A New Security Paradigm in Colombia

While some countries in Latin America move toward increased militarization and other “mano dura” tactics to combat crime and violence, the Gustavo Petro administration in Colombia has proposed a paradigm shift for his administration (2022–2026) toward a human rights-based approach to citizen security and crime. The administration is attempting to address the root causes of crime and violence such as poverty, inequality, lack of education, substance use disorder, and an array of other social, economic, and environmental factors.

An approach targeting the underlying factors of violence, crime, and conflict, gains great significance given Colombia’s enduring 60-year armed conflict. Colombia’s internal conflict—and the crime and violence that fuel it—has deep roots in historical events and social and economic factors. This protracted struggle has intricately interwoven national security with issues of crime and violence. Matters typically under the purview of local police have morphed into strategic military concerns, at times blurring the boundaries between the roles of the National Police and the Armed Forces.

In 2002 Alvaro Uribe Velez became president with the promise of getting tough on crime and subversion. Under Uribe, serious human rights violations were committed by the state in the name of security. After Uribe left office in 2010, guerrilla groups had indeed been weakened, but as the bloody cost of the “democratic security” strategy Uribe promoted came to light, it became clear that not only were there crimes committed, but also that the strategies that had relied too much on state force were not going to end the violence and armed conflict.

In 2016 President Juan Manuel Santos finally managed to sign a peace accord with the largest guerrilla group, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), and with the establishment of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the extent of the violence during Uribe’s presidency began being meticulously documented. In September of 2023, the highest-ranking officer to ever testify before the JEP, former general Torres Escalante, described himself as having been “a leader of a criminal organization” when speaking about his role in the Colombian armed forces. To date, the JEP has certified over 2,400 murders and forced disappearances presented as combat casualties, the so-called false positives, between 2003 and 2008.

In 2022, Colombia elected Gustavo Petro, its first leftist president, partly because citizens had become increasingly aware of the human cost of the approaches that were used to curb violence in the country under previous administrations. With the new administration came a different strategy to combat crime, violence, and improve security by focusing on addressing the root causes of the conflict in Colombia. Strategies that address underlying social, political, and economic issues will inevitably take time to implement, and in the short term, results can be uneven and even unpredictable.

In contrast, mano dura approaches are characterized by being heavy-handed, emphasizing military and police toughness, and using mechanisms like states of exception to increase the government’s power and reduce citizen’s rights. El Salvador’s president Nayib Bukele is a great example of how tough-on-crime policies produce quick results that are incredibly popular despite what many view as democratic backsliding and a path toward authoritarianism. In El Salvador, repeated states of exception have become the norm. The lack of due process, mass and arbitrary incarceration, mysterious deaths, persecution of the free press, and state-sponsored propaganda, have become emblematic of the “Bukele model,” which is gaining popularity across the region.

What the Petro Administration Is Proposing

Security has been at the top of the agenda for governments across the political spectrum in Colombia. Petro’s National Development Plan (NDP) 2022-2026 places the preservation of human life at the center of its development approach and links it to issues such as land reform, access to water, and environmental justice. For decades, the international community has identified land reform in Colombia as a cornerstone for peace and security. In addition, land reform was the first issue agreed in the 2016 Peace Accord, an agreement the Petro government is legally bound to implement. The second issue addressed in the PND pertains directly to security, seeking to maintain a balance between traditional security concerns and the concept of human security.

In March 2023 Minister of Defense Iván Velázquez presented the incoming government’s strategy on “Security, Defense, and Citizen Coexistence: Guarantees for Life and Peace,” a document that provides a basis for security and defense planning when designing new applications or expanding the current framework. The strategy places a premium on protecting human lives and respecting international human rights conventions. Compared to previous approaches that focused on military and law enforcement measures to combat armed insurgent groups and drug trafficking organizations, the new strategy takes a more holistic and people-centered approach, which prioritizes the well-being and protection of individuals and communities. This is a shift from conventional security policies, predominantly centered around military responses to combat armed insurgent groups, underscoring state-centric security priorities over broader human security considerations. The new strategy also encourages inclusivity and community participation in security decision-making, diverging from the top-down military strategies. Overall, this approach aims to create a safer and more inclusive society by addressing a broader range of security challenges beyond traditional military strategies.

