Petro’s call for change in Colombia shakes armed forces

Members of Colombia’s armed forces – particularly its police – fear they will face significant change if left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro wins the presidency this month, a dozen active and retired officials told Reuters.

The Colombian army has been fighting guerrilla movements for decades and has a long history in the war on drugs in the United States. Major changes could affect international cooperation against cocaine production, said active military officials who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak in the elections.

Colombia is expected to spend 12% of its 2022 budget – the equivalent of $11 billion – on defence, the second highest in Latin America after the much larger Brazil.

Petro, a critic of the military establishment and former member of the M-19 guerrillas, promised that servicemen accused of human rights abuses would be tried in ordinary courts rather than military tribunals which have traditionally dealt lighter penalties.

Colombia is expected to spend 12% of its 2022 budget – the equivalent of $11 billion – on defence, the second highest in Latin America after the much larger Brazil.

Petro, a critic of the military establishment and former member of the M-19 guerrillas, promised that servicemen accused of human rights abuses would be tried in ordinary courts rather than military tribunals which have traditionally dealt lighter penalties.

It also promises a total restructuring of the police, including the dismantling of its much-criticized riot squad.

“The function of the army is defense and the function of the police is to protect rights and freedoms,” Petro told Reuters in an interview last week with Reuters, adding that he plans to professionalize the armed forces. by ending compulsory military service for men.

In recent years, Colombia’s military has faced public awareness of one of its most notorious human rights abuses, the “false positives” scandal, in which soldiers murdered more than 6,000 people. and registered them as guerrillas killed in action in order to gain promotions.

It also promises a total restructuring of the police, including the dismantling of its much-criticized riot squad.

“The function of the army is defense and the function of the police is to protect rights and freedoms,” Petro told Reuters in an interview last week with Reuters, adding that he plans to professionalize the armed forces. by ending compulsory military service for men.

In recent years, Colombia’s military has faced public awareness of one of its most notorious human rights abuses, the “false positives” scandal, in which soldiers murdered more than 6,000 people. and registered them as guerrillas killed in action in order to gain promotions.

Petro, who was imprisoned for 16 months in 1985 and claims he was tortured by the military, said he would make a “radical change” to the promotions system in the military to make it merit-based.

Petro’s plans contrast sharply with those of his rival – businessman Rodolfo Hernandez – who says he will upgrade military equipment, support joint operations, raise salaries and expand human rights training .

Some politicians and businessmen fear Petro’s potential triumph could spark mutiny among the military, but 11 active army, air force, navy and police officials who Reuters spoke have all ruled out that possibility.

“Whoever is elected president, all the troops, from the humblest soldier to the highest ranking general, will recognize it,” said an army general with 35 years of military experience. “Those who disagree or feel uncomfortable, their only option is retirement.”

“There’s not much the armed forces can do except obey (the victor’s) orders,” said John Marulanda, a former army colonel who is president of the association of retired military officers.

Marulanda drew comparisons with peaceful transfers in other Latin American countries such as Argentina, Chile, Peru and Mexico, where leftist leaders have recently taken power.

A police source and an army official both told Reuters that when Petro was mayor of Bogota, he was very respectful in his interactions with them.

Ambitious program

Petro has an ambitious agenda: he pledges to seek peace with the National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels, fully implement a 2016 peace accord with former FARC guerrillas, and push gangs criminals like the Clan del Golfo to surrender their weapons.

These measures could lead to the suspension of certain military operations, stimulate budget and personnel cuts and potentially allow the expansion of illegal crops, active officials said.

With around 40% of Colombians living in poverty in 2021, Petro pledged to address deep inequality and said he would not waste resources on weapons or bombs.

“We face the risk of losing ground in the fight against drug trafficking, organized crime and illegal armed groups,” said a Navy admiral tasked with tackling cocaine production.

Any increase in the cultivation of coca, the basic ingredient of cocaine, could complicate relations with the United States, Marulanda said.

Regional drug enforcement efforts in the United States are already facing pushback from leftist Mexican President Andres Lopez Obrador, who shut down an elite unit that had worked for decades with the US Drug Enforcement Agency, alleging it was infiltrated by criminals.

Petro called the war on drugs a “complete failure,” saying drug trafficking is a result of limited socio-economic opportunities and the government should instead support small farmers with alternative crops and boost their incomes. .

But Colombia’s police, which have faced international criticism for their handling of recent anti-government protests where dozens have died, are likely to weather most of the changes. Read more

Petro promised to remove him from the Ministry of Defense to give him a more civilian character.

It would also ban the police from taking part in assault operations against armed groups and dismantle the ESMAD riot unit, responsible for the deaths of several demonstrators.

Although Hernandez promised to remove officers implicated in rights abuses and not to use ESMAD against protesters, he did not say he would shut down the unit.

“We are concerned about the possible reduction in operations and an increase in crime as they redefine roles,” said a police general with experience in dealing with drug trafficking and armed groups.

An active official and Marulanda both said they feared Petro would try to extend his term by promoting loyalists in the armed forces, drawing a comparison to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Petro has repeatedly mocked opponents’ efforts to compare him to Chavez and said he would only serve his only four-year term.

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