127 different military schools Grim update on Putumayo
Jul 152008

Here is a translation of an eloquent column posted to Semana magazine’s website yesterday, written by the magazine’s former editor María Teresa Ronderos.

Let’s hope she’s right – she may be overstating the extent of the Colombian military’s generational change, but it is certain that its more moderate officers are far more influential than ever before, and the July 2 hostage rescue reinforces their position within the institution.

Ronderos’ column doesn’t put it this way, but it does raise the interesting question of whether the military’s move toward a lighter touch puts them out of step with Colombia’s President. Between his rhetoric about NGOs and his arguments with the justice system, Álvaro Uribe appears to adhere to the old ways, including a belief in the “attorney-general’s syndrome” and an inability to distinguish between human-rights defenders and guerrilla supporters.

Why history was divided in two

The celebrated rescue of Íngrid, William Pérez, Lieutenant Malagón, Keith Stansell and the other souls who spent so many years captive in the jungle marks a definitive rupture in the history of Colombia’s war.

First, because the Army had the hard evidence, the strongest ever obtained, that it can deal decisive blows to its enemy, that it can win the war, obeying national and international legal precepts.

During several decades the Army and, in general, the Colombian armed forces jealously guarded the secret conviction, as though it were part of its identity, that the war against the guerrillas cannot be won by obeying all norms of democracy.

In the past – that is, 15 years ago – the officers spoke of the “attorney-general’s syndrome,” because it was this entity [Procuraduría] that called them to account every time a violation was committed. So they said that as long as they had the Procuraduría breathing down their necks, it would be impossible for them to defeat the guerrillas. And more recently, since the 1990s, they used the “guerrilla” epithet to describe non-governmental organizations, human rights defenders and journalists who denounced them when their men committed violations.

Many soldiers went still further. Responding to the interests of businessmen and large landowners, and sometimes of narcotraffickers, they allied with paramilitary groups, so that these might fight the guerrillas without ethical or legal limits. We have borne witness to this today in Colombia thanks to the mass confessions of paramilitaries in the Justice and Peace processes, the product of the demobilization of the largest paramilitary organization the country ever had, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. The “paras” are telling of how colonel so-and-so gave them the arms, this other general trained them, the other captain who was their accomplice, etcetera. Not all of what they say is true, but when the trials end, we will surely find that many truths were said.

These have not been the only soldiers. Because of course there have been brave officers and soldiers, who have given an enormous sacrifice to preserve democracy from terror, while abstaining from using its methods.

But this culture that reigned so long among the military – nurtured by the civilians who commanded them – is changing, and the hostages’ rescue marks a point of no return. Finally, years of human rights courses, pressure from Colombian civil sectors, inquisitions from foreign organizations and governments, from civilians and, above all, soldiers who from within the armed forces, with great bravery have dedicated themselves to the difficult security mission that society set for them, have produced the cultural transformation that the Colombian military forces needed. It is meaningful that today Freddy Padilla de León, a general who throughout his career has been a member of this legitimizing faction, now heads the armed forces.

An important factor in this organizational change has been the United States. Paradoxically it was a professor of dirty wars during the Cold War, but since the Clinton era, since it gave $5 billion dollars to the Colombian state to recover the lost monopoly of force, and the government and Congress have permanently conditioned its aid on compliance with international human rights standards. Since it gave the money, it imposed the philosophy.

It is not that this tendency to win unholy victories is extinct within the security forces. There is still complicity between soldiers and paramilitaries; and extrajudicial executions are still committed (there were 127 denunciations of possible extrajudicial executions in 2006 and 73 in 2007); that is, campesinos are killed and made to appear as guerrillas killed in combat, in order to demonstrate effectiveness to the commanders. But these practices now do not reflect the dominant thinking in the armed forces, and an institutional effort is being made to avoid their repeat. Best of all, they are beginning to be viewed badly by many soldiers, above all the youngest.

