By Juan Esteban Lewin and Diana López Zuleta, EL PAÍS America, September 4, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The Minister of Defense describes his relationship with President Gustavo Petro. He says that he has discussed his criticisms of the Armed Forces with the Generals, and that he has a “very good relationship” with the command staff.
Iván Velásquez (Medellín, 67 years old) heads the Defense Ministry of the first leftist President in the history of Colombia. He took over the position after four years marked by massacres and selective murders of social leaders, and with deteriorated security, as the killing of police officers demonstrates, including the massacre last Friday in the Department of Huila, in the southern part of the country.
Velásquez, a criminal lawyer, is not afraid of big challenges. As part of the Inspector General’s staff and as a prosecutor, he dealt with Pablo Escobar and other mafiosos. He was an Auxiliary Justice in the Supreme Court of Justice, in charge of investigating “parapolitics”, the relationships between politicians and paramilitaries, and ended up being one of the main victims of the Department of Administrative Security (DAS in Spanish), the now-abolished secret police. He led the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, where President Otto Pérez was forced to resign after the investigations by Velásquez.
EL PAÍS is the first communications medium that he has received in his office. A nearly empty library indicates his recent arrival. In spite of his tight schedule, he responds to questions deliberately, measuring each phrase, revealing his past as a prosecutor.
Question: Why do you think Petro chose you as Defense Minister?
Answer: He would have the answer to that. Like so many people, I was surprised when he appointed me as Minister of Defense. He probably did it because of my life dedicated to justice and, in recent years, the anticorruption matters. I think there has been an affinity for the issue of the “parapolitics”. Even though we had not met at that time, I think he was attentive to what we did in the Supreme Court, and I was attentive to what he did in Congress.
Q. When did the two of you meet?
A. When I left the Supreme Court, in 2012, I became an adviser in his office when he was the Mayor. We saw each other relatively frequently. After that, we didn’t see each other anymore. I ran the Commission in Guatemala for five years and another year after my exile. Then we ran into each other at two or three meetings. Besides the law, with the matters of anticorruption and “parapolitics”, he probably chose me because, even though I haven’t been active in human rights, I have been close to that world, just as he has.
Q. What’s your landing been like, up to now?
A. There are two landings. One of them was joining the administration, and the other one was arriving at the Defense Ministry. I have to assume that any comment I make will have the power of the words of a Minister. Because of my previous criticisms, I’ve been called an enemy of the Armed Forces. I told the prior command staff and also the present one that I’m aware of what I have written, and I’m sticking with it. I said that members of the Police Force acted inappropriately, and even criminally, when they fired on demonstrators, in violation of rules and regulations—not because they lacked training or because they couldn’t tell what was going on—and I explained to the Generals that that happened and we all saw it. I also said that there had been a lot of impunity. I wasn’t rejecting government agencies, but rather, I intended to contribute to them.
Q. Will you overrule the Armed Forces if they exceed their authority?
A. As I told the President, and we will stick to this, with decision, commitment, and conviction; violations of human rights and acts of corruption will not be tolerated. If they happen, there will have to be consequences. I have told the commanders that these consequences won’t be just to transfer a person about whom there are reasons to conclude that they have carried out corrupt practices, because that would mean extending the possibility of corruption to a different location. It could include a transfer, but not forgetting that there will have to be a consequence beyond that.
Q. Are you afraid that that image of a supposed enemy of the institution will interfere with accomplishing your mission?
A. I haven’t seen even one sign of prejudice. The Generals have been very receptive to what we have said about corruption and respect for human rights. They are accepting the concept of humane security. In one of the last all-units security councils, the Commanding General of the Armed Forces, General (Helder Fernán) Giraldo, said, “we are ready to carry out the elements of humane security, which are these seven,” and he presented them. That seemed to me to be very positive. I think that this command staff fully understands this administration’s projects.
Q. What will it be like to transition from a war mentality to one of total peace?
A. I told the Commander of the Army that, “this administration values life over death. If there is a possibility of capture, that is what has to be done.” From the comments by General (Luis Mauricio) Ospina himself,
that was very well received. Less than 10 days ago, there were some hard combats in Cauca, which ended with five prisoners in one of them, and two in the other one. There have also been, naturally, other combats where members of the illegal armed organizations have been killed, but I think that the priority can move through the hierarchy and reach the soldiers. These criteria and ways of behaving are making progress on the road to building an Army for the peace.
Some are interpreting this as meaning that now the Army is inhibited in its movements, but that’s not to be thought of. Some sectors are trying to demonstrate that our decisions are creating obstacles to the carrying out of military duties. As in the bombing, “ah, now we can’t go back to doing our jobs.” But the order is no bombing of locations where there are children; the children are the victims of those organizations, even if they sign up in a manner that seems voluntary. You can’t place children at risk, even though they are carrying a gun. I insist, when we talk in these terms, it’s not to keep the Armed Forces from acting. It’s that they must act appropriately.
