Two weeks’ notice Colombian presidential polls: a dramatic turn in a single month
Apr 212010

It’s a good idea to visit the Colombian Defense Ministry’s website every once in a while to view their latest “Operational Results” report (PDF). You get a long powerpoint presentation with the official versions of statistics about the country’s security situation.

You also find some really shocking numbers. Take combat deaths, for instance.

Between 2002 and the end of March 2010:

  • 13,653 members of “subversive groups” have been killed.
  • 1,611 members of “illegal self-defense groups” were killed between 2002 and 2006 (source is an older version of the same report – PDF).
  • 1,080 members of “criminal gangs” have been killed since 2007.
  • 4,571 members of the security forces were killed in acts of service.

That’s a total of 20,915 people. Most of them young Colombians — many under 18 years of age — serving as foot-soldiers or low-level recruits in the armed forces, the FARC, the ELN or the paramilitaries.

And that’s combat deaths only. This horrifying statistic does not include civilians killed or disappeared in conflict-related violence, which the Colombian Commission of Jurists estimates (PDF) at 14,028 people between mid-2002 and mid-2008. It does not count people wounded, whether by combat, terror attacks or landmines. It does not include the 2.4 million people that CODHES (PDF) estimates were displaced since 2002. (It may, unfortunately, include thousands of civilians falsely presented as armed-group members killed in combat.)

Had the FARC and the Colombian government successfully concluded good-faith negotiations between 1998 and 2002, these 20,915 people would be alive today. That is the cost of the failed peace process of the Pastrana years. It is also the cost of the “successful” security policies of the Uribe years.

Perhaps the most important task Colombia’s next president will face is how to avoid the combat deaths of another 20,915 Colombians over the next eight years. (Plus the civilian dead, disappeared, wounded and displaced.) How to break with a war of attrition which — with as many as 20,000 guerrillas and “new” paramilitaries still active in Colombia — promises to drag on for many more years.

Proposing and pursuing a policy other than continued war will take great political courage. But if a Colombian leader chooses this path, the Obama administration must support him or her unequivocally. The numbers alone demand it.

14 Responses to “20,915 people”

  1. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Here’s my two cents:

    In the 2007 report, “Some quantitative considerations on the recent conflict in Colombia”, some figures cast a shadow of doubt over the statistics reported by the Colombian government.

    In its inception in the year 2002, the Uribe Velez Government published the figure of 20,600 active rebels of all forces in Colombia.

    Today (2007), the Defense Ministry reports account for 50,464 out of combat fighters, including killed, captured and demobilized.

    The number of deserted guerrilla fighters has more than doubled the original figure of regular fighters.

    From the equation: guerrilla fighters 2002 – ( deserted + captured + demobilized – newly recruited), shows the guerrilla could recruit 42.363 new combatants, roughly twice as much as those reported active in 2002, which cast serious doubts on the validity of official statistics.

    Link to the report (pdf) :

  2. Jaime Bustos Says:

    This one is also interesting.

    International media reports that more than 30.000 paramilitaries have been demobilized thanks to the peace and justice agreement with the outlaws, but there were only 12.000 at the beginning of Mr Uribe administration according to official estimates.

    The report calls this the “Banach Tarsky paradox applied to Colombian paramilitarism”.

  3. Alvaro Hurtado Says:

    That’s the thing though: none of these estimates, regardless of the source, should be taken for granted as absolute figures, whether we’re speaking about 2002 or 2010.

    For one thing, nobody has clearly outlined, at least not in sufficient detail, what is supposed the methodology being used in order to arrive at any of those numbers or how it has changed throughout the figures.

    There are many questions that should be asked, even if we were to momentarily assume that the figures are being presented in “good faith” for the purposes of this analysis:

    a)First and foremost, how do recruitment rates factor in? I think that’s the most important question.

    b)How many of those people reported as guerrillas, paramilitaries or criminals are actually civilians?

    c)How many of those civilians are unarmed helpers or sympathizers within each of their respective support structures, but still not proper fighters? This is an often ignored question that is also very important.

    d)How many of those civilians are “false positives” orchestrated for the express purpose of inflating figures or gaining benefits? This is, as we all know, perhaps the most horrible angle.

    You get the idea.

  4. Kyle Says:

    Also, it does not include members of the public forces killed outside of service actions – or hors de combat (or however it’s spelled). After all, even generals can get a weekend off.

  5. Camilla Says:

    The problem with ‘peace processes’ is that FARC doesn’t observe them. Back when they had their Switzerland-sized piece of land, they went and kidnapped Ingrid Betancourt and kept up the military maneuvers that resulted in countless deaths of innocent Colombians. Back in those peace-process days, FARC grew strong and violent. The deaths that have come since are the result of FARC’s strength. I don’t agree with the conclusion that the absence of an endless peace process (against a gang of drug-dealing murderers no less!) is responsible for the deaths. FARC is responsible for the deaths. If the left has a problem with the deaths, it should take up the matter with its contacts inside FARC.

  6. Kyle Says:

    Camilla – use more specific language. The problem with ‘peace processes’ means that every peace process has not been observed by the FARC – including ones in which the FARC didn’t have a place. Also, the conclusion was that had the Caguan peace process been successful, the people would be alive. There were many mistakes and complete failures in the process by the FARC and the government. Also, endless? I believe it ended un successfully February 20, 2002. It is hard to say that the FARC is responsible for all of their deaths, especially if they are dead FARC guerrillas or were killed in combat with other groups, like the ELN, and finally, (and I hate having to say this), the vast, vast majority of people on the left have no contacts in the FARC.
    And to really, really nit-pick and get at ya, Ingrid Betancourt was kidnapped after the zona de distension had been declared no-more.

  7. John Says:

    Camila, it would seem from reading your posts that everything that is wrong with Colombia is due to the FARC. Furthermore, that most of those that disagree with or criticise the Uribe Govt, whether they be human rights activists, journalists or politicians, Colombian or international, are simpy FARC supporters. This is a very childish view to take of the war in Colombia.

    Perhaps you can explain who is to blame for the ‘falsos positivos’, the ‘para-politica’ or the illegal interceptions scandal. Is that all FARC’s fault too?

    Adam is 100% correct. The only way for Colombia to even begin to solve its problems is for a peace process to take place. You must learn to discuss issues seriously without resorting to ridiculous claims that eveyone who disagrees with you must be FARC supporting terrorists.

  8. lfm Says:

    I’ve always had a question about these numbers, in their different incarnations. Is the problem that the Government is over-reporting casualties? Is it that the casualty figures are real but the FARC are replenishing at such high rates? Is it both?

    Did you hear about the “Pacto de Calamar” where a bunch of politicians from the left got together with the FARC and agreed on a program to “re-found the Republic” and strategize how to use the FARC’s pressure to intimidate voters and get elected? No? Neither did I. But I heard about the “Pacto de Ralito.”

    Did you hear about the 32 Polo Democratico’s Congressmen indicted for links with the FARC? No? Neither did I, partly because there are not even 32 PDA Congressmen. Instead I’ve heard about Colombia Democratica, ALAS and other shady uribista outfits.

    If there is one psy-op where this government has been successful, enabled by the media in its attempts to create balance where there is none, is in creating the perception of links between the left’s parties and the FARC. Probably the occasional militant has some dual membership. But this is simply not in the same league as the links of the uribistas with the paras. Not. In. The. Same. League. Each time you raise this, all you get from uribistas is a bunch of squid ink about computers and stuff. Even if the legendary computers were right, the stuff that is there doesn’t even come close to the entire conspiracy whereby the paras took over huge chunks of the entire frigging government.

    Now that this blog is coming to and end, I can say something that’s been in my mind for a while. For years I’ve suspected something that was recently confirmed: Camilla is not Colombian. That’s OK. I believe that foreigners should have the right to voice their political opinions. (I myself am a foreigner where I live.) It doesn’t bother me either his extreme views. I’ve heard worse and much dumber.

    But, unlike some other people in this blog, I don’t think Camilla is some basement-dwelling loser. He comes across as a highly informed person with very good connections in the American and the Colombian government (having even gotten access to interview Colombian prisoners from the FARC) and, clearly, lobbying for the FTA with whatever ludicrous argument, puts food on his table. There is nothing wrong with this either, and in fact my problem is not with Camilla at all.

    My problem is that if Camilla is indicative of anything, the ties between the Colombian government and the American intelligence apparatus have empowered a lot of personnel from the latter (active or retired) whose political views, were they to become public, would be perceived as fringe-radical right wing, much more extremist than Uribe himself.

    I wonder if Colombians would be OK with this situation if it were openly discussed. Certainly, Americans are getting increasingly queasy about the role of hard-right Likudniks from Israel in their intelligence. Not to mention the delicious irony that, in Colombia’s case, this are the same people that warn about the danger of foreigners (Venezuelans, that is) intervening in Colombian affairs.

