Ministry of Defense (Ministerio de Defensa Nacional)

The Ministry of Defense is responsible for the internal and external defense and security of Colombia. The ministry is comprised of the Army, Navy (including Coast Guard), Air Force, and National Police. Since 1991 a civilian has headed the defense ministry.

The Commander-in-Chief of the Colombian Armed Forces is, by law, the President. The Minister of Defense, however, is granted significant power in the day-to-day administrative and operational control of the armed forces. This in practice leaves the Minister of Defense with only administrative duties.

Article 120 of the 1886 Constitution conferred upon the president of Colombia the responsibility of directing war operations as the Chief of the Republican Armies. Under the President and Defense Minister is the Combined General Staff, which formulates and coordinates the activities of the three armed services and the National Police.

The Defense Ministry (MOD) continues to step up investigations in early 2009 into reports of murders committed by Army personnel, and had fired fifty-one officers and enlisted men implicated in the incidents--including 27 dismissed as a result of the Soacha murders. The MOD was also working to fix breakdowns in intelligence, operational planning and logistics that contribute to human rights abuses, as well as to implement clearer rules of engagement. Still, some senior military officials continued to resist the MOD's efforts, arguing that human rights concerns are overstated and that the new policies are harming the war effort. Army Commander General Oscar Gonzalez impeded investigations of abuses by limiting the mandate of the Army Inspector General. With Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos departing to launch his presidential campaign, senior military and civilian officials say it is key that President Uribe appoint a Minister equally committed to human rights if the current progress is to be maintained.

Between October 2008 and February 2009, the MOD dismissed fifty-one officers and enlisted men implicated in extrajudicial killings: 27 Army personnel were fired in October 2008 for the Soacha killings; 13 more were dismissed in November 2008 for murders in Cordoba; and 11 others were dismissed from La Popa Battalion in January 2009 for killings in Cesar. In addition to the investigations, the MOD is implementing the 15-point plan announced by MOD Santos in November 2008 to improve the military's human rights record and deter abuses. The MOD was developing clearer rules of military engagement and designated those criminal bands that are legitimate military targets and those that should be subject to law enforcement action. The Government of Colombia also modified an internal directive regulating rewards payments to informants to avoid situations such as the "Rojas" case where the government paid for FARC Secretariat member Ivan Rios' hand (and later his corpse).

Army Inspector General (IG) Major General Carlos Suarez, was made IG by MOD Santos with the specific mandate to investigate extrajudicial killings. The investigations follow the model used by Suarez in investigating the Soacha murders, and examine the operational, intelligence, logistical and administrative components of supposed military operations. Suarez cannot dismiss any personnel on his own, and can only make recommendations to the Army Commander, Armed Forces Commander, or the MOD. For example, he recommended that 28 Army officers and other personnel be dismissed from the Popa Battalion due to their alleged roles in killings in Cesar, but Army Commander Oscar Gonzalez approved the removal of only 11 officers.

The extrajudicial execution problem was widespread. The Soacha phenomenon originated in the 4th Brigade in Medellin (commanded at one time by both former Army Commander Mario Montoya and current Army Commander Oscar Gonzalez). The practice later spread to other brigades and commands in the region, including the Joint Caribbean Command. The insistence by some military commanders on body counts as a measure of success despite MOD directives to the contrary -- coupled with some commanders' ties to criminals and narcotraffickers -- led to the specific pattern of murders committed in the Soacha and other cases. The body count system -- and the resulting murders -- not only undermined the Army's legitimacy, but also created a false illusion of success. As a result, the "false positives" diverted resources and attention away from the main fight against the FARC.

Retired generals such as Montoya and former 17th Brigade Commander Rito Alejo del Rio were working with right-wing politicians like former Minister Fernando Londono to undercut Santos' human rights initiatives. In a 12 February 2009 "El Tiempo" Op-ed Londono complained that the dismissals over the so-called "false positives" had emasculated the military, leaving officers too scared to conduct operations and returning the tactical initiative to the FARC. Some officers mounted a campaign involving legal action, intimidation, and slander to harass those officers and civilians committed to cleaning up the Army.

President Uribe continued to view military success in terms of kills, leaving him susceptible to the arguments of some military officers and politicians that the MOD's emphasis on human rights was overstated and was harming the war effort against the FARC. The Army units which have achieved the greatest results against the terrorist group were not involved in the murders. Army Operations Chief Major General Carlos Saavedra agrees that the human rights impact on operations has been minimal.

As a multiparty, constitutional democracy and a unitary republic with a strong presidential regime, Colombia is not unique in Latin America. Like numerous other countries from Mexico to Argentina, its national government has executive, legislative, and judicial branches that were established with separation of powers and with checks and balances. However, Colombia is unusual in the region in that its armed forces have seized power far less often than in many Latin American countries, on only three occasions—1830, 1854, and 1953.

The informal ending in 1991 of the tradition of military defense ministers has ensured civilian oversight of the military. This trend was interrupted in May 2009, after Juan Manuel Santos Calderón resigned as minister of national defense in order to qualify as a potential presidential candidate, and President Uribe appointed General Padilla de León to act concurrently as the Military Forces general commander and his interim minister, pending consideration of other candidates for the post. Although Colombia subsequently has another civilian minister of national defense, as do the other South American nations, it stands out in the region as a militarized nation whose armed forces are second in size in Latin America only to those of Brazil.

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