How Colombia got safe

My mother in law gave me a book for Christmas called My Colombian Death. It’s about a twenty something Australian who, in 2006, left his wife and newborn baby to take a drug fueled trip through Colombia, constantly flirting with death. I’m not sure what message I was supposed to take from this gift. But I know the Colombia it describes is very different from the one we’ve experienced.

In just six short years, Colombia has gone from being a dangerous enough destination to get you a book deal, to an eminently travelable country which we have enjoyed without real incident. Murder rates have virtually halved and kidnapping numbers have plummeted as the civil conflict has all but disappeared from the nation’s cities and highways. This marks a remarkable change after a half century of conflict.

Murders and Kidnappings in Colombia 1995 – 2011
Source: UN Office of Drugs and Crime
Murders and Kidnappings in Colombia 1995 - 2011


How it all began

In 1948 a wildly popular presidential candidate was assassinated and the country descended into a violent finger pointing chaos. The ten year civil war that followed –  La Violencia – was only dampened when the two major political parties agreed to take term about with the presidency. But those ten years were enough for right wing paramilitaries, and left wing guerrilla groups to form. Over the next decades their power and influence grew as they became funded by a new force in Colombian politics: the drug cartels.

By the time the 1990s rolled around, hundreds of thousands had died and many more had lost their homes, Medellin was the most dangerous city in the world, and rats were eating more of drug baron Pablo Escobar’s cash each year than the GDP of some small countries. Everyone lived in fear.

Getting the toothpaste back in the tube

In 2002 Álvaro Uribe was elected to the Colombian presidency with an unprecedented level of support. Uribe’s father was killed by guerrillas and he himself had survived four assassination attempts before he took office. He was a hard arse. Under Uribe’s ‘democratic security policy’ Colombia:

  • Trippled its military budget
  • Nearly doubled its number of security personnel
  • Became the largest recipient of US military aid outside the middle east

The beefed up military was deployed to towns which had previously been abandoned by the government. They actively took the fight to the guerrillas. The right wing paramilitaries saw the government as able to look after itself militarily and began to disarm. Many of their members were offered amnesties.

Gradually the cities and the highways became safe again. Wealthy Colombians returned from abroad, poorer ones began to venture into the countryside. Estimates suggest that the largest guerrilla group FARC‘s numbers halved. A security platform was established which provided the basis for more ordinary life. And for travelers, like us, to visit without fear.

No perfect peace

Uribe is lauded by many Colombians for making them safe again. But his policies were not without other consequences, some of them downright ugly:

  • There was no tribunal to try alleged guerrillas. Extra-judicial executions were the order of the day. No justice was ever really found.
  • The harrowing False Positives scandal saw Colombian military kill innocent civilians and dress them up as guerrillas to inflate their body counts and imply a more successful campaign. If ever there was an example of hitting the target but missing the point…
  • There’s been inequity in the way the guerrillas and paramilitaries have been treated. The amnesties offered to paramilitaries were not extended to guerrillas. Much is also made of Uribe‘s personal links to paramilitary groups.
  • There is still violence: our host mother’s brother was arrested on suspicion of being a paramilitary operating less than an hour away from Santa Marta. And in the marginalised border regions of Colombia, the guerrillas are still in control. If you ask those folk, Colombia hasn’t gotten safe.
  • Uribe’s policies polarised views of the guerrillas. There’s now a sizable sector of Colombian society that just wants to beat them into oblivion, and doesn’t support the peace process. To us this seems pretty unrealistic. For all their faults, the guerrillas represent a political force that, while outside the mainstream, is still important, and can’t effectively be silenced.

The greatest good for the greatest number?

But for Uribe’s hard line it’s likely Colombia’s violence would have continued and escalated. Against this counter factual it’s easy to argue for his ‘democratic security’. But that’s not to say “full marks, Uribe”. There may have been better means available. The ends could have been more just.

Even though Colombia has been through a remarkable transformation, we shouldn’t be thrilled that it’s exporting its military expertise to countries struggling with insurgency and narco-trafficking. Neither should we be talking about applying the Colombia model in Mexico, or Afghanistan, or anywhere else.

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