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Colombia: Conscription and Military Service
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > The Organization of the Armed Forces > The Military Education System


According to Article 165 of the Constitution, "all Colombians are bound to bear arms when public necessity so requires, in order to defend the independence of the nation and the institutions of the country." The military service law stipulated that all Colombian males, upon reaching eighteen years of age, were obliged to present themselves for military service. Colombian males maintained a military service obligation until reaching fifty years of age. Those males over the age of thirty who had fulfilled their service requirement were considered members of the military reserves until reaching forty-five years of age; those under the age of thirty who had completed their military service would first be called up in the event of a national emergency.

In 1988 women remained exempt from the service obligation and played virtually no role in Colombia's armed forces. Military service exemptions also were routinely granted to priests and physically handicapped individuals as well as to individuals who could prove themselves to be essential for the support of their families. Individuals who received an exemption based on family hardship were required to pay a special tax in lieu of performing the obligatory service. Deferments were available for students, who had to renew them annually, and for young men who already had a brother in the service. Detention in jail also enabled one to obtain a deferment; those convicted of crimes that deprived them of their political rights were not subject to conscription.

Despite legislatively mandated military service, in practice only about 16,000 to 18,000 of an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 eligible male youths were drafted annually. In 1987 the term of service for these youths was one year, reduced from the previous requirement of two years' service. The number of youths carrying out the obligatory service requirement in 1987 rose to an estimated 28,200. The requirement could be fulfilled by duty with either the army, the navy, the air force, or the National Police. In 1987 over 90 percent of these youths were completing their service with the army. Upon completing their service, conscripts were given a reservist card (tarjeta de reservista). This card was an indispensable document in proving an individual's identity throughout his adult life.

Conscripts were selected for service by lotteries carried out in each municipality. The majority of those selected reportedly were poor and from rural areas. During the early 1980s, an attempt was made to enforce more uniformly the military service obligation, regardless of socioeconomic standing. Although by 1988 youths from middle-class families were being increasingly called on to complete their military service, those from wealthy families continued to evade the obligatory service requirement.

Because of the low level of education of many conscripts -- who were commonly referred to as recruits -- basic training frequently included literacy instruction as well as courses in military science and field maneuvers. This training customarily was carried out at the military's applications schools rather than with units in the field.

Male citizens between the ages of sixteen and fifty were eligible for enlistment in the army or navy. The army's minimum age for enlistees was nineteen, the navy's sixteen. Those enlisting under the age of twenty were required to present proof of permission granted by either their parents or their guardian. Both enlistees and conscripts had to take physical and mental examinations, the passing grades for which could be adjusted according to the military's manpower needs. Those showing aptitude were eligible for training in technical fields, such as electronics.

Those individuals considered candidates for the noncommissioned officer (NCO) corps were selected from the volunteers in each conscript class. In turn, those who wished to become career military officers were screened by a board of officers and were required to pass an examination in academic and practical military subjects. Upon meeting these minimal requirements, the individual was appointed to the lowest NCO grade. Gaining admission to the Military Cadet School -- which was considered difficult for most enlistees, given the school's high educational and physical entrance requirements -- was viewed as a prerequisite for a career as a commissioned officer. Consequently, the wide gap between enlisted personnel and the officer corps -- a function of the disparity between the two groups' socioeconomic standing and educational background -- generally meant that there was little opportunity for NCOs to become commissioned officers.

Military promotions for the NCOs and the commissioned officer corps were strictly regulated by law. Promotions for the higher ranks of the commissioned officer corps required congressional approval. A variety of decrees and statutes established the professional requirements for an officer to achieve a specific rank. These laws also spelled out the minimum number of years that an officer had to remain in a rank before being eligible for promotion, the obligatory retirement age for each rank, and the maximum number of officers in each rank. Generals were required to retire at the age of sixty-five. It was not uncommon, however, for exceptions to this regulation to be made in the case of highranking military officials.

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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