Latin America Advisor

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Has Security in Colombia Improved Under Duque?

Colombian President Iván Duque on April 12 touted his government’s security achievements in a speech to the U.N. Security Council. // Photo: United Nations. Colombian President Iván Duque on April 12 touted his government’s security achievements in a speech to the U.N. Security Council. // Photo: United Nations.

In a speech to the U.N. Security Council this month, Colombian President Iván Duque highlighted what he called his government’s achievements in strengthening the country’s peace process, compensating conflict victims and reintegrating thousands of demobilized FARC rebels back into society. Duque also called drug trafficking “the greatest enemy of peacebuilding in Colombia.” How should the outgoing president be remembered in terms of his security policy and implementation of the historic 2016 peace accord after a decades-long civil war? Is the country safer for more of its citizens now than it was before Duque took office, and has he done enough to advance the peace process? What will Colombia’s next president need to do to address drug trafficking and improve the country’s security situation, both in rural and urban areas?

Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst for Colombia at International Crisis Group: “President Iván Duque took office in 2018 amid a windfall of security and trust from rural communities. The peace agreement created a rare opportunity, first for the state to recoup its physical presence in former FARC areas, and second, for Bogotá to consolidate the goodwill of areas of the country that had lived for decades without police, medical care or state institutions. While it is undeniable that there have been advances implementing the accord, particularly in the reincorporation of the former FARC, these two major opportunities were largely lost and will not be easy to recover. Indeed, today those same indicators—security and goodwill in the countryside—are both moving in the wrong direction. In more and more rural areas, communities speak nostalgically about their freedom immediately after the peace accord, because now the presence of armed groups has once again subjected the population to displacement, forced confinement, extensive recruitment and selective killings. The government has pushed forward regionally focused development projects, but it has often prioritized projects that align with its political priorities rather than communities’ self-identified needs. Duque blames these challenges on drug trafficking, but in doing so his government confuses a symptom with the disease. While focusing on hard-hitting policies such as forced eradication and captures, the government has downplayed rural reform and crop substitution that would help liberate the civilian population from perpetual armed coercion. The next government will have to return to the hard work of long-term reforms in the countryside, while shifting security forces’ attention toward protecting the civilian population.”

Adam Isacson, director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America: “President Iván Duque comes from the political party of ex-President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), who had a troubled human rights record but left office with most of Colombia’s security indicators in better shape than when he entered. The tragedy of Duque’s four years is that Colombia has once again seen backward movement on human rights—but this time the security indicators have worsened, too. Homicides, massacres, social leader killings and other violent crime indicators are at or near their highest levels of the past 10 years, even as military and police units have been embroiled in scandals over brutal responses to protests, misuse of intelligence and civilian casualties during military operations. Meanwhile, as indicated by proliferating coca crops, the amount of Colombian territory without a functioning state presence—a problem the peace accord had so hopefully promised to address—is at least where it was four years ago. This is not all Duque’s fault: his government was battered by low commodity prices and Covid-19, which drained finances. But he chose not to devote enough resources to the accord’s rural governance provisions, which remain far behind, or to work with ex-combatants, victims and ethnic communities. He and his defense ministers resisted adjusting to Colombia’s post-accord security reality, preferring to ‘fight the last war,’ using tactics (including crowd control and forced eradication) developed to fight subversives bent on violent revolution, while the country’s organized crime networks splintered and proliferated. Duque’s successor will have to weaken these networks, starting with punishing the government corruption that enables them. The next president must build a state presence in neglected areas and protect social leaders. These challenges proved too much for Duque, who could have been Colombia’s first true post-conflict president. That opportunity will go to his successor.”

Gwen Burnyeat, junior research fellow in anthropology at Merton College, University of Oxford: “President Iván Duque’s implementation of the 2016 peace accord has been contradictory. He claims a commitment to peace, but his government’s approach to security and drug-trafficking has resulted in significant increases in violence. In its latest report, the U.N. Verification Mission in Colombia highlights a significant deterioration in security this year, particularly in Arauca, Putumayo and Chocó provinces. So far this year, Colombia has seen nearly 14,000 forcibly displaced persons, 25 massacres and 43 social leaders killed, and the report says that nearly half of Colombia’s municipalities face risks of violence. After Duque finished touting his peace and security achievements at the U.N. Security Council, Verification Mission head Carlos Ruiz Massieu called for a thorough investigation into the deaths of several civilians, including a pregnant woman and 16-year-old boy, in a military assault on alleged FARC dissidents in Putumayo in March. The peace accord offers a human security approach to tackling drug trafficking and helping vulnerable, socioeconomically marginalized families who grow coca to transition to legal activities, while targeting criminal structures with military and judicial measures. The highly questionable military operation in Putumayo evidences a security logic that equates communities in coca-growing regions with terrorism, legitimizing military action against them. Defendamos La Paz (Let’s Defend Peace), a cross-sector movement of civil society and politicians, has said that Duque has implemented some aspects of the accord but ignored others, undermining its interdependent nature. To secure the future of peace, Colombia’s next president must recuperate this interdependency, shift the security perspective toward the peace accord’s human security logic and stop the never-ending cycle in which the Colombian state attacks its own people.” 

Richard McColl, host of the Colombia Calling podcast: “To his detractors and supporters of the 2016 peace accord, Iván Duque’s tenure as president has been an unmitigated failure. Even from an objective viewpoint, it is hard to take any positives from these four years. Violence is on the increase, but figures show them as lower than those of 2002, and by all accounts the uncertainty and instability in rural Colombia is cause for serious concern. More than 30 different armed groups vie for lucrative smuggling routes to move coca paste, and President Duque’s government does little more than militarize flashpoint areas—with little regard to enabling socioeconomic change on the ground as covered in the peace accord. Colombia’s next president needs to commit to rural development, productivity and communication since presently, there are two Colombias—one rural and the other urban—and the chasm between them is widening.” 

[Editor’s note: The Advisor requested commentaries for this issue from Colombia’s ambassador to the United States and members of Duque’s party in Congress but received no responses from any of them.]

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