The very need the military has in Colombia at the moment is the same ball and chain preventing it from better fulfilling its duty.
In light of recent events, namely FARC’s announcement about a two month truce and the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the San Andrés archipelago dispute, Colombia finds itself in the position of reassessing its military stance and capability.
First, the FARC truce. The leftist guerrilla group’s proposal for a bilateral truce (which by the way was violated the very next day by the rebel group who staged combats in four areas of the country) was rejected by President Santos, in a move that both courts his past as Defense Minister for President Uribe, and follows suit with his initiative to end the Colombian conflict without any concessions beyond those originally agreed to when peace talks started in Norway. Besides, the Colombian military is already known to be quite capable in its own field, and with a budget that oscillates between 3 and 4% of GDP, it has little to worry about. What must be a concern here is the power play that it has been dragged into over years of carrying the conflict. In many areas of the country, the army is seen as merely another player in the power play á la Game of Thrones in a highly irregular conflict. The challenge here will not be about empowering or about supplying the military with equipment. It will be about what it has always been: changing the public’s perception of it.
Yet, how to do that when its mandate is to act as the power player with the biggest stick?
The military has been working on welfare projects and helping out in many remote communities to try and restore its image, tainted by false positives and animal torture scandals. But the same question raised by Michael Moore about American soldiers must be raised about Colombian ones: If the men on the ground have no idea why they are fighting and why their lives should be the ones at risk, how can society pretend to hold them accountable for their ignorance about everything else?
For these reasons, and for the seemingly endless perpetuation of the conflict, Colombian families are more than reluctant to send their sons and daughters to serve in the front. They cannot be blamed, but their position means fewer troops on the ground, and that the troops who do go into combat are less convinced, less educated, more coerced and more susceptible to corruption, be it false positives or treason, let alone cowardice. To this must be added that many Colombians, especially retired officers and active servicemen oppose the peace negotiations, which to them are the representation of the government’s willful ignorance of their toil and sacrifice.
That being said, the Colombian army has but one chance at getting back the people’s love and the soldiers’ loyalty: To make the army look like the invincible entity it must be by constitutional mandate. Hence, things like Plan Colombia are not going away anytime soon. For that reason too, the government will never accept a truce like that agreed to in 2002, when FARC seized the oportunity to strenghten itself and then resume its attacks with increased cruelty.
Second, the ICJ’s ruling. On 19 November 2012, the ICJ ruled on a lawsuit originally filed by Nicaragua against Colombia for the sovereignity of the San Andres archipelago and part of the ocean surrounding it. The ruling favors Nicaragua’s pretensions over the ocean bed and the redrawing of the maritime limit lines. The new lines make it difficult for Colombian vessels, military and civilian alike, to access certain portions of the archipelago. Also, there are several families who make a living out of fishing they regularly practice on the waters now under Nicaraguan control. The navy will have to protect these families, and all other vessels travelling using the newly narrowed water corridor accessing San Andrés. To add to this, the Panamanian and the Jamaican governments will each have a bone to pick with the Colombian government about the redefinition of trade routes and navigation corridors. All that area will need protection from the navy, though especially vessels sailing in and out of San Andrés will take priority. These activities will necessarily divert attention from drug trafficking surveillance activities and the defence of other posts. The Colombian navy does not enjoy the popularity the army does, but that also means that its own corruption and torture scandals are less known than the army’s. But with so much cash going to the army and the police already, increased military spending defending an area that has been irreversibly redefined will not sit well with the public, especially when one considers that the public opinion unjustly blames the ruling on the president and the chancellor. And let alone the well known fact that the Nicaraguan government has turned a blind eye on Colombian drug trafficking since the late 70's.
But, what option is there when the mandate is to protect all the coasts?
As can be seen, the point and the problem here is not about capability, either operational or financial. It is about legitimacy, or as some would call it, save face.
The military holds the monopoly of the use of force, at least the legitimate use of it. By that understanding, even the army must justify its actions and its operations. And it is that accountability that also holds it down from operating at full capacity. Hence, the very need the military has in Colombia at the moment, both the army and the navy alike, is the same ball and chain preventing it from better fulfilling its duty.