  9. Jaime Bustos Says:

    lfm. Could not agree with you more. What the powers that be have come to call the right, rules the world. It has many facets, sometimes they appear in the form of republicans, Zionists, neonazis, racists, religious fruitcakes or even so called leftists. The manipulation of the masses has reached a level in which new terms are invented everyday day with the divide an conker only objective injected into their carefully signified design. This has been going on for generations and will continue to be so (at least in our lifetime), as the dividend of controlling minds, behavior and people’s attitudes is tremendously valuable for the rulers in order to keep their subordinates with the slave stigma burnt in their happy go lucky foreheads. With the advent of the internet, trolling has become a common practice for the same purpose. On the internet you don’t know if what seems to be friendly people are not following an agenda, or conversely if people that seem to be outright shills, are only mindless sheeples. One thing is for certain, everyday the odds of losing yourself in this maze of mirrors are reaching the unity, as a percentile ready to be impregnated into a newborn’s brain. (Poetic license :) )

  10. Camilo Wilson Says:

    I should like to comment further on peace processes in Colombia, and specifically on the Pastrana peace process. Mr. Isacson is correct to point out that almost 21,000 people—21,000 Colombians—might be alive today had the Pastrana peace process been successful. It’s perhaps fitting that my comments appear in bullet format:

    • The Uribe Government, and its Washington supporters, have been quick to place all of the blame on the FARC for the failed Pastrana peace process. They have quite effectively used a compliant and subservient media to perpetuate this myth. There are also private-sector entities in Colombia that have perpetuated the myth, and private-sector entities (NGOs and “think tanks”) in the United States that often link to policy makers and that have served as platforms to support U.S. policy and the Uribe Government.

    • There is sound evidence that there are other reasons for the failure of the Pastrana peace process, thus making the blame broad-based.

    • An American colleague recently sent to me a book published by the United States Institute of Peace entitled “Building Peace in a Time of War” (2009, Virginia Bouvier, editor). The book is a collection of articles, including an article by Mr. Isacson. There is also an article by one James C. Jones (“U.S. Policy and Peace in Colombia: Lost in a Tangle of Wars”) which looks at U.S. policy and what happened during the failed process. The article is worth a read, as are other articles in the book. Mr. Jones points out some of the causes for failure, and I would argue that there are yet others that he does not mention.

    • The armed conflict in Colombia is far from over. The insurgencies are alive and well. Uribe’s democratic security policies of continued war, with “peace through victory,” have also failed. A new post-Uribe government will necessarily have to address the armed conflict, one way or another.

    • The armed conflict cannot be addressed except in the context of making long-needed changes in socioeconomic structures in Colombia—changes resisted by the country’s Establishment at both national and regional levels. Neither the FARC nor the ELN (now cooperating) will begin to lay down their arms unless there is plausible, tangible movement in the direction of those changes. To think that they will is sheer folly. Nor will the skyrocketing rates of non-rebel related delinquency and violence subside until there is such tangible movement.

    • Whether Colombia stands a chance to achieve a lasting peace in the near term will depend importantly on who wins the forthcoming elections. If Juan Manual Santos and those associated with him win, the prospect of peace will be years away. If the opposition defeats Santos, the chances of dialogue with the insurgents for a lasting peace will increase. Alas, there is evidence that the United States favors Santos, one with whom the Americans worked closely during the Uribe years.

    • The United States could play an important role in helping Colombia achieve a lasting peace. This would be the best way to help its “strongest ally” in Latin America. Unfortunately, There is little indication that that will happen. Policies from the Clinton period, continuing through the Bush presidency, and down to the Obama administration, do not offer much encouragement that the U.S. will play such a constructive role.

    • There was a glimmer of hope that the U.S. might play such a role with the election of Barack Obama, but that glimmer has now faded. Indeed, there is little evidence that Latin America has much priority in Washington. Attention is focused on two wars, one in Iraq and another in Afghanistan—and neither of which is going especially well—and on long-needed domestic reforms.

    • Appointments made by Obama to fill key positions in the State Department and on the National Security Council have favored a continuation of Colombia policies in place for more than a decade. Instead of much-needed and creative policy change in the hands of committed and able individuals, Obama has elected to follow the worn status quo, which mediocrity can maintain. And that status quo is in the hands of a rightwing faction in the State Department and the Pentagon. The Pentagon now plays a strong role in U.S. foreign policy round the world, but especially so in Colombia. This state of affairs is in part an unfortunate—and dangerous—legacy of the attacks on the U.S. on September 11.

    • The only chance that the U.S. might play a constructive role for peace in Colombia is if first of all, a strong independent government were to emerge in Colombia, one supported by civil society and with the political will to achieve peace in a war-torn country; and second, if that government and civil society were to demand a change in U.S. policy of a kind that would open a space for dialogue that might lead to a lasting peace.

  11. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Camilo thanks for the references. I found a free sample of one of your references’ introduction, for those interested

  12. Alvaro Hurtado Says:

    Thanks for the link, Jaime. Based on the introduction alone, the entire document would be worth reading.

