Country Listing

Colombia Table of Contents


Chapter 5. National Security


San Felipe de Barajas Fortress, Cartagena

IN LATE 1988, THE INCIDENCE OF VIOLENCE in Colombia posed a general threat to national security and appeared to challenge the country's thirty-year record of stable civilian-led government. Colombia's tradition of violence dates from the war for independence in the early nineteenth century; but the level of violence was increasing in the late 1980s, for reasons ranging from land disputes to criminal and political actions. The perpetrators of violent incidents included the private armies and gunmen hired by the major narcotics traffickers, guerrilla organizations, and members of right-wing paramilitary groups, or "death squads." Their victims included government officials, students, professionals, unionists, members of opposition political parties, and even petty criminals.

During 1988 Colombian security forces were engaged in a highly publicized but unsuccessful campaign against narcotics traffickers. Enhanced by the military's two decades of experience in counterinsurgency and irregular warfare, the campaign focused on eliminating clandestine processing laboratories, eradicating crops, prohibiting drug shipments, and arresting and prosecuting known narcotics traffickers. In reaction, the traffickers increasingly turned to co-optation and bribery, intimidation, and murder. Prominent individuals whose views and activities were seen as compromising the profitability of the traffickers' illegal operations frequently were subjected to death threats--some of which were carried out. Between 1984 and mid-1988, a minister of justice, an attorney general, and a dozen Supreme Court judges were murdered by assassins allegedly hired by narcotics traffickers.

Colombian security forces in the late 1980s also continued to struggle against the country's major guerrilla groups. Despite stepped-up military efforts, the guerrillas continued to carry out robberies, kidnappings, ambushes of security personnel and facilities, attacks on the economic infrastructure, and murders. During the late 1980s, the Colombian government expressed a willingness to negotiate a political settlement, provided that the insurgents agreed to disarm before talks were held.

Despite the military's official role in the campaigns against the narcotics traffickers and the guerrillas, security forces allegedly were involved in some illegal activities. Some reports maintained that military and police officials helped narcotics traffickers process and transport contraband--most of which was destined for the United States--and received payoffs for their cooperation. Other reports--one prepared by a Colombian attorney general--linked military and police personnel with the activities of numerous right-wing death squads. These death squads operated throughout the country with apparent impunity, killing suspected subversives as well as common criminals. The hierarchy of the armed forces (under which the police were incorporated) refuted such accounts and defended its members' integrity. The persistence of the reports, however, suggested that serious problems existed not only within the military institution but also in the civilian government's ability to exercise its authority over the armed forces.

Data as of December 1988