Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s newly elected president, arrives in office on the coattails of President Álvaro Uribe’s 70 percent approval ratings. As president, Santos is expected to continue much of Uribe’s agenda including his signature “Democratic Security” policy.
While the policy is popular, it remains a source of sharp division. Launched in 2003, it focused on military and public security responses to Colombia’s drug-funded conflict involving leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and the government. Initiatives included a near doubling of the security forces’ size, their deployment in much greater numbers among the general population, the use of paid citizen informants, and negotiations to secure the demobilization of pro-government paramilitary bands. Human rights and civil liberties advocates have denounced the policy as a dangerous escalation of executive and military power, arguing that it failed to address—and in fact may have strengthened—the power of paramilitary and organized crime networks beyond the principal cities.
Política de seguridad democrática (Democratic Security Policy) is a stimulating contribution to the debate, which is likely to continue well past the June 2010 election. It is co-authored by two prominent Colombian columnists and analysts: Alfredo Rangel, an Uribe backer who heads the Bogotá-based Fundación Seguridad y Democracia, and Pedro Medellín, a university professor and much-cited critic of President Uribe’s policies. The book provides an excellent point-counterpoint on the policy’s successes and failures. It is the latest in the Cara & Sello (Heads and Tails) series published by Editorial Norma and the respected Colombian news magazine Semana.
Rangel offers, in effect, a sales pitch for Democratic Security. His section of the book is a withering barrage of statistics—most of them derived from official sources but some compiled by Fundación Seguridad y Democracia. His claim that the policy has reduced murders, kidnappings, infrastructure attacks, and guerrilla activity is convincing. Kidnappings, he points out, are down 89 percent. Attacks on electrical towers went from 483 in 2002 to 138 in 2008, and the number of murders dropped from 28,837 to 16,140 during that same period.
“All violence indicators have decreased substantially,” writes Rangel. “These decisive facts are enough to show the benefits of this public policy’s design and application.” However, Rangel leaves out less comfortable statistics. There is no mention of the 21,000 combatants and at least 14,000 civilians killed by the conflict since 2002, the 2.2 million forcibly displaced during that period, or the fact that no paramilitary leaders have been convicted of war crimes.
Medellín’s section is also heavy on statistics but is organized around a chronological narrative of the policy decisions, advances and setbacks of the Uribe years. He acknowledges the security gains but questions the means chosen to achieve them, arguing that Democratic Security has taken a severe toll on the rule of law and the health of democratic institutions in Colombia.
Both authors have a point. Democratic Security achieved security improvements beyond anyone’s initial expectations. Those gains, however, have come at a steep cost for the rule of law, the ability to control or limit executive power, and human rights. In later years, amid diminishing returns on security, the policy has been tarnished by some shocking scandals involving murder, narco-corruption and abuse of power.
Rangel and Medellín disagree about a lot. Both authors acknowledge that the frequency of attacks by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) fell precipitously in Uribe’s first few years in office. Medellín, however, contends that the group’s activity increased in 2005–2006 and in 2009—a claim that Rangel sharply dismisses. At the same time, Medellín blames Democratic Security for drawing attention away from common urban crimes and notes a troubling rise in urban violence since 2008. The city of Medellín, for example, saw murders double from 2007 to 2009. Rangel rejects the increase as a short-term anomaly.
The authors also diverge on the seriousness of the threat posed by new armed groups that have sprung up in regions formerly dominated by right-wing paramilitaries. Rangel maintains that paramilitarism disappeared from Colombia after the groups’ main umbrella organization, Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), demobilized in 2006. He contends that the new groups who filled the void are just bandits with “no counterinsurgent purpose.”
Medellín, on the other hand, sees them as the paramilitaries’ direct heirs and a new form of drug-funded warlordism. Indeed, many of these groups—though certainly not all—closely resemble their AUC forebears. They are led by former mid-level paramilitary commanders, maintain relationships with local landowners and government leaders, and frequently issue threats against leftists and human rights defenders.
Contrasting views are also presented on the seriousness of the human rights scandals resulting from Democratic Security’s excesses. Many civilians—perhaps thousands between 2002 and 2008—have been killed by the armed forces; yet civilian deaths were often misrepresented as members of armed groups killed in combat. Medellín calls the ensuing scandal (termed “false positives”) “a blow that could be mortal.” Rangel challenges the prevalence of extrajudicial civilian murders, claiming they “are being used opportunistically to falsely accuse the military of murder in cases that could be legitimate combat killings.”
For casual observers of Colombian security policy, the book provides many answers but fails to address some key questions. First, why did Democratic Security yield results with such ease and rapidity? Or, why did the FARC, thought by some to be a formidable force massing at the gates of Bogotá, crumple so quickly? Rangel cites the security forces’ increase, and Medellín hints at the risky choice to involve civilian auxiliaries. But neither author provides a satisfying explanation.
Moreover, both authors remain far apart in their assessment of the future direction of Colombia’s security policies. Rangel suggests almost no adjustments at all. Medellín calls for more respect of the rule of law and accountability on the part of civilian leaders, but offers few specifics.
Since 2007, Democratic Security has focused on nation-building and the creation of a non-military state presence in ungoverned areas. This consolidation phase, also known as Integrated Action, will be financed by up to a billion dollars in U.S. assistance to Colombia. Will it work? Neither author has an answer. Medellín says it “could be viable” but isn’t clear about what could guarantee its success.
Despite these shortcomings, Política de seguridad democrática provides a review of Colombia’s recent history by two of its most skilled essayists that will be useful to readers who have not closely followed the country’s security debate. While the exchanges between the authors are lively, the book misses the chance to provide signposts for how President-elect Santos should build on, or completely rethink, Democratic Security, and it does not provide much of a road map for the United States and other international partners.