    As for Camilo’s previous post, I believe there is a lot of truth in it, but some points can and should be discussed further.

    “The armed conflict cannot be addressed except in the context of making long-needed changes in socioeconomic structures in Colombia—changes resisted by the country’s Establishment at both national and regional levels. Neither the FARC nor the ELN (now cooperating) will begin to lay down their arms unless there is plausible, tangible movement in the direction of those changes. To think that they will is sheer folly. Nor will the skyrocketing rates of non-rebel related delinquency and violence subside until there is such tangible movement.”

    The problem, by this point in time, is that none of the parties seem to want to meet halfway.

    You’re not going to make the establishment implement any real changes as long as the logic of insurgency vs. COIN warfare continues to be the main issue at hand, particularly if the talks are conducted without a cease-fire.

    That means the war will be used by the guerrillas as either a direct extortion mechanism or, alternatively, in order to sidestep the discussion altogether and move towards the achievement of revolutionary victory. In that sense, I seem to remember that Cuban diplomatic records revealed one or two years ago had information about FARC’s strategic aims during the peace process.

    To paraphrase your own words, it is also sheer folly to believe that the establishment will not favor reactionary tendencies (paramilitarism and, say, Uribe) when the guerrillas themselves are trying to get concessions at gun point or else.

    You need to find a point of equilibrium, some concrete middle ground, or at least convince both parties that they should do so. Other than that, the logic of war will prevail on both sides.

    It’s true that the history of the Pastrana talks is more complicated than what the mainstream media has usually portrayed , but just as well, that’s a truth cutting both ways. For instance,the talks themselves had a strange, whimsical format where little external input made any difference or had any real influence until it was far too late.

  13. Alvaro Hurtado Says:

    Now, I am sure someone will reply that U.S. influence was very important during the time of peace process, particularly because of Plan Colombia and all that came out of it.

    I don’t deny that, but if such influence is exerted poorly and improperly, it can be counter-productive. Keep in mind that the U.S. wasn’t really present at the negotiating table, in part thanks to FARC’s inability to do anything serious about the murder of certain U.S. citizens.

  14. lfm Says:

    Here are my two dimes on peace and its failures.

    1. Even if the US was not directly influencing events during the Pastrana peace process (and actually I tend to agree that its influence was limited) the mere existence of the Plan Colombia shows that the government was not as naive as people often say. But this also means that it was assuming a warlike posture that, to put it mildly, did not help to foster a climate of mutual confidence in the negotiations. From the point of view of the FARC, their attempts at reloading their war machine were simply a response to Plan Colombia. That shouldn’t be hard to see and it is a testament to the power of the media that people can’t see it.

    2. As I’ve said repeatedly, I’m a bleeding heart leftist that wants to have all kinds of reforms, especially if they are part of a peace process. But there is a problem that we leftists have to recognize. I think that if the FARC were to see a government really committed to progressive reforms, it could be brought back from the cold. Apart from my own ideological commitments, that’s why I’ve been supporting left-wing parties all this time. But I think this is not enough. The FARC may want to see reforms, but they also want to make sure that they have long-run political viability in Colombia. They don’t want to go the way of the M-19 that helped draft a whole constitution and then disappeared in a puff of smoke. Yes, yes, I know that it was significantly the M-19’s fault that they didn’t play their post-91 cards smart. But from the FARC’s point of view this doesn’t matter. They want to be a key player in years to come.

    The problem is that this is very hard because they are so hated by so many people. It might take a lot of constitutional engineering to ensure them some modicum of power. That’s why my favorite strategy would be to make them the guarantors of manual eradication in the coca region. That is a huge endeavor. If done well, crop substitution will involve so much money and so many programs that whoever controls it will be the de facto local government for years to come. Honestly, if the FARC were to prove that they can use their social basis in the coca region to co-administer crop substitution, I wouldn’t object to their occupying some space in the political system.

    At any rate, negotiating with the FARC is an incredibly tough and thankless task. I once heard a prominent member of the Communist Party describing them as intransigent and dogmatic. If a member of the Communist Party calls you intransigent and dogmatic, you really have a problem, don’t you think? But I think it can be done.

    3. The elections per se might change very little. Yes, if Mockus wins, there will be a slight chance of some negotiation. But, unless the Liberal Party and the Polo make an acceptable showing and drive a hard bargain afterwards, I think that Mockus will have no incentive to negotiate seriously. He will call for some kind of “pedagogical exercise” that may last two weeks or one month and then call it quits. If the left cannot put pressure on him, he will be a kinder, gentler uribista.

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