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Colombian Armed Forces Prepare to Take on New Security Challenges

Colombia shares its experience in security matters with regional countries while at the same time preparing its Armed Forces to take on new roles on the path toward peace.
Geraldine Cook/Diálogo | 22 August 2016

Aníbal Fernández de Soto, Colombian Deputy Defense Minister for International Affairs and Policy, at the opening ceremony for the "South American Regional Counteracting Transnational Threats Seminar," held August 9th-11th in Bogotá, Colombia. (Photo: Geraldine Cook/Diálogo)

During the past 15 years, Colombia has progressed considerably in social and economic spheres thanks to the country's strengthening of its internal security. New training tools, inter-institutional work, and technology have made the transformation of the Colombian Armed Forces possible.

Aníbal Fernández de Soto, Colombian Deputy Defense Minister for International Affairs and Policy spoke with Diálogo during the "South American Regional Counteracting Transnational Threats Seminar," held August 9th-11th in Bogotá, Colombia.

Deputy Defense Minister Fernández discussed how the Armed Forces are getting ready to face new national security challenges, their new role in the path toward peace, and their advances in terms of human rights, international cooperation, and inter-institutional training.

Today, Colombia is sharing its experience and putting the lessons learned in its fight against organized crime –especially drug trafficking– at the service of the international community.

Diálogo: In November 2013, the Ministry of Defense, the Armed Forces, and the National Police jointly initiated the Building Integrity Process in collaboration with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) program “Building Integrity.” What is your assessment of the program to date?

Aníbal Fernández de Soto, Deputy Defense Minister for International Affairs and Policy: Last week, we had a visit from several NATO delegates, in which they turned in their final report on the work that we have been doing with them throughout this process associated with the Building Integrity Program. The assessment, I believe, is very positive. I would say that we have been adopting the recommendations that arose out of our work together. For example, we have tools that are notable and that were highlighted by the NATO delegates, such as “Dante.” Dante is an Army transparency program that was recently launched by Army Commander, General Alberto José Mejía, and it deals with the internal control of the Ministry of Defense, which is, in turn, germinating in the other armed services and the police. It has also allowed for the development of protocols and procedures that are more and more transparent in what should be a very strong commitment on behalf of the sector in terms of the fight against corruption, efficiency in administrative management, and transparency in our processes. Additionally, Building Integrity is the most developed program we have with NATO. It's the one in which we've had the most advances. And, it also allows us to think about other types of exercises that we could do with NATO, to also strengthen the defense sector, the Armed Forces, and the police.

Diálogo: The Colombian Armed Forces just sent new troops to Sinai as part of the Multinational Force and Observers. How important is it for Colombia to be part of the United Nations’ (U.N.) peacekeeping forces? Does Colombia plan on sending troops to other parts of the world?

Deputy Defense Minister Fernández: We've had experience with international operations for many years. I would say that the experience we've had in the Sinai –mainly through our Army– has been very positive, and we have always stood out for our professionalism, for the capacities of our Armed Services, and for the training of our men and women who have been in that region.

In the near future, in a post-agreement scenario with no armed actors such as the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) presenting these security threats in Colombia, we will be able to have the opportunity to be more active in international operations, particularly in peacekeeping operations. That is why, last year at the United Nations Assembly, President Juan Manuel Santos committed to gradually including up to 5,000 active members of our Armed Forces in peacekeeping operations. We believe it is very important to share Colombia's experience. We have certain capacities that are very valuable in international actions. For example, our knowledge of humanitarian demining; fighting organized crime; our intelligence capacities; (our knowledge) in protecting people. These capabilities are highly valued in the context of international missions, and we want to progressively prepare ourselves to send members of our Armed Forces to different operations in this sphere.

Recently, the Colombian Congress approved an agreement with the U.N. which gives us a normative framework to be more active in peacekeeping operations. Another similar bill with the European Union is in Congress, and, as soon as they are ratified by the Constitutional Court, we will have that framework which will allow us to open the Joint Peacekeeping Operations Training Center, in which members of our Armed Forces will be trained in bilingualism and in United Nations’ procedures and protocols, so they can be participants on different world stages.