The challenge for the Petro administration will be putting theory into action in its remaining time in office. The model proposed is complex, often misunderstood, unlikely to yield fast results, and challenging for government institutions to assume. These challenges are often part of change and transformation, yet generating long-term and sustainable results can be politically challenging, particularly in an environment where there is extreme polarization. Therefore, it is important to understand the proposed strategy through the best practices it is based on, and not through partisan ideology or as a model that is intrinsically linked to the Petro government.

From its inception, the proposed strategy aimed to develop a more nuanced analysis of the security landscape in Colombia, moving away from the traditional focus on internal armed conflict and acknowledging the prevalence of criminal organizations engaged in various illicit activities, highlighting the need for a different approach to address these new challenges effectively. From the early stages, there was an important effort to not only diagnose the problem, but also to provide a meaningful participatory space for all stakeholders. It is notable that part of the diagnostic includes specific areas of concern from NGOs, subject matter experts and international and national analysts, indigenous peoples and their organizations, business associations, the energy and mining sector, human rights organizations, and civil society.

Objective 1: Provide safety and protect lives.

The first objective focuses on dismantling organized criminal groups in part by prioritizing intelligence and strategic actions. The concept of “total peace” is one of the strategies developed to achieve this objective. Albeit being one strategy among many others, this concept has captured the security discussion. The term has oversimplified the current security strategy and hindered conversations across different sectors. The Petro administration created this term, perhaps naively, thinking of “total peace” as a noble overarching goal that would seek peace by negotiating with all actors, from political armed groups to organized crime organizations. What it did not realize is that this catchy phrase would also become the perfect soundbite used by the opposition to undermine any other ideas the administration had on security policies. Despite what many critics claim, total peace is not only about negotiating with criminal groups—although attempting peace talks is the first step; instead, it is an ambition to have total control over the territory, like Vice Minister of Defense Alberto Lara explained during a recent panel on security challenges. In addition, total peace does not imply that there should not be the use of legitimate state force, as recently appointed peace commissioner Otty Patiño asserted.

The first objective also focuses on tackling the issue by targeting economic and financial structures that are not always illegal, but do fuel crime and violence. It also targets other related crimes such as money laundering, corruption, contraband, and extortion. On the issue of drug trafficking, an even more detailed strategy was published in September 2023. At its core, the plan seeks to decrease the targeting of campesinos that are cultivating illegal crops, instead focusing on the criminal mafias that run the business. With the two-prong approach, the government wants to “oxygenate” areas that are small-scale producers of coca leaf by providing greater state presence and alternative economic opportunities, while “asphyxiating” drug traffickers. This includes focusing more on fighting corruption, dismantling trafficking infrastructure and financing, strengthening the judicial system that so often leads to high levels of impunity, and controlling inputs and chemical precursors for illegal drugs. For the first time, this will also include a specific focus on synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and tusi—a drug that mixes ketamine, a stimulant, and colorants.

Objective 2: Contain Deforestation and Protect Biodiversity

For the Petro administration, the environment is not only an asset, but it is also central for land-use planning. The actions outlined for the security actors revolve around preventing deforestation, protecting biodiversity and water resources, and combating wildlife trafficking. In addition, they aim at strengthening actions that will prevent environmental harm caused by organized crime, while also preventing illegal and unscrupulous mining practices. The nexus of security and environmental harm in illegal mining is particularly salient. Illegal mining is an extremely profitable business for organized crime, it fuels violence, internal displacement, and illicit economies.

