Colombia - Military Personnel

While all Colombian men must register for the draft at age 18, most;y poorer men are compelled to serve this nation of 46 million people. They can't afford the escape route: enrolling in college and paying a special sliding-scale tax of between $300 and $1,200. As a result, 90 percent of drafted youths come from the lower classes. The armed forces struggle to fill the ranks of a military that now numbers 250,000, of which just 100,000 are professional soldiers. More than 25,000 soldiers had been killed during the war.

In his re-election campaign last year, President Juan Manuel Santos Calderón vowed that if a peace deal was struck he would eliminate the draft. 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 the late 1980s. 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 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.

As of March 2009, there were approximately 210,000 soldiers in the Colombian armed forces. Of those, approximately 124,000 were conscripts and only 86,000 were professional soldiers. Conscripted soldiers include regular soldiers (conscripts without a high school degree), drafted high school graduates (bachilleres), and rural (campesino) soldiers who serve in their home regions. By 2013 the ranks of the armed forces had swelled to aover 280,000, and while the number of conscripts is not readily acertainable, it may be estimated to be in the neighborhood of about 150,000.

On 25 February 2009, the Colombian Consejo de Estado (Council of State), the country's highest administrative court, issued a controversial ruling with potentially far-reaching adverse consequences on military combat operations. The Council held that conscripts should not engage in combat operations, intelligence work, or any other activity that could expose them to enemy fire. The Council noted conscripts should be treated differently from professional soldiers, who volunteer for military service and receive combat training. The ruling cited Law 48 of 1993, which states that conscripts should be directed to "carry out social welfare activities to benefit the community and environmental and ecological conservation works."

The ruling provoked an immediate public outcry from Colombian military leaders. Colombian Armed Forces Commander Freddy Padilla argued that conscripts make up more than half of the total military forces and that not allowing them to engage in combat would be a serious blow to military operations. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said on April 30 that he hoped the decision was an error, because otherwise the effect would be "fatal" to the armed forces. In a May 9 article in "Semana" magazine, security analyst Alfredo Rangel said the Council's ruling was irresponsible, incorrect and amounted to judicial populism. He argued that military conscription is an established international practice and that Article 216 of the Constitution requires all Colombians to take up arms when necessary to defend national independence and public institutions.

By 2013 military service age was 18-24 years of age for compulsory and voluntary military service, while the service obligation was 18 months. The manpower available for military service [males age 16-49] was over 11,000,000, of whom the manpower fit for military service was about 9,000,000 [over 80%]. The manpower reaching militarily significant age annually was about 430,000 men, of whom 350,000 were probably fit for military service. Given the 18 month term of service, and an estimated 150,000 draftees on active duty, it may be estimated that only about a third of those fit for service would be drafted each year.

Colombia's conscription laws have long been criticized as favoring the urban elite. For example, high school graduates (bachilleres), who are more concentrated in urban areas, are only required to serve 12 months and rarely engage in combat. In contrast, regular and campesino conscripts serve between 18 and 24 months and are often integrated into combat units. Similarly, children of wealthy families can avoid service by entering university or professions that are exempt from the draft. Law 48 of 1993 also permits exemptions to the draft for those who pay a military compensation quota, which is based on family income. In the past, there have also been allegations of wealthy families bribing military recruiters to prevent their children from being drafted.

Julian E. Torres notes that " ... the reason why this issue has not become mainstream may be because most eligible politicians for obligatory military conscription – and potentially also their sons – have also dodged the service in an illegal manner or do not want the current laws favoring the wealthy to change."

In 2013 Adriaan Alsema reported that "The Colombian army is forcibly recruiting young men during raids in Medellin, ignoring the country’s Constitutional Court which has deemed the controversial practice illegal. ... The raids are carried out in crowded public spaces like metro exits where the chances of detaining a person who has failed to comply with his military duty or has failed to obtain an exemption paper are highest. According to the Medellin Ombudsman’s Office, the Army’s 4th Recruitment Zone has “systematically” ignored the law by conducting these raids in public places. The raids, informally called “batidas,” were “declared illegal and recognized as acts of arbitrary detention by the Constitutional Court in several judgments, the latest being the C-879 ruling in 2011,” the city ombudsman stated in its report on human rights in Medellin in 2012."

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.

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