By Armando Montenegro, El Espectador, February 2, 2020 (Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

In its 200 years of existence, the Colombian government has never been able to impose a monopoly of the use of force and of legitimate violence in its territory. Throughout its history, vast areas have been dominated by illegal armed groups, either in the name of rebellious political projects or scurrilous and powerful criminal causes.

For decades, multimillion dollar businesses like the planting and trafficking in cocaine, illegal mining, theft of gasoline, smuggling, kidnapping and extortion have flourished in the midst of impunity, protected by various guerrilla groups and different organized criminal gangs. Organized violence and illicit businesses are the two faces of a reality that lives and grows outside of the rule of law in Colombia.

The absence of the state—of its security forces, legal system, and social services—is felt with great intensity in the Pacific and in border areas, especially in the former national territories. As one of many examples, in the last few weeks, the news of the magnitude of control that the ELN and FARC dissidents are exercising in the economic and social life of Arauca has come out in the media. In view of this situation, Human Rights Watch urgently requested increases in police and legality in that province.

The lack of state control over broad areas helps explain a number of recent problems. When the FARC demobilized, for example, the armed forces could not control the areas where the FARC and other criminal gangs had influence. They were motivated and financed by the businesses and illegal trafficking that was going on there. As a result, paradoxical for some people, the government’s control in many of those areas did not increase after the demobilization of the largest guerrilla group in the country.

We need to look at the murders of so many social leaders in recent months through this lens as well. Dozens of people are being eliminated, people who, in the great majority, live in areas where coca is grown, rural and distant areas, where the government is almost nonexistent. These are deaths that take place in municipalities and districts (corregimientos) where there are no police (or where there are too few), where there is wide influence of guerrillas and criminal gangs, and where there are frequent conflicts for territorial control. It’s also common that they attack social leaders when there is dispute about eradication of coca and substituting other crops. With this reality, if there is not a substantial increase in the presence of military forces, it’s illusory to request an absent government to protect the lives of these people.

The fundamental solution is, of course, that the Colombian government manage to impose a monopoly on legitimate force and extend its services of a legal system and social attention in distant areas. To achieve this goal, profound institutional changes are required, with sufficient budgets and a revision of the policies and strategies for occupation of the territory. A central point in this effort would have to be a change in the security plans, surveillance, defense and control of the borders and other remote areas. A starting point should be an examination of the resources that are provided for the Armed Forces. These amounts have been reduced in the recent decade.

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