Security Concerns Continue As Colombian President Nears Mandate Midpoint
An attack by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) insurgent group in south-west Colombia yesterday (26 July) has highlighted the ongoing security challenges President Juan Manuel Santos faces as he reaches the midpoint of his four-year mandate. That trend could have a bearing on how he intends to approach security policy in the remaining two years of this his first term in office.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
A FARC attack on police in south-west Colombia yesterday (26 July) is indicative of the ongoing security challenges that President Juan Manuel Santos faces as he reaches the mid-way stage of his term in office on 7 August.
Perceptions of not meeting high public expectations in terms of improving security could mean Santos will strengthen his tone and possibly increase his involvement in the running of the armed forces as a means to reassure the public that he is in control. Concomitantly, he may also seek to step up political efforts aimed at neutralising the FARC insurgency in particular.
With two years remaining as president, Santos’s future political success, which may include a bid for re-election in 2014, is likely to hinge on his ability to make concrete improvements in terms of security. How he endeavours to overcome the range of challenges he faces as he enters the crucial half of his presidency will have implications for how Colombia's security environment might evolve over the coming years.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia: FARC) insurgent group launched a grenade attack on a police patrol in south-west Colombia yesterday (26 July). The attack targeted police in the town of Llorente in the Pacific department (province) of Nariño. One police officer was injured in the attack, which took place hours before Defence Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón was due to travel to Nariño to present future security-force plans to combat armed groups in the region. While the damage inflicted by the attack was minor, the incident is indicative of a broader trend of ongoing security challenges that continue to face Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos as he reaches the half-way stage of his term in office.
On 7 August, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, after serving two years in office, will reach the midpoint of his first presidential term, which is due to expire in 2014. Santos was voted into power two
Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos in Bogotá, Colombia, on 20 July.
years ago with the highest figures in the history of Colombian presidential elections, in part by vowing to continue the legacy of his predecessor former-president Alvaro Uribe (2002–10). Upon assuming office, however, Santos rapidly signalled that he would govern very differently from Uribe. He appointed a highly qualified team of technocrats—this included some of Uribe's strongest critics and political opponents—to lead some of the major initiatives outlined during his campaign and set about mending relations with neighbouring Venezuela, with which Uribe had a fractious relationship. He summoned a national coalition much welcomed by many sectors which had been ostracised during Uribe's reign and steadily advanced an ambitious legislative agenda to reform the justice and education systems. He also sought to settle the country's historic debt with the victims of insurgent, paramilitary, drug trafficking and criminal violence by promising them the restitution of illegally usurped land and reparation for their decades-long suffering. On international relations, Santos has promoted a debate on drugs policies eliciting appeals for decriminalisation from various sectors, travelled extensively to secure free trade agreements with several nations, and positioned Colombia as chair of the Security Council of the United Nations. Perhaps most significantly, he has claimed that he holds the "key to the door of peace" and is merely awaiting the right signs from the FARC—still the country's most prominent insurgent group and security threat—for the opportunity to use it.
However, Santos has struggled to meet the high public expectations for his presidency. Probably his most significant shortcomings in this regard are related to his promises on security. Overall, the security environment has significantly improved in the past decade with the continued pressure on the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) insurgents groups, and the demobilisation of right -wing paramilitaries under the umbrella of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia: AUC) in 2006. Moreover, the security forces have succeeded in making significant inroads against the FARC since Santos came to power in 2010, killing a top commander Victor Julio Suarez Rojas alias "Mono Jojoy" in 2010 and supreme commander Guillermo León Sáenz Vargas (alias Alfonso Cano) in November 2011. Furthermore, Santos has adapted and refined the military's strategy in the meantime to increasingly focus on targeting the FARC's mid-level leaders as a means to dent the group's organisational structure, as well as its capacity to launch military operations. That strategy—the so-called 'Sword of Honour' plan—has enjoyed numerous successes in terms of neutralising (killing or capturing) FARC middle ranking personnel and combatants. Despite these tactical level triumphs, however, the security forces have failed to make wider gains against the insurgents. Consequently, insecurity remains extremely high and relatively undeterred in the northeast and southwest of the country, where the insurgents still maintain a strong presence.
