The Military

Colombia Table of Contents

Colombia has not had a long history of military coups. Its armed forces seized power from civilians only three times in the nation's history: in 1830, 1854, and 1953. The only instance of military control lasting longer than one year was the Rojas Pinilla dictatorship. After his ouster in 1957, the military held power for one year. Subsequently, the military served as the mainstay of the political and economic elites. Although the Constitution does not stipulate that the minister of national defense should belong to the military, army generals have held this portfolio since the beginning of the National Front. The defense minister was not obliged to tender his resignation in a cabinet reshuffle, unless specifically requested to do so by the president. Specific constitutional and legislative provisions, however, limited the political involvement of the military. The traditional absence of high-ranking military officers from the elite also helped to explain the military's subordination to civil authority. Held in low regard by the elites and expected to be deferential to them, military officers traditionally came from the middle class.

Beginning in the 1960s, the armed forces attempted to increase their prestige and self-esteem by improving their competence and professionalism. The nonpartisan professional reputation that the military had begun to build, however, was damaged in the 1980s by accusations of human rights abuses and narcotics-related corruption among officers.

In 1988 mounting violence reportedly had forced the armed forces to install military governors in certain departments, presumably with the president's concurrence. In an unusually blunt public statement, General Manuel Jaime Guerrero Paz, commander general of the military forces, stated in a radio interview in April 1988 that Colombia should not hold dialogues with the guerrilla groups and drug traffickers because of their lack of sincerity.

Colombian presidents occasionally disciplined members of the armed forces who violated the constitutional and legislative proscriptions against involvement in political matters. On three occasions--1965, 1969, and 1984--presidents removed military commanders who appeared to challenge civilian authority. In 1965 President Guillermo León Valencia reluctantly dismissed his minister of war, General Alberto Ruiz Novoa, for his public criticism of the government and ruling class and his advocacy of "structural changes" and a more autonomous role for the armed forces in the socioeconomic development process. In February 1969, President Lleras Restrepo summarily removed the army commander, General Guillermo Pinzón Caicedo, for his article in a military journal criticizing civilian interference in the military budget. In early 1984, President Betancur replaced the army commander, Fernando Landazábal Reyes, after the general challenged the authority of the official peace commission to reach an agreement with the guerrilla organizations. Betancur reminded the National Security Council that the constitutional role of the armed forces was "nondeliberative." The military acquiesced in these presidential actions with little or no overt negative reaction.

Betancur angered the military, however, with his policy of negotiating truces with the guerrilla organizations. Consequently, when M-19 commandos seized the Palace of Justice in Bogotá in early November 1985, Betancur had too little credit left with the military to order it to negotiate with the terrorists. He therefore apparently did not object when the military took immediate counteraction by laying siege to the building with hundreds of troops, backed by heavy artillery.

More about the Government and Politics of Colombia.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress