Last Updated:10/24/02
Remarks by Colombian Defense Minister Marta Lucía Ramírez, Washington, October 8, 2002



Minister of Defense

Republic of Colombia


Washington, 8 October 2002

I would like first of all to thank the Center for International and Strategic Studies and especially Mr. Phillip McLean and Mr. Miguel Diaz for their initiative in organizing this conference, and for giving me the opportunity to share with you the challenges that not only Colombia, but the whole Andean region, presently face. The transnational organized crime, drug traffickers, money laundering, arms trafficking, and the strategic alliances within the terrorist groups are developing a clear path to destabilize the economies and democracies in our region, because the former elements weaken our institutions. In the mid-term weak institutions mean the absence of the rule of law, which in turn makes the ruthless acting of this groups become some sort of "the law of the land". To stop this kind of scenario from being a reality, the Colombian people have just given a strong mandate to President Uribe.

As you are all probably aware, Colombia is facing today one of the greatest challenges in its history. That challenge is in the first instance a challenge to the very existence of the State.

Our democracy and our society are threatened as never before by the terror of left and right wing armed groups, supported by the enormous resources of the drugs trade. What policies we adopt or fail to adopt in order to meet that challenge will determine the future shape of our country. So it was both with gratitude and with great pleasure that I accepted the invitation to speak before such an expert audience in security matters as is here assembled at CSIS.

I wish to present to you today the broad outline of President Alvaro Uribe´s government’s Democratic Security and Defense Strategy, which will be the framework that will guide our policies and our actions, and to clarify points of detail about how we intend to implement and are already implementing that strategy. But let me first make some general remarks about the nature of the problem we are facing and how it is perceived: if our policies are to be successful, it is imperative that we first be clear about the nature of that problem.

This unfortunately is not something that the international community has always understood well, as comparisons are made with, and analogies are drawn from, other Latin American countries that are more familiar, but have very different histories.

Take for example the case of the recent peace process with the FARC. As many of you know, the United States, the member states of the European Union and other European and Latin American countries took part in three international conferences of the Support Group of the Peace Process, which culminated with the meeting in Brussels on 30 April 2001. At the same time, five members of the EU, along with Switzerland, Canada and three Latin American nations, participated directly as "facilitators" in the peace dialogues. This international participation was probably the most significant achievement of a peace process that sadly ended on 20 February 2002 when the FARC, in spite of President Andres Pastrana´s efforts to achieve peace, and after a particularly intense series of terrorist attacks, hijacked a commercial airliner and subsequently kidnapped the president of the Senate’s Peace Commission - a provocation tantamount to breaking the process, as the United States and the EU recognized.

With hindsight, the international support for the peace process in Colombia resembles the familiar distribution of roles in the peace processes of Central America. When Europe decided in 1983 to engage for the first time in the region and support the process of San José, it was with an agenda of democratization, peace and development. Issues of security were left to the United States. That model was successful and seemed to suit everyone. So it is perhaps natural to suppose that what has once worked well should be tried again. But we must understand that the case of Colombia is different.

In particular, we must be wary of the assumptions behind that model. The process of democratization that many Latin American countries went through in the last two decades set a pattern in which the activism of civil society, for lack of political alternatives, played a decisive role in turning back the state’s power to coerce, which closed all avenues of political activity and frequently violated the citizens’ rights. That is how many dictatorships fell and that is why the armies of the Central American nations were severely reformed and reduced as a result of the peace processes. It is an understandable temptation to set the Colombian conflict against that familiar Latin American pattern. But it is a mistake.

With the Constitution of 1991, Colombia itself deepened its democracy, as peace was being made in Central America. But the strengthening of Colombia’s democracy had little to do with the turning back of an authoritarian-bureaucratic state, as political scientists call the recent Latin American dictatorships. Colombia’s problem is precisely the opposite: the state’s lack of capacity to provide security for its people has left power vacuums over its territory that are filled by the terror of insurgent groups or of the no less brutal so-called paramilitary groups that have grown as a reaction to these.

The problem is compounded by the existence of the drugs trade, in which all armed groups participate. Without its resources, it is doubtful that the Colombian conflict would be what it is today. An example: in 1983, there were 13000 hectares of coca in Colombia and the FARC had approximately 2000 men in arms. In 1999, there were 122000 hectares of coca and the FARC had 16000 men in arms. In the space of sixteen years, the coca fields had grown by a factor of 9; the FARC by a factor of 8. That is how the drugs trade feeds the Colombian conflict and has turned it in to a savage battle among the illegal armed groups for control over the territory.

The violence that results directly or indirectly from this conflict is unimaginable: over 34000 homicides a year; over 3000 kidnappings, including that of one presidential candidate, five members of Congress, and 12 deputies; 370 mayors threatened with death and the whole infrastructure of the country under permanent attack. Last year alone, one of the main oil pipelines was blown 270 times, causing irreparable damage to the environment and loses of 500 million dollars to the economy (oil accounts for a third of Colombia’s exports).

Colombians are tired of this violence. We want to live with peace and security. But to achieve peace, irrespective of any future negotiation with the armed groups, we must first strengthen the rule of law, as a necessary pre-condition to have a stronger and more sustainable democracy. That is the very clear mandate that President Alvaro Uribe received last May when he won the presidential election in the first round with 53% of the vote, the first time that this has occurred in Colombian history: to restore the rule of law over the national territory in a transparent, lawful and determined manner. This is what his government intends to do, through its policy of Democratic Security.

