Oct 22

Though El Espectador’s website shrinks it to the brink of unreadability, the graphic below reveals an unhappy fact about the Colombian government’s recently approved 2010 budget.

For the first time, the country’s defense and security spending will exceed what it spends on education.

The Colombian government plans to spend 148.3 trillion pesos next year (US$78.2 billion at today’s exchange rate). 14.2 percent of the budget (and not of GDP, as the article erroneously reports) – roughly US$11.1 billion – will go to the armed forces and police. 13.9 percent – US$10.9 billion – will go to educate young Colombians.

Jul 23

Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos is here in Washington today. We’re hearing that he is using his post-”Operation Jaque” victory lap to press congressional Democrats to restore the 25 percent of military and police assistance that they cut from Colombia’s aid package late last year. (As we explained when it happened, most of the trimmed-back military aid went to new development, humanitarian and justice-sector programs.)

Santos repeats the call for continued security assistance in today’s joint New York Times op-ed with Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

The Colombian government must strengthen its authority in areas previously controlled by terrorists. Remnants of these bandit armies could continue their murderous ways as smaller, independent groups. That is why it is so important that American security assistance not be reduced — at least not until Colombia has control of its borders, and police departments, municipal governments and other government services are firmly established in all areas.

The Santos-Gates op-ed argues that U.S. security assistance has helped weaken Colombia’s armed groups and improve security, and we agree that a fraction of this aid has indeed helped. But by pointing out that Colombia’s armed groups no longer pose a serious threat to the state, their column makes more sense as a pitch for a turn away from the majority-military approach of the past.

For the reasons they cite – improved security and the need to improve delivery of government services – now is the moment for a more balanced U.S. aid package, one that seeks to help Colombia’s state serve citizens in long-neglected areas. Does it really make sense to make a pitch for more security assistance and a bigger Colombian defense budget at a time when the FARC is rapidly losing membership? At a time when even in the relatively wealthy province of Cundinamarca, which surrounds Bogotá, 70 percent of counties have no potable water? At a time when children in the northwestern department of Chocó are actually dying of hunger?

What difference, meanwhile, would another $150 million in military-police aid make, compared to the difference it can make in Colombia’s delivery of state services?

In 2002, Álvaro Uribe’s first year in office, U.S. military and police assistance to Colombia totaled $388.6 million. In 2008, it is a bit higher, at $433.7 million. While the aid amounts are similar, the U.S. contribution has shrunk rapidly as a proportion of Colombia’s own defense effort. In 2002, U.S. aid was equivalent to about one eleventh of Colombia’s defense budget. This year, thanks to a doubling of defense spending and the weak dollar, U.S. aid is equal to only about one twenty-eighth of Colombia’s defense budget.

Dollars Pesos
Table used for the above charts, with links to sources:
  2002 2008
US Aid Dollars 388,550,141 433,664,757
Colombian Defense
Budget Dollars
4,186,135,410 12,328,723,355
Multiple 11 28
  2002 2008
US Aid Pesos 1,002,438,075,118 779,445,926,600
Colombian Defense
Budget Pesos
10,800,000,000,000 22,160,000,000,000
Multiple 11 28
(2002 peso conversion data2008 peso conversion data;
2008 defense budget takes into acount small expected budget cut.)

The annual foreign-aid budget is always tight, since foreign aid is not particularly popular in most congressional districts. If Washington only has a bit more to give to Colombia, does it make sense to use these scarce resources to make a very minor contribution to a bloated defense budget in a time of improved security? Or is it time to accompany Colombia’s underfunded civilian state institutions as they seek to establish themselves in long-neglected territories?

For more perspective on Colombia’s skyrocketing defense budget, read this excellent column in today’s El Espectador from José Fernando Isaza, rector of the Jorge Tadeo Lozano University in Bogotá. Here are some translated excerpts. If anybody knows how to find the comptroller-general’s report referenced in the text, please post a link in the comments.

To Talk About Money, What a Shame!
José Fernando Isaza

Colombia is not a rich country, it belongs to the middle class of countries. As a result, though it may be an inopportune moment, the money destined for the Army should be examined. Note that I don’t say for the “war,” because according to the government there is no internal armed conflict.

The Comptroller-General of the Republic’s January 2008 magazine is dedicated to defense and security expenditures, and indicates that this is a useful debate. At the risk of being called a “self-plagiarizer” I am going to cite some results from a study that I carried out with Professor Diógenes Campos.

In 2007, defense and security expenditures reached 6.32% of GDP. To put this statistic in context, it can be compared with the value of the coffee harvest, which represents 1.1% of GDP. That is, Colombia is not a coffee-growing country, it is a military country. The United States devotes  4% of GDP to its defense budget, including the Iraq war; in European countries the defense expenditure is 2% of GDP. [Note: while Colombia's defense budget includes police expenditures, the U.S. defense budget does not, so the comparable U.S. percentage should be higher. I have not seen a good estimate of how much additional GDP the United States spends on federal, state and municipal police.]

In the 20th century, military spending in Colombia peaked at 3% [of GDP] during the war with Peru [1932-33]. During the “La Violencia” period [1948-1953] this indicator grew from 1% to 2.2% of GDP. It is interesting to mention that during the military regime [1953-1958] it decreased from 2.% to 1.5% of GDP. During the 1926-1998 period the average military expenditure was 1.8% of GDP, less than one third of the current proportion.

If we compare ourselves to neighboring countries, Colombia’s war spending is double Venezuela’s and almost six times Ecuador’s. The mere growth in pension liabilities for the armed forces represents 1.7 percent of GDP, 60% greater than the value of the coffee harvest. Military pension liabilities grew to 15% of GDP in 2006.

As the irregular armed groups diminish, paradoxically, the troop strength increases. During the 2002-2007 period 160,000 soldiers fought 16,900 FARC guerrillas, 3,700 from the ELN, and – according to official declarations – they also fought 12,175 from the AUC. That is, 4.9 soldiers for every irregular combatant. By the end of 2007, with the AUC’s demobilization and the guerrillas’ reduction, there were 15.5 soldiers for every guerrilla. Counter-insurgency theories consider a ratio of 10 regular combatants to each irregular combatant to be appropriate.

In 2008, according to the Herald Tribune, troop strength increased to 254,300 soldiers, without including the police, while the number of guerrillas at the end of 2007 was 12,499, which brings us to a statistic of 20.34 soldiers to fight each guerrilla.

The counter-insurgent results of the first half of 2008, according to the Defense Ministry, were 5,065 guerrillas demobilized, captured or killed. If these results continue for the rest of the year, if the recruitment of irregulars diminishes as a result of the democratic security policy, the guerrillas will be nearly finished, and a process of reducing military expenditure can begin.

Obviously, we should not be excessively optimistic. During the 2002-2007 period, according to official statistics, 50,464 guerrillas were taken from the scene – killed captured and demobilized – but the guerrillas were reduced by only 8,101 members, passing from 20,600 to 12,499. That is, they were able to recruit double the number of members they originally had.

The conclusion is clear: it is better to remove incentives for guerrilla recruitment.