Time to rethink Colombia’s militarised national security approach

Author: Dr. Jorge E. Delgado • Resource type: Blogs


Jorge E. Delgado, a Senior Expert for the Colombia/Venezuela programme in the Engagement, Dialogue and Process Design Unit at The European Institute of Peace, jorge.delgado@eip.org.

The configuration of Colombia’s security forces in a post-FARC-EP country has been a contentious and politically charged issue since the peace talks. Using a historical approach, the article argues that the Colombian security forces’ thinking has remained constant despite the signature of the 2016 Peace Accord. The author argues why, today, five years later, Colombia needs to recognise the shortcomings of militarised National Security and acknowledge that an inclusive discussion about the future of the security sector is essential amid the political and social transition created by the 2016 Peace Accord.

On 14 September 1977, Colombia was shaken by one of the biggest general strikes in its modern history. Civil unrest rose as quick as the economic inflation that triggered it. In less than 24 hours waves of rioting and looting forced the declaration of martial law. Over 45 people were killed and 3000 wounded.

Today, five years after the signature of the Peace Accord, President Ivan Duque enters his last eight months in power facing a significant rise in social discontent. Since April 2021, repression during protests has left at least 27 dead. Placing Colombia’s 2021 strikes in historical perspective suggests that, in spite of the transition generated by the 2016 Peace Accord, perceptions about social mobilisation in a conflict setting are strikingly unmoved.

In particular, the approach of the Colombian military appears inflexible. No matter the FARC-EP’s disarmament and entry into politics, or the opportunity to address longstanding issues through democratic avenues, for many within the military and security sector the 2021 protest movement is confirmation that the state faces an overt threat. Protests are perceived to be orchestrated by actors that blur the lines of lawful dissent, and, that in alliance with non-state armed groups and hostile regimes, aim to compel the Colombian government and the security forces. The response to protests and growing violence continues to be a militarised national security approach that challenges Colombia’s transition.

Tracing Colombia’s Militarised National Security.

For an adolescent FARC insurgency, the strike of September 1977 was evidence that Colombia was ripe for revolution. Guerrilla leader Jacobo Arenas claimed ahead of the FARC’s strategic Sixth Conference in January 1978, the strike had “lacked irons”. In Arenas’ view, the strike revealed the need to combine the full spectrum of violent and non-violent tools at the FARC’s disposal. It set the stage for the doctrine known as “combination of all forms of struggle” and the creation of an Army of the People (“Ejercito del Pueblo”, hence the brand FARC-EP).

Meanwhile, faced with increased activity by other guerrilla groups like the ELN and M-19, the military, influenced by the National Security Doctrine, viewed the 1977 strike as communist swayed unrest that threatened the survival of the state. The government was tenaciously pressured to adopt emergency measures. In a letter addressed to outgoing President Alfonso Lopez, the military leadership demanded immediate action to confront a “systematic campaign of political opposition” that affected the military’s ability to “eliminate the causes of violence and immorality”. Officers also condemned press criticisms as a “dissociating force” that aimed to destabilise the military. U.S diplomats summarised that the demands “implied that if the government proved unwilling or incapable of preserving the peace, the armed forces would.”

Military pressure was determinant in shaping the political debate during the 1978 elections. The incoming President Julio Cesar Turbay (1978-82) acceded to the demands and offered the military special powers via declaring a “National Security Statute”. This executive decree curtailed civil liberties, limited freedom of the press and organisation, and increased the army’s operational autonomy, including by expanding the jurisdiction of military tribunals which allowed for the arbitrary arrest of those suspicious of engaging in subversive activities. The National Security Statute also favoured the growth of paramilitarism and vigilantism thereby escalating the conflict. When repealed in 1982, the National Security Statute had led to the arbitrary arrest of 60,000 Colombians charged with conducting “subversive activity”. The autonomy and lack of accountability the Statute offered to the military had enormous Human Rights implications that Colombia is still struggling with.