Democratic Security means nothing more no less than security for every citizen, whatever his condition may be. And the best guarantee of each citizen’s security is the strengthening of the rule of law. If the rule of law is strengthened, the citizens’ rights and liberties will be protected; and if the citizen feels protected, a climate of security and respect for the rule of law will prevail.

This means that to make Democratic Security work an integrated effort of the whole of the state is necessary. The security of the citizens will no longer be only or primarily the responsibility of the police or the Armed Forces, but of the whole of the state, under the direction of the President, with the support of the population. What is needed is a coordinated effort in which the judiciary works hand in hand with the security forces to capture and try those who break the law; and once a minimum of security and justice is in place, a subsequent effort to bring basic welfare to the people – education, health and employment - where it has been absent. Only in this way can the rule of law be consolidated over the territory. This is what we have set out to do in the recently created rehabilitation zones.

That is the solution we are proposing to the problem of the state’s weakness or even absence in large areas of the country. We will use all our resources to achieve this, including, when necessary, the legitimate use of force. Unfortunately, that is precisely what some human rights organizations object to, with a curious logic: they insist that the Colombian state comply with its obligations to protect its citizens, while demanding at the same time that it not be given the means to do so.

During the last four years, the Colombian Armed Forces have gone through a process of professionalization that has made them a much better trained and better equipped force. Above all, it has made them utterly respectful of civilians. No other army in Latin America receives such thorough training in human rights, and it shows: less than one percent of human right violations in Colombia are attributed to the Armed Forces. With more professional Armed Forces, with the police and with a coordinated effort of the Colombian state, we shall bring security to the citizens of our country.

It is a challenge to fight on two fronts, as we combat right and left wing extremist groups. Those familiar with the Troubles of Northern Ireland will know how difficult this can be for an army. But this is what we are doing, and I am convinced the institutions and our democracy shall prevail, precisely because of our citizens support in favor of the freedom, but with a stronger commitment to order.

The protection of our citizens will certainly not be the only priority of this government, but it will be the first. Without a minimum of security, the grave social problems that afflict us cannot be tackled. And let us not forget: there is no greater source of inequality in Colombia than access to security. It is the poor who are without protection, who suffer under the terror of the armed groups.

I say "terror", because that is what the arbitrary violence of the armed groups, which knows no ideological discipline, has lead to. The recent mortar attacks of the FARC in Bogotá on the 7 of August were again proof of that, if proof were needed. Twenty five humble Colombians died under the shells that were recklessly aimed at the presidential palace in the center of the city.

We are determined to combat terrorism by all means. This is not out of opportunism on the part of the government, after the tragic events of 11 September. The opposite is true: those attacks made countries such as those of the European Union realize that the terrorist conducts that they condemned in their common anti-terrorist legislation, such as kidnapping, the destruction of infrastructure or the murder of innocent civilians, were precisely the conducts that the armed groups in Colombia had been putting into practice. That is why they and we consider them terrorists, and will continue to do so, so long as they do not abstain from killing the innocent. There is no justification for the murder of civilians.

For that reason, too, we call on all countries to implement resolution 1373 of the Security Council of the United Nations. There can be no country that lends its financial system or its territory to the activities terrorist groups.

If we are to contain the terrorist groups, we will need appropriate legislation, such as the Security Council has asked us and all countries to develop. We are working on that. For the moment, we have introduced special legislation under the temporary Sate of Internal Commotion to confront terrorism and collect the necessary resources to boast security. This has included a 1.2% tax on net assets, through which we will raise more than 700 million dollars. I am pleased to tell you that last week the Constitutional Court gave its blessing to this legislation. But it is still too weak by the standards of European legislation. Whereas under the anti-terrorist legislation of the United Kingdom a person can be detained without charges for up to a week, with the consent of the judicial authorities after an initial period of 48 hours, in Colombia he or she can only be detained for a maximum of 36 hours.

We have a common agenda with Europe and the United States in defeating terrorism, but we have it many other areas as well. We all know that terrorists and drug traffickers use the same channels, that often they are one and the same. Conceptual differences between Europe and the United States on how best to stem the traffic in drugs have in the past made cooperation difficult. We must overcome these differences, because we all suffer the consequences.

I was very pleased to find out that the CSIS has set up a Transnational Threats Initiative, to study the links between these threats. When I had the honor recently of being Colombian ambassador to France, I made every effort to make clear to my counterparts the transnational character of these threats.

I believe we are all coming closer to a common understanding of these problems and of the solutions they call for. Dominique de Villepin, the French Foreign Minister, has repeatedly reminded us that the greatest danger to the world today is not the excesses of power, but the vacuums that allow such threats to flourish. The new National Security Strategy of the United States expresses similar views. These are precisely the sort of problems we face in Colombia, the problems that the Democratic Security and Defense Strategy is intended to address.

We will make every effort, but we cannot succeed alone. If we all agree on the transnational nature of these threats and on the need to strengthen the state to guarantee the rule of law, we must draw the consequences and act responsibly: first, by taking determined and effective measures against money laundering and the illegal trade in narcotics, chemical precursors, and weapons; and second, by helping democratic states such as Colombia, which have paid a high price combating these threats with their own resources, to strengthen its institutions and enforce the rule of law.

This is not a time for finger-pointing, but for true international cooperation against threats that are a grave danger to us all.

As of October 24, 2002, this document was also available online at http://www.colombiaemb.org/statements.htm
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