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Colombia: The Political Role of the Armed Forces
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Constitutional Provisions and Treaty Obligations

THE POLITICAL ROLE OF THE ARMED FORCES


During the 1980s, analysts generally viewed the Colombian military as one of the least politically involved armed forces of Latin America. Between 1900 and 1988, the military leadership participated in only a single successful coup d'état against a civilian government, the coup that brought Rojas Pinilla to the presidency in 1953. Since 1953 Colombia and Venezuela have been the only two Latin American countries that have maintained civilian-led governments.

Even before the 1953 coup, however, the leaders of Colombia's armed forces had shown a reluctance to support political intervention. The only other successful military intervention against an elected civilian government was an 1854 coup carried out by General José María Melo. One other coup attempt, the abortive Pasto coup of 1944, failed because the middle-ranking officers who led it lacked the support of the institution's hierarchy Though rumors of planned coups and military revolts often surfaced in the Colombian media during the 1970s and 1980s, there was little indication that such plans had widespread support within the armed forces. Most observers concluded that the professionalization efforts pursued during the early twentieth century had successfully ingrained in the armed forces the norms of respect for constitutional procedures and obedience to civil authorities.

Despite a record of minimal overt involvement in politics, Colombia's armed forces often have supported the civilian political leadership through the maintenance of public order and internal security. Military support for the ruling civilian political elite -- with whom the officer corps often has agreed on political issues -- was considered crucial for Colombia's continuing stability. Such military support for the political status quo first became evident during the early 1960s, when, in supporting the first of the four bipartisan National Front governments, the military expanded its role in civic action and counterinsurgency and began to define those who opposed the National Front as enemies of the state.

Broad military support for the civilian leadership survived the dismissals of several popular officers who had made public statements that challenged the traditional limits of the armed forces' acceptable political involvement. These dismissals included the retirement of Minister of War Ruiz Novoa in 1963, Army Commander General Guillermo Pinzón Caicedo in 1969, and Army Commander General Alvaro Valencia Tovar in 1975. In January 1984, Minister of National Defense General Fernando Landazábal Reyes was retired for criticizing the Betancur administration's efforts to achieve truces with the country's guerrilla groups and for criticizing Colombia's foreign policy toward the revolutionary government of Nicaragua. The Betancur administration's policies did cause tension in civil-military relations, however. In November 1988, President Barco accepted the resignation of Minister of National Defense General Rafael Samudio Molina after the president publically repudiated the general's call for an all-out war against leftist guerrillas.

One area of continuing friction related to the military's political role was the question of military autonomy. Many of the administrative reforms that affected the armed forces during the 1960s were poorly received by the officer corps. The officers believed the new measures undermined the military's ability to act independently in carrying out its constitutionally assigned missions. During the 1970s, however, some regions of the country occupied by guerrillas were placed under the control of military authorities. These militarized areas generally were rural and sparsely populated; nevertheless, the appointment of military officers as mayors or governors recalled the government's response to the rising violence of the early 1940s. The almost continuous state of siege during the four decades following la violencia also led the civilian government to expand the military's legitimate national role by assigning the armed forces jurisdiction over crimes against national security.

During the 1980s, the military's influence in government decision making was limited to internal security and certain foreign policy issues, such as the offshore boundary dispute with Venezuela. Its political orientation was strongly anticommunist, an attitude attributable to the influence of the United States armed forces as well as to the military's role in the struggle against Marxist-inspired domestic insurgents (which dated from the early 1960s). At the same time, the military's input into government policy making on these issues remained subject to the approval of the civilian leadership. As a result, though the military considered itself a supporter of the Constitution, the relative ideological compatibility of the military and civilian leadership influenced the military's support for the government. Given this compatibility, respect for the president's constitutional authority remained sufficient to permit the chief executive to pursue his policy goals.

Following the 1986 inauguration of the Barco administration and an upsurge in political violence, military autonomy was somewhat expanded to buttress internal security. During the late 1980s, some analysts speculated that increasing political violence and repeated challenges to public order posed by the narcotics traffickers and guerrillas might prompt the armed forces to assume a more overt political role. At the same time, some international human rights organizations charged that military personnel were participating in right-wing death squads and were actively involved in torture and disappearances of leftist political opponents. The Ministry of National Defense strongly rejected these charges.

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 Factba.se.

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