In this sense, the rescue of Íngrid Betancourt and the other 14 kidnap victims is a tipping point in the Colombian Armed Forces’ cultural transformation. That July 2, they registered a great success, perhaps a mortal blow to the guerrillas, but equally importantly they did it while following the law. Operation Check, as the rescue was called, is the harvest reaped from this new mentality, and at the same time it is a lesson for those who still think that the means used do not matter (lies, human rights violations, persecution of critics), that the only important thing is to achieve results. Now it is clear that it is the other way around: the better things are done, the greater the legitimacy and, as a result, the larger is the military and political success.

Ethical means are what led to the triumph of the democratic state.


The second thing that changed forever is that the FARC have been exposed in all of their weakness.

They have thought that any method of war is justifiable to achieve their means, as though 500 years of human civilization had not happened, as though we had learned nothing from the Nazi concentration camps, nor from the Stalinist extermination camps, nor had the International Human Rights Commissions been created, or the International Criminal Court to try intolerable crimes. The FARC lost all notion of ethics and obligated – and continue to obligate – dozens of people to live as prisoners, guarded 24 hours a day, to sleep with heavy chains around their necks, a treatment not even acceptable for animals.

They bet on an effective, but ruinous, blackmail, and they lost. Their political power based on an inhuman and cruel act turned to dust. And their military power is weak.

It is true that half of the guerrillas’ fronts are intact (some 33) and that in some regions they have even grown (the Western Joint Command went from 1,250 men in 2002 to 1,900 in 2008), but their soul is broken: the Secretariat cannot command because communications are intercepted and the regional chiefs are in danger of mass desertion. Only two examples show it. In the east, Grannobles, Mono Jojoy’s brother, had to come from Venezuela and impose order on the Eastern Bloc, since his men evidenced serious problems of indiscipline. In the north, in Urabá, the FARC have allied with a para-mafioso named don Mario, to dispute the control of the San Juan and Atrato rivers against the Black Eagles, a strategic corridor to access the Pacific and Caribbean.

If the FARC don’t “rectify” as they asked of Íngrid Betancourt using a FARC-ish word, they are on the road to dissolution. That is, in one or two years, when the Secretariat wants to negotiate, they will have nobody behind them. Something like what is happening to the Central Command of the ELN guerrillas. And “rectify” means to change methods: to liberate the political hostages they still hold, abandon kidnapping as a political tactic because it is barbaric and illegitimate, ask forgiveness of Colombians for what they have done. And perhaps, then, it will be possible for the country to seal a negotiated peace with them.

We have a golden opportunity to build the long-desired peace in Colombia. The state and its military forces are taking the correct path to achieve it, and perhaps the enormous national and international applause that they have received for an operation carried out as all of them should be done will defeat forever any nostalgia for the dirty war. What remains is for the FARC Secretariat, now made up of the second generation of guerrillas with university studies and a desire to return to the cities, to free themselves from their stubborn pride (it may help that Chávez has withdrawn, for once and for all, his offer to try to get them belligerency status), to emerge from their blindness and their veteran distrust, and move to change history.

12 Responses to “María Teresa Ronderos: Why history was divided in two”

  1. jcg Says:

    I agree that she may be overstating it, but the basic point is still valid in my opinion, even though there’s, as Adam pointed out, the very real problem of Uribe’s dangerous and irresponsible language in his rants against critics and others.

    In other news…it appears that FARC may be far more interested in dealing with Mr. Ortega from Nicaragua than with Mr. Chavez…or, naturally, Uribe.


    Btw, the CNN link I posted in the other post’s comments section seems to be down or blocked, for reasons I ignore. If the news is legitimate, however, it should eventually come back up. If not, then it’d be worrying. In any case, the link is there, for those interested.

  2. Chris Says:

    Good article!

  3. Chris Says:

    Mr. Ortega vice Chavez…

    That’s bad news given that Ortega is more confrontational…

  4. Randy Paul Says:


    The link works. If anyone has any problems, I saved the page to my hard drive. They can e-mail me and I’ll send it to them.

  5. jcg Says:

    Randy; It’s working for me now too. Apparently they updated the article slightly, but the main story is the same.

  6. Camilla Says:

    I don’t agree with some of the reasoning in this piece. What was done to rescue the hostages was as much a use of force as blowing up Raul Reyes’ camp. If anything had gone wrong on that mission, the Colombian soldiers would have been killed or spent decades in FARC jungle prisons themselves for their efforts. It was risky, and by not risking the hostages’ lives, the soldiers took on that much more risk on themselves.

    Of course it was the right thing to do, just as blowing up Raul’s camp was the right thing to do, and both represent appropriate military decisions. But the essential premise that this nonviolent rescue was a step up from the army’s usual violence doesn’t analyze what happened well.

    In any other setting, what the Colombian army did would be called ‘covert action’ – something the left has screamed about for decades. Because a leftist hostage was rescued, there was no screaming about the practice, or anyone calling it immoral, it got promoted to ‘nonviolent.’ But it’s all the same thing.

    While I do see the Colombian army getting increasingly professional and proficient, I don’t see what’s happening as a group of ‘moderates’ (read:peaceniks) getting the upper hand. I just see the Colombian army getting better and better at what it does. They’re a bunch of pros.

  7. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Mrs. O’Grady wil depart in dellusion and so be it, amen.

  8. Steve Says:

    Yeah today´s news about Jaque involving a war crime (illegitimately using the Red Cross logo) sort of takes the air out of Ronderos´s lofty praise of the mission being all about respecting the rule of law. Kind of makes the whole thing look more like your standard dirty “covert action,” as Camilla suggests.

    I get the sense Ronderos might be on to something though in this claim that the Colombian military is tending towards a bit of moderation. I was visiting an army training camp in north-central Antioquia this last weekend and amidst all the grubby baby-faced recruits were banners declaring the army´s mandate to protect human rights in Colombia. Not only that, but in the recruits´pledge of allegiance deal they chant about human rights. I´m not sure if those aspects of the training are new and if so, if they´ll have any sort of long term effects on the army´s performance, but it was quite interesting.

  9. jcg Says:

    Steve: As commented yesterday, the specifics seem to be that the symbol was misused by one man (the guy who was pretending to be a doctor, perhaps?), not by the entire team or the helicopter (which, according to CNN, had a different emblem linked to a “Misión Internacional Humanitaria” NGO, supposedly based in Barcelona, but whose existence CNN couldn’t verify…doesn’t sound like a real organization, in other words).

    Logically, such misuse during the operation would still be a violation of international law (and if so, a possible war crime, though one of the cleanest such crimes I can imagine). As such, I suppose it could be prosecuted (proportionally, I would expect: there should be a difference between falsely representing a Red Cross agent, which is what seems to be the case on the surface, and falsely presenting the entire operation as a Red Cross one, which doesn’t appear to be the issue per se, at least not without extrapolation).

    And while this is just a formality, right now the only specific evidence we have is a frame in the edited video. CNN apparently had brief access to more materials, showing allegedly the same man still wearing a Red Cross bib, but declined to buy them from the source. In any case, it seems that the Red Cross has been confidentially talking to the Colombian government about this, and they should be able to decide whether to prosecute this violation of international law.

  10. Steve Says:

    jcg: interesting stuff. I appreciate the insight.

  11. jcg Says:

    News flash…apparently President Uribe has confirmed this and someone, he or Juan Manuel Santos, has officially presented excuses (to the Red Cross?). More information will be available later, I suppose.

  12. Chris Says:

    I think there’s a gray area in this whole “war crimes” issue that the Colombian govt will comfortably fall on… it stems around defining the FARC in the same way that the US defines Al-Qaeda… ie. as non-combatants and not a legitamite fighting force. So, in this instance geneva conventions don’t apply…

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