Diálogo: What will the role of the Armed Forces be in post-conflict Colombia? How are the Armed Forces preparing to assume the post-conflict stage?

Deputy Defense Minister Fernández: The Armed Forces and the National Police have a very clear plan for the future. Despite signing an agreement with the FARC, which we are all hopeful will occur, we are going to have to face some challenges with regard to security, and, if we are not effective in these challenges, we will be putting the peace efforts that we have been developing over the past few years at risk.

Organized crime is the main security threat that we are facing, and so we have some actions in the areas of drug trafficking, the fight against illegal mining, extortion, smuggling, human trafficking, and various illegal economies which organized crime structures are involved in. These structures are going to try to take over the spaces left by FARC guerrillas, and the Colombian Armed Forces are ready to take over these spaces to allow the rest of the state's bodies to introduce themselves there, so that these territories can be developed in a comprehensive manner. Additionally, implementing the peace agreements will result in a series of very important responsibilities for the Colombian Security Forces, not only to protect those who are demobilizing, but also to protect those demobilized individuals who are going to be active in politics and in their reintegration process. Another responsibility will be to eradicate the drug problem, which was one of the points agreed to in the Havana Accords. So, actions to allow the security forces to take root and be very active in transforming the territory will be executed. Also, in the next few months, it will be our responsibility to implement the "Temporary Hamlet Zones for Normalization," where the FARC will be concentrated so that the disarmament can occur and the demobilization process can begin. The security environment of these areas will also be the responsibility of the Colombian Security Forces in coordination with the monitoring and verification mechanisms of the U.N., where, of course, the Armed Forces and the police will play a huge role. Also, our security forces are very motivated to be able to contribute to the country's development, particularly in rural areas, to provide public resources in areas where the only state presence has been the security forces. So, the military engineers, for example, are getting ready to build country roads in these regions that will allow the local farmers to get out to the markets. The Navy is also very active, so they can be more and more present in the rivers and create an atmosphere of environmental protection at our river basins. The Police’s carabineers, our rural police, are also very interested in continuing to work with rural communities, supporting them in their productive projects, so what we need in the future are Armed Forces and police that are as strong as or even stronger than the ones we have today, that are modern and versatile, permanently transforming themselves to face the new challenges we will have in the future. And, if the Armed Forces have been the protagonists of the most difficult, saddest, and most painful era in Colombia, they will also be the same in the most glorious and positive era ahead of us.

Diálogo: What progress do you see at this time in terms of human rights in the Armed Forces?

Deputy Defense Minister Fernández: Since 2006, we have been implementing a very strict policy of respect for and promotion of human rights within the Colombian Security Forces. The trainings that officers, that members of the Colombian Security Forces in general, have in their rotation exercises always incorporate elements of updates regarding jurisprudence, legislation, and procedures with respect to human rights and international humanitarian law. All of the members of the security forces here have the conviction that they are the first line of defense when it comes to human rights. It's part of their nature, part of their DNA, and there has been a very strict follow-up and investigation process in cases where there has been a crime committed, for example, in which human rights have been undermined, or any violation of international humanitarian law occurs. Our doors have been open so that the Public Prosecutor's Office and the various supervisory agencies and the justice system in general can do whatever the case may require, and, of course, we are always prepared to comply with these requests and these investigations because our primary concern is being transparent, rigorous, and respectful of the law, human rights, and international humanitarian law.

Diálogo: A year after taking office, how do you assess your leadership?

Deputy Defense Minister Fernández: First of all, it's been incredibly satisfying. I've had the opportunity to be part of the government in various roles, including outside the defense sector. From the standpoint of other ministries, they can always see that the Ministry of Defense is different from the others because it is a well-functioning machine. It is different than the other ministries because there is a mystique and a sense of patriotism that is not alive in other sectors of the government. It is different because working together with members of the security forces, with members of the Armed Forces, and the police is very special. The way they see the country, how they understand problems is something that we as civilians cannot stop taking into consideration. And, honestly, creating public policy, working side by side with the men and women who are part of our security forces has been the most motivating and satisfying experience that I've ever had personally.

