have been undermining the FARC, the ELN [National Liberation Army], criminal gangs, drug traffickers… The country can now start to dream of peace and prosperity thanks to all this. However, to achieve this, we have to maintain this pressure and keep moving forward.
Wheather peace is achieved by reason – as President Santos has suggested and as the Colombian people wish – or by force, which is how the Armed Forces have had to build this future for the Colombian people, the Armed Forces have a very important future in Colombia. On one hand, they will be devoted to protecting the environment, the water and natural resources, our borders to exercise our sovereignty. On the other hand, there is a great future for our Armed Forces, including contributing by means of security cooperation in the hemisphere, providing that experience to Central America, the Caribbean, South America, and to any partner nation in need. At the same time, due to their experience, the Colombian Armed Forces can collaborate in international peace and stabilization missions; they can contribute to development by effectively utilizing military aviation engineers, naval engineers in Colombian rivers and coastlines, bringing development, bringing work, responding to the humanitarian needs of Colombians in an effective way. Finally, disaster assistance is of crucial importance. Today they already play that role, but in the future it may gain even more relevance.
We have been working on a concept called Armed Forces Transformation Plan, which seeks to strengthen the Armed Forces’ capabilities to fulfill those humanitarian, development, diplomacy and environmental and sovereignty protection missions that are so important to us, independently from the future scenarios we may face.
Diálogo: If peace talks in Havana end with a peace agreement, what will happen to the nearly 8,000 armed FARC members?
Minister Pinzón: The first thing, I insist, is to have the Armed Forces continue carrying out their duty: maintain pressure. On the other hand, the government should evaluate different alternatives. This is not the first time that a demobilization and reintegration process is presented in Colombia. Surely, the country will be able to look at our own experiences – as well as international experiences – to define the most adequate way to carry out this reintegration. In any case, I think the best way to do so is through an agency or group of agencies to guarantee that the fight against illicit crops conrinues, that works towards the development of isolated regions and, at the same time, to ensure that those who took to arms to spread terror and crime do not relapse.
Diálogo: Today you were very positive about the U.S.’s Plan Colombia, and what it has meant for your country. How important is the U.S. Military collaboration and of regional nations?
Minister Pinzón: U.S. support through Plan Colombia has been a fundamental element in reaching the important achievements in the field of security that we have gained through a decade of close cooperation. We have created a great partnership with the United States. Between U.S. and Colombian Militaries there is a community of values regarding democracy, freedom, and the rights of every citizen in a modern society. Plan Colombia allowed a better approach through training, learning doctrine, executing joint operations.
With the accumulated experience, Colombia has not only been able to change its security situation, but is now also in a position to help and cooperate with other nations in the hemisphere, always aiming to continue to learn and strengthen its capabilities. This is an act of humility by an Armed Force that is aware of the dynamic, ever-changing, environment of security. These forces have experience and capabilities available to support other nations with security problems, and which have something to gain from Colombia.
Diálogo: Some of the latest changes in the field of security include the addition of 20,000 positions to the Colombian National Police. What does this measure respond to?
Minister Pinzón: This is an ongoing plan. Currently, 10,000 out of the 20,000 positions have been filled, and we expect the other 10,000 to follow suit in the next 15 months. What we are trying to do is strengthen the capabilities of our Police to confront the challenges that affect the Colombian society; challenges that are closely associated with citizen safety and security, with the normal life that citizens should have. In a sense, a post-conflict stage is already taking place in several areas of the country. These, as seen in other nations, are characterized by the possibility of more common crime and violence. That’s why we’re gaining volume, so that the Police can address these challenges.
Colombian citizens are more and more concerned with everyday security; it is their routine situation. This shows the evolution that the security problem has undergone in Colombia. A few years ago, citizens were concerned with living and being free, but now the concern is more centered on having a normal life.
Diálogo: Minister Pinzón, you grew up in a Colombia that was marked by conflict with guerrillas. As a Colombian citizen, do you foster hopes of having your two children grow up in a conflict-free Colombia?
Minister Pinzón: I think so, because what is known as ‘conflict’ – the confrontation against the FARC, ELN and so-called Bacrims – is going to end sooner or later, due to the heroic efforts made by our Military and Police forces. Nowadays, all those organizations have been seriously weakened, and they dwarf the powerful organizations they were about 10 or 15 years ago. In the last five years, criminal organizations have been practically fragmented and crushed. This means that if we maintain this trend, in time, the problems of Colombian citizens will not be very different from the problems in other parts of the hemisphere; we have already gained ground in some areas.
Of course, the door towards a negotiated peace that was opened by President Santos would shorten the time for Colombia to reach the end of the conflict, at least with the FARC. Hopefully, peace in Colombia will be reached by means of reason, but it will continue to be built by force if necessary: the force of legality and democracy.