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Colombia: Civic Action, Counterinsurgency, and Internal Security
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Background and Traditions of the Armed Forces > Foreign Military Influence


The military became extensively involved in civic action and counterinsurgency programs during the 1960s and 1970s. During the early 1960s, when government concerns were directed at preventing the establishment of a Cuban-style revolution, the guerrillas remaining from the years of la violencia were cast as subversives or bandits. This portrayal of the government's opponents as foreign-directed or criminal elements was not wholly without substance and helped to legitimize the military's continuing role in the maintenance of internal security. It also strengthened ties between the armed forces and the civilian population and, by extension, elevated the military's prestige.

In an effort to enhance the success of the military's internal security mission, the civilian leadership reorganized the military command and authorized measures to improve technical capacity and training. The General Command of the Military Forces was reorganized once again -- this time as a planning agency under the Ministry of War -- and was assigned to help rebuild the nation following the devastation wrought by la violencia. The General Staff, in turn, reported to the General Command and coordinated military, public, and private resources in helping the military maintain order and contribute to national development. The United States Military Assistance Program (MAP) also facilitated the development of the Colombian armed forces.

This strengthening of ties between the Colombian and United States militaries led to the adoption of new military strategies and tactics. Articles on unconventional warfare began to appear in the professional military journals. New emphasis was placed on assigning light, self-sufficient infantry units to combat brigades in regions with reported guerrilla activity. The navy and air force also became more involved in internal security and in developing capabilities to transport troops rapidly for combat in remote areas.

By 1964 as much as 70 percent of the country's military personnel was reported to have been deployed in various missions related to internal security. The military's first comprehensive counterinsurgency operation -- the Lazo Plan -- successfully employed psychological operations in winning peasant support away from the insurgents. Army troops were deployed throughout the rural areas in an attempt to eliminate the small independent guerrilla-led republics that had been established during the years of la violencia. At the same time, to win the peasants' confidence and break the guerrillas' hold on their allegiance, army personnel participated in building roads, bridges, and public housing as well as in such projects as literacy instruction and health care. After 1963 gradually increasing domestic budget allocations -- complemented by United States financial aid, training, and equipment -- enabled the Colombian armed forces to grow to approximately 60,000 troops by 1969.

Strong leadership was the key to building a strong professional institution during the 1960s. General Alberto Ruiz Novoa, who served first as commander general of the military forces and later as minister of war, and then-Lieutenant Colonel Alvaro Valencia Tovar, who helped implement the army's new strategies against the guerrillas in Colombia's eastern plains, were instrumental in the military's development in the early 1960s. Both supported the controversial notion that the domestic insurgency could not be permanently eliminated without the implementation of substantial socioeconomic reforms in rural Colombia. In 1962 Ruiz Novoa directed the army to participate in the country's first national civic action plan.

Nevertheless, despite Ruiz Novoa's able leadership of the military, he became a target of attack by the country's civilian political leadership. Ruiz Novoa criticized the government's failure to address the pervasive socioeconomic problems -- a subject outside the military's traditional domain -- and his reported political ambitions led to his dismissal in January 1965. Ruiz Novoa's successor as minister of war, General Gabriel Rebeiz Pizarro, shifted the military away from the civic action component of the Lazo Plan. In its place, Rebeiz implemented the National Defense Law, which called for an intensified campaign to eradicate the pockets of guerrilla resistance.

The majority of the military's campaigns during the latter half of the 1960s were directed against the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional -- ELN), which was active in the eastern plains, and against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia -- FARC), which operated in the southern regions of the country. Despite greater official emphasis on armed action, some of the campaigns targeting these guerrilla groups continued to have a strong civic-action element. By the end of the decade, the military's role in civic action had become marginal; however, the combat experience it had gained from the antiguerrilla operations led it to be counted as one of Latin America's premier counterinsurgency forces.

The 1970s ushered in a different form of internal security threat as official concern focused on the growing disorder in urban areas. The military, often working in conjunction with the National Police, now assumed responsibility for breaking up illegal strikes and student demonstrations. On several occasions, members of the army or police were ordered onto university campuses -- including that of the National University of Colombia in Bogotá -- either to close the schools or to arrest student leaders. By mid-decade, assassinations, kidnappings, bombings, and other acts associated with urban terrorism began to pose a more serious threat to domestic order. Frequently, the newly formed urban groups declared that their actions were carried out in support of their comrades in arms in the countryside. In September 1975, the army's inspector general, who had been active in rural antiguerrilla campaigns in the 1960s, was assassinated. Prominent individuals kidnapped in 1975 and 1976 included the consul of the Netherlands, a United States-born Sears executive, and a Colombian labor leader. The Dutch consul and the United States executive both were released upon payment of ransom, but the union official was murdered.

Although the advent of urban terrorism did not lead to a cessation of the fighting in the country's rural areas, the military's continuing campaign did cause a decline in rural guerrilla activity that lasted through the end of the 1970s. The decline was primarily attributed to the military's increased reliance upon force and firepower. The limited availability of foreign weaponry and training for the guerrillas -- particularly after Cuba abandoned its policy of open and active support for revolutionary movements throughout the hemisphere -- led to a decision on the part of some groups to retrench, or, as in the case of the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación -- EPL), to shift their operations to urban areas. The Civil Defense groups, a locally based intelligence and support network developed by the armed forces after 1965, also helped maintain the military's presence in the countryside.

Data as of December 1988

Last Updated: December 1988

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Colombia was first published in 1988. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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