In this time, I've seen some very considerable advances in the way in which the defense sector, the Armed Forces, and the police have been increasingly more involved in the peace process and have created elements that have been included in the agreements, particularly with respect to transitional justice. And this process of creating this collective transitional justice with the security forces seems incredibly interesting to me. This is also an exercise that is unprecedented in the history of the world, so, as a nation, that leaves us the very big responsibility of making this a reference point for future analyses in various academic or political levels on the international stage.

There is great satisfaction in issuing legislative initiatives that seek to enhance and improve conditions for members of the security forces through better tools to help them complete their work. I have been a witness to very successful operational results in the fight against organized crime, and I've been a witness to perhaps the most important exercise – and not just a witness – I've had the opportunity to participate in the analysis and planning of what is going to be the future of the security forces, the campaign plan that is derived from a post-agreement scenario, and how our various challenges and threats have been analyzed. What they are after is a unified action from the state to transform our land, to increasingly make it a country that offers more opportunities to our population, particularly to those who have been most affected by the conflict. Therefore, seeing the way in which the defense sector, the Armed Forces, and the police end up being a cornerstone of the state's actions has been tremendously interesting and highly satisfying.

Diálogo: As head of the Deputy Ministry, what is the biggest obstacle you've had this year? What you would like to change moving forward?

Deputy Defense Minister Fernández: Colombia is a country that still has many problems. One always thinks about security challenges, the way in which organized crime evolves, and how we should continue updating our policies, our doctrine, our way of counteracting crime's advances. This is a permanent challenge. I wouldn't say these are an obstacle, but they are indeed permanent challenges, problems that arise that basically create the need for a lot of creativity, a lot of innovation, and more and more coordinated work, not just with the security forces but also with the rest of the government elements, so that we can confront these threats that loom over the stability or over the citizens of Colombia. As I say, no one ever said this was going to be easy, but (nobody said it was going to be) boring, either. It has been very exciting.

Diálogo: What type of international cooperation are the Colombian Armed Forces engaged in with other countries, especially in Latin America?

Deputy Defense Minister Fernández: We have a very active cooperation plan. Today, we consider ourselves to be exporters of security. For example, what we are doing in Central America through a triangular mechanism with the United States, in which we offer training and education and even perform coordinated actions, joint actions with countries in the region in the fight against organized crime, in particular against drug trafficking. Over the past six years, we have trained thousands of members of the security forces of over 70 countries around the world, focusing mainly on Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, although we have also conducted exercises with African countries or even Europe.

We believe that our experience, the lessons learned, the capacities that we have developed should benefit, not just ourselves, but also the international community. To the extent that we are actively cooperating, we are able to not only be effective in helping those countries develop their own capacities. By countering the advance of organized crime in those countries, we are also countering the advance of organized crime in our country because, nowadays, organized crime is transnational. Drug-trafficking networks, money-laundering networks, criminal and illegal-mining networks are linked, and they have cells in different countries. Therefore, our vital participation within the framework of this cooperation allows us to project capacities, it allows us to contribute to a constantly improving regional security environment, and it also allows us to continue our fight against the security threats that we have here in Colombia, which, as I say, pop up differently in various parts of the world.

Diálogo: What is your message for Latin American countries?

Deputy Defense Minister Fernández: Colombia is a country that has grown, that has advanced considerably during these past 15 years. We have advanced economically. We have advanced socially. And these advances have occurred in a way that is directly proportional to the extent that we have strengthened the defense sector. We have been arming our Armed Forces with better tools. We have been modernizing and transforming them, so we are prepared for a constantly evolving environment. So, our lesson is that, to the extent that our defense sector is strengthened, the conditions for economic growth are created to overcome social inequity problems. This is the experience that we are putting at the region's disposal, sharing that experience with partner nations because we believe that our experience should also serve to create an environment of regional security.

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