The FARC refuses to withdraw from a zone in Cauca, in the south-west of the country, where it is embroiled in a three-way dispute with the military and the indigenous community, unless the armed forces demilitarise the area. That is one indication of the insurgents’ resilience and ongoing ability to flaunt its defiance of the state's desire to have a monopoly on the use of force. Ongoing attacks by suspected insurgents on Colombia's energy infrastructure, such as the assault on an Ecopetrol oil well in Puerto Caicedo in the south-western department of Putumayo in early July that left five maintenance workers dead (see Colombia: 5 July 2012: Five Oil Workers Killed in Insurgent Attack in Colombia), further implies that remote and marginal areas where the insurgents have a presence remain semi-lawless. These ongoing attacks, particularly to the energy sector that plays a major role in Santos's plan to attract increased levels of foreign direct investment (FDI) to Colombia, as well as perceptions of a lack of overall improvement in security since 2010, have contributed to the President's gradual political decline, with the Gallup poll recording a drop in support for Santos from 75%, when he was elected to 48% in July. It is also one of Uribe's main criticisms of Santos, and among the principal reasons why the former president has become one of the incumbent's most prominent political opponents.
So far, Santos's primary response has been to deploy extra troops to the regions under fiercest attack. Indeed, following a series of attacks on energy infrastructure in 2012, his government announced the deployment of 5,000 troops to reinforce the already robust 80,000 personnel assigned to guarding energy infrastructure across the country (see Colombia: 11 July 2012: Colombian Government Announces New Military Deployments to Protect Energy Infrastructure). In parallel, he has sought to force the FARC in particular towards dialogue aimed at negotiating a political solution to the conflict. However, with the clock ticking on the remainder of his first term in office he may seek to strengthen his efforts in both regards, particularly should he wish to re-gather political support ahead of the 2014 election in which he may seek a second term. In this sense, Santos may seek to strengthen his tone with regard to security, and in particular step up efforts to consolidate military control of areas where insecurity is highest. This could mean that Santos will draw upon his experience as a former minister of defence under Uribe and seek to increase the perception that he has a more involved role in the day-to-day running of the armed forces, not least as a means to reassure the public that he is in control.
Simultaneously, as it becomes increasingly clear that a purely military victory over the FARC remains increasingly less likely the President may also increase political efforts aimed at neutralising the FARC, and in particular concentrating his energy on behind the scenes efforts to force the group to enter a peace deal. Santos has consistently asserted that his government will only enter a process of dialogue with the FARC once the insurgent group meets a series of pre-conditions that include halting its insurgent activities. However, it is conceivable that back-channel dialogue may be underway. Key negotiators in this regard may emerge over the coming two years, but at present it appears as though former senator Piedad Cordoba and the Catholic Church?both have been involved in communications with the FARC in the past?are among the most likely candidates to be involved in that process, if it is indeed in progress. Vice-President Angelino Garzón has reaffirmed that Santos's government has not closed the door to reaching a political solution with the FARC, although that remains a longer-term prospect.
Outlook and Implications
With two years remaining as president, Santos's future political success, which may include a bid for re-election in 2014, is likely to hinge on his ability to make concrete improvements in terms of security. Certainly, along with increasing perceptions that he has effectively implanted a significant portion of his ambitious agenda of reforms, reinforcing security and especially sending out concrete signals that he has the potential to instil a peace process with the FARC are his greatest opportunities to create a political legacy. In the short term, Santos's ability to overcome the array of challenges—security and otherwise—that he faces as he enters the second and crucial half of his presidency will be a test of his capacity to govern, and will have significant implications for how Colombia's security environment evolves over the coming years.
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