Fast forward to 2021

Today’s Excessive use of force against protesters during the 2021 strikes, including a controversial decree deploying the military to assist local police, has led to demands for more accountability of the security forces and the demilitarization of the Police. Yet, current public pressure for security governance reform needs to be understood in light of recent revelations about military misconduct and the findings of the Special Jurisdiction for Peace. The absence of a sincere dialogue about the future of a security sector shaped by decades of counterinsurgency during the peace negotiations has only made the matter more urgent as citizen demands for accountability increase in the context of the strike.

Hawkish sectors view reform demands, and the wave of strikes more generally, as a ruse by the ex-FARC-EP and its allies to continue the “combination of all forms of struggle”. Rekindling Cold War narratives, they regard the Accord as an instrument of the enemies of the state to coerce the government to enact reforms that will weaken the military by other means than force. Lawfare, disinformation, economic pressure and civil unrest are all seen as existential threats resulting from the Peace Accord.

A case in point is a controversial letter signed by a group of ex-officers led by a former Armed Forces Chief of Staff, who was paradoxically a Senior government negotiator in Havana. The letter argues that Colombia’s protest is instrumentalized by “terrorists” associated to the leftist Sao Paolo Forum. Using the guise of democratic “progressive forces”, the state’s enemies need to be stopped “without hesitation” as their aim is to seize power to install an “anarchical populist regime” that will “dismantle the institutions” including the armed forces. The letter claims that the security forces are the “target of the combination of all forms of struggle”, destabilising them through disinformation and propaganda. While views of retired officers’ associations calling for hard-line responses do not officially represent the institution, they are influential in setting the mood of the military by holding the leadership accountable.

The configuration of Colombia’s military in a post-FARC-EP country has been a contentious issue. Vindication of the military’s honour and legitimacy in their battle against the FARC-EP has been central to the political platform of the critics of the 2016 Accord who currently hold power in the country. However, the current government of Colombia and the military need to acknowledge that security governance and its reform is a valid point in an inclusive discussion amid a political and social transition. It is not a ploy by a vindictive former adversary.

Colombia needs to conceive security as a public good. As recent findings by Oxford’s CONPEACE research projectshow, overly militarised policies have decreased rather than increased citizen security as the population is perceived as either collateral damage or enemies of the state. Hence, the path to overcome increasing violence in Colombia requires more participation and dialogue to develop true people-centred security and recognise the shortcomings of a militarised national security approach.


CONPEACE. (2021). Towards Peaceful and Safe Futures: Overcoming Conflict and Crisis in Colombia and Beyond. Summary Report June. https://conpeace.ccw.ox.ac.uk/files/summaryreportjune2021pdf

Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica (2014). Guerrilla y población civil – trayectoria de las FARC 1949-2013. http://www.centrodememoriahistorica.gov.co/descargas/informes2013/farc/guerrilla-poblacion-civil.pdf

Delgado. J.E. (2015): Colombian Military Thinking and the Fight against the FARC-EP Insurgency, 2002–2014, Journal of Strategic Studies,

Dudley, Stephen. (2004). Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia. New York: Routledge.

Hincapie, Sebastián. (2021). De acusados a acusadores: una historia de los Consejos de Guerra Verbales en Colombia, 1969-1982. Medellin: Universidad de Antioquia.

Hochmueller, Markus (2021). Why Police Reform won’t do the trick. The Oxford University Politics Blog. https://blog.politics.ox.ac.uk/why-police-reform-wont-do-the-trick-in-colombia/

Mantilla, Jorge (2021). La inseguridad en el paro nacional. Razón Publica blog. https://razonpublica.com/la-crisis-inseguridad-paro-nacional/

Porch, Douglas. (2013). Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War. Cambridge: CUP.

US Embassy Bogota. (1978, January 4). Colombia: Military Pressures López to Control Crime Wave, Secret, Intelligence Summary. Accessed via Digital National Security Archive.