Total peace doesn’t mean weakness. The administration’s desire for total peace doesn’t mean surrender, inaction, or omitting the duty of carrying out the constitutional functions of the military. We are doing this to prepare for the creation of a new way for the Armed Forces to relate to the communities. You can’t consider the population your enemy. They are a victim, because if they don’t collaborate with an organization, they will probably be killed. As the President has been preaching, the Armed Forces can contribute to the progress.
A. The dream is to have dozens of battalions of military engineers. For example, one of the difficulties in the crop substitution is that there aren’t any roads. While the drug traffickers pass through the countryside collecting the leaves or the paste base, the campesinos have to get their plantains to the markets. If there’s no way for them to do that, we won’t be able to develop substitution projects. That has to start right now, even though there is a big problem with the budget.
Another example. Along with the Health Minister, we are thinking of ways to pay attention to health in the populations that live near the rivers, as the Army and the Navy do now, but permanently. That would permit the Armed Forces to have contact with the communities and people would see that those forces are there to serve them.
Q. With all of this going on, what is the principal charge that the President gave you?
A. It’s all of it. What I have not been charged with is opening up witch hunts. When I was appointed, a lot of people thought it would lead to an army of investigators, like some big special audit . . . No, this has to keep on functioning. That’s the way we can establish the correctives and do the investigations that have to be done, but it’s not a specific objective.
Q. And what is your North Star?
A. Build an Armed Forces for the peace. The President has said that the Ministers can’t just stay in Bogotá, but rather must be out where the needs are. I haven’t been able to do that very much, but it’s my goal to get started, because it’s very important to know how the soldiers are getting along. We have to get close to the man that carries the gun and see what his living conditions are, look out for his well-being. You do that by getting to know how they’re doing. We have to see that reality, and how we can transform it.
Q. What is your strategy to halt the massacres and the murders of social leaders?
A. There are a number of elements, with a major central aspect: these criminal organizations are based in the Pacific or in Catatumbo, the points where the drugs are shipped out of the country. Of the 13 massacres that have taken place since the 3rd of August, the drug traffic was the factor in the great majority.
Q. How can you combat that?
A. With interdiction. There has to be a forceful decision to capture the highest quantity of the drugs so it will no longer be attractive to stay in those territories. I’m optimistic that if that happens, and the Commanders have the assurance of absolute determination, they are going to be very powerful. If they are able to take control, it is almost absolutely certain that there will be a diminution in the violence; it could be an immediate shot, but finally it will achieve a much more positive result.
I have also talked with the Commanders about how they can find the production laboratories where the ovens are hot and nobody’s around. I have told them that if they could use intelligence to find a laboratory, that would be the way to find the owner. They have to focus their greatest activity in breaking up the organizations; it’s not capturing the cook, a laborer who has no control over anything and is replaced right away, but rather the owner.
Q. Is there corruption within the Armed Forces?
A. There will have to be some verification procedures before we can make a clear statement, but there are situations. If there is absolute control over a river, and drugs are passing through that river, then there is either corruption or the control doesn’t really exist. You might say “we will find out who is responsible, but here is an objective fact.” Those are the verification procedures that have to be carried out.
Q. How about the proposal by José Félix Lafaurie for the creation of “immediate joint reaction groups” made up of cattle ranchers?
A. We have already had the devil to pay with groups that are simply about control, as they said of the Convivir, and it was a lie. The later investigations have demonstrated that they were a paramilitary activity and were managed by the paramilitaries themselves. I think that we have to stay away from having a new organization, I don’t care how they want to present themselves, because civilian groups for immediate reaction are going to lead to other kinds of paramilitaries. It’s not acceptable for any social group to try to carry out the duties that have been assigned to the government. From the beginning, we have to strengthen institutionality, and demand that the Armed Forces provide security to the entire population.
Q. How is the transition of the Police to another Ministry going to work?
A. It has to be planned so that neither the Armed Forces nor the Police end up being diminished. They collaborate on a lot of aspects. There has to be an internal process, because, like it or not, the Police have been very much permeated by the doctrine of the enemy within. The Police Officers that committed serious violations of human rights cannot be allowed to move into another Ministry, or even remain in the institution. So there are a lot of aspects leading me to believe that we have to avoid an abrupt transfer.
Q. Does there have to be a transformation?
A. Yes, with more changes. For example, we have to examine the police career. When we talk of the Police leaving the Defense Ministry, a lot of police officers are worried because they think that their working conditions or their home loans will be affected. The exit that the President is proposing will not mean a deterioration; on the contrary, one purpose is that training schools will be real universities. And that will permit not just that a soldier can become a general, but also that for anyone to be a general, they will have to have been a soldier.