Objective 3: Safeguard Sovereignty, National Independence, and the Constitutional Order

Despite presidential rhetoric critical of the United States and NATO, the strategy maintains a commitment to continue strengthening the relationship with both, and as recently as September, NATO deputy secretary general Mircea Geoană met with Minister Velásquez and commended Colombia on its work on the Women, Peace, and Security agenda. Indeed, Colombia’s security strategy focuses on strengthening intelligence capabilities, radically enhancing coordination among different state agencies and armed forces, and undoubtedly, increasing international cooperation to strengthen these actions. The strategy also recognizes the dynamics that create border instability and proposes an integral and simultaneous approach that seeks to bring state presence, services, and opportunities, while at the same time developing a legal framework that better protects land and sea borders. Finally, there is an emphasis on protecting critical infrastructure, which highlights anticipating threats, developing a strategic approach to protect it, and mechanisms to work with the private sector and the international community.

Objective 4: Strengthen the National Police and the Armed Forces

Lastly, Petro’s security strategy emphasizes the importance of a humane and transparent police force that respects human rights. When it came into office, the Petro administration forced some early retirements in the top echelons of the police and selected replacements who were unreproachable regarding human rights violations or other wrongdoings. Leadership positions are now occupied by officials with more administrative, legal or academic backgrounds, and many have attended U.S.-backed training programs. These actions are, in part, an effort to change traditional military dynamics and diversify educational backgrounds to emphasize the protection of lives instead of incentives which reward the number of opponents killed in action. Reducing casualties and reshaping police-civilian interactions is also an aim of the new service model of the police that focuses on creating a more humane police force.

Confronting a Hyper-Partisan Reality

The new security paradigm that is being proposed, with its people-centered strategy, is in line with what many actors, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), have been adopting and presenting in the country strategy. In general, the security policies being developed by experts within the president’s cabinet are sound and more progressive than any past government. However, the president’s own rhetoric and combative personality have contributed to the opposition’s narrative of a Colombia that is straying from the democratic path, even, if there is nothing concrete to back this up.

Identifying challenges that threaten the successful implementation of the new security policy is necessary. Yet critics in both Colombia and the United States—Colombia’s greatest ally—should not seek to invalidate the entire strategy, but instead to adjust it and mitigate potential risks. Only talking about total peace has been harmful. This strategy is just a piece of what the current administration is proposing, and therefore, the overall security strategy should be evaluated by its evidence-based approach, and not through a political lens. As Paz Total stumbles with the ELN, the group that may have seemed as the more promising candidate for a peace agreement with the Petro administration, the rhetoric of Paz Total equates failures in that front as the ultimate measure of the success or failure of the new security approach.

Unfortunately, this rhetoric has reached many in the United States. For example, Representative Maria Elvira Salazar (R-FL) held a hearing titled Colombia’s Descent to Socialism: Assessing Gustavo Petro’s Presidency, which, as affirmed by experts testifying, was a false premise. These actions are at odds with how the Biden-Petro relationship is evolving. Agencies like the State Department and USAID maintain a strong relationship with Colombia. In a live radio interview on W-Radio Colombia on October 4, 2023 the assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Todd Robinson, stated that after visiting Colombia he felt the United States and Colombia generally coincided on security issues and reaffirmed the Biden administration’s commitment to working with democratic leaders.

Indeed, despite skepticism, partisan rhetoric, and the influence of the traditional Colombian political establishment in Washington, most U.S. agencies have stayed above politics. They continue to engage in technical cooperation, focusing on sensible policies and initiatives proposed through the traditional cooperation channels, instead of becoming reactive to Petro’s volatile rhetoric. Yet the potential impact of partisan politics in the United States on the Colombia-U.S. relationship is particularly significant in an election year. It is now more critical than ever for U.S.-Colombia cooperation to transcend political divisions and uphold its pragmatic and technical approach.

Juliana Rubio is associate director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

The author is grateful to Gabriela Marma-Gutierrez, a former intern with the CSIS Americas Program, for her contributions to this commentary.