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Julian E. Torres

Colombia’s ‘obligatory’ military service: The arbitrary role of class disparity

posted by Julián Esteban Torres López

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When Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) first ran for president of Colombia, a question I thought important was dodged. When asked why he and his sons had never performed military service, his campaign declined to comment. The shadow of this question remains indelible in my mind. This is the case not just because Uribe and his sons may have bribed their way into avoiding the country’s obligatory military conscription service for males. It is also because there is a systemic problem regarding the process of stocking our armed forces and the explicit unfairness of legislation weighed against the poor. It is legislation that, in many ways, holds the poor hostage and extracts forced labor from the lower classes of Colombian society. This issue needs to be nurtured and raised by more politicians and journalists more often and more forcefully, but it does not surprise me that the issue remains largely uncultivated.

Like Uribe’s avoidance of the question during his campaign, the reason why this issue has not become mainstream may be because most eligible politicians for obligatory military conscription – and potentially also their sons – have also dodged the service in an illegal manner or do not want the current laws favoring the wealthy to change. If we truly want to justly govern ourselves, we have to start with (1) revising legislation that is so explicitly against the large majority of the population, with (2) judicially cracking down on those who bribe their way out of the armed conflict’s frontier, and with (3) the international community recognizing its role and changing its ways in this unfair and unjust practice.

Who makes up Colombia’s armed forces? Overwhelmingly the poor. I will not tackle the issue of whether or not Colombia should have obligatory military conscription or a volunteer army. However, considering that the former is our current situation – obligatory military conscription – should not our armed forces reflect the entire spectrum of our economic classes and the stratification of our civil society? Unfortunately, the reflection is like a fun house mirror that distorts reality and makes our upper classes almost invisible in the country’s military. If they are present, they are mostly in cushy positions. As Francisco Santos stated during the 2002 presidential elections, “Right now, the poorest of the poor do the fighting, and the rich people drive the generals’ cars, if anything.”

When we speak of our country’s (in)security, we hurdle over the question of how we construct our armed forces in the first place and run head-on into a discourse of how we should use that army and the funding it is allotted. However, if we want to transform Colombia’s political and armed conflict, this is an issue that deserves to be underscored and given priority potentially even before, or at least during, negotiations and discussions regarding military budgets, increasing our armed forces, and the overall development of tactics and strategies that deal with the country’s security threats and issues.

Furthermore, the assumption that our army is formed in a just and fair manner needs to stop before foreign (and domestic) military assistance is provided.  Colombia’s conflict is not solely a domestic issue.  Its tentacles cross not only the country’s borders via a spill-over effect, its tentacles reach not only where Colombia’s illicit drugs are consumed, but also the policies of other countries on Colombia – like the current U.S. war on narco-terrorism.

In 2002, the relationship between Washington and Bogotá grew stronger after Uribe took office. Both seats of power had common interest in militarizing Colombia. The Colombian armed forces went through a rapid process of modernization, resulting in an increase of armed forces members. Though the U.S. has been recognized by some as losing influence on its traditional backyard with the move of many South American countries to the left of center, its influence on Colombia for the better part of the 21st century remained quite powerful. Some Colombian politicians have even publicly recognized that if the U.S. did not have so much influence, a policy such as Plan Colombia would not have materialized the way it did.  Instead, it would have looked more like Andres Pastrana originally conceived – a Marshall Plan for Colombia where developed countries could help offer “peasants different alternatives to the illicit crops” through social investments. Sergio Fajardo, for example, while campaigning for the presidency in 2009 claimed that though it would be better for Colombia if certain illicit drugs were legalized, it would be political suicide to run on such a platform.

Nevertheless, there seems to be a seemingly unexpected rhetorical shift in policy with President Juan Manuel Santos. His administration has pushed the U.S., the region, and the world to have a new dialogue regarding the U.S. decades-long strategy of targeting the issue where these illicit drugs are grown. Though he has flat out rejected the idea of legalization, even President Barak Obama’s Drug Czar, Gil Kerlikowske, has been supportive in focusing more energy on U.S demand for illicit drugs. However, there is still much to be done. Though there have been slight shifts, in terms of Colombia’s militarization and how we stock our armed forces not much has changed. Certain kinds of crimes have been on the rise during recent years and the FARC, ELN, and neo-paramilitaries continue to threaten national security.

In March, Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera claimed that “The statistics clearly show an improvement, a reduction of crime” and of BACRIM. In early April, the previous secretary of government stated that the BACRIM did not exist within Bogota. More recently, on 30 June, on their hearing on the state of democracy in the Americas, even the U.S. Senate Committee in Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps, and Global Narcotics Affairs sided with Rivera. In the previous few weeks, however, other major Colombian government officials have come out declaring the opposite.

Along with the increase in attempted and/or actual bombings in cities around the country, the new secretary of government, Mariella Barragan Beltran, admitted the presence of BACRIM in the capital. The Medellin ombudsman stated that his city’s displacement could double in 2011. President Juan Manuel Santos himself even publicly recognized the deterioration of the security situation in Colombia.

Either the security situation has deteriorated dramatically since Rivera’s declaration back on 23 March, or we have been lied to (probably to not scare away investors, tourists, and because of October elections), as I had argued in one of my previous columns. Either way, this arena of insecurity will most likely call for an increase in the number of armed forces members. A request for a heavier fist yields a greater burden the poor have to carry. As Washington Post foreign service correspondent Scott Wilson in 2002 correctly identified, the “rich avoid the draft as the poor are pulled into the trenches.”

While the poor fight in the incessant internal conflict, the wealthy continue to benefit from the system as the army is used to protect many of the elite’s interests.  Individuals with a high school diploma only have to serve one year of service, while those without one are forced to serve 18 to 24 months. The majority of those serving 18 to 24 months are the poor masses, living largely in the poor communities of the country. Furthermore, while in some cases it is legal for those who have the monetary means to buy a military service record, many of the poor cannot afford the legal purchase of the military card or even a bribe. This record is meant to eliminate the requirement to serve in the military. Individuals who do not have a military service record cannot graduate from the university, own property, obtain a passport, enter into a legal work contract, and are considered deserters. About half of the individuals who are obliged to perform military service refuse and more than 1,800 physically desert the army annually. Depending on the situation, a deserter may be penalized with imprisonment for a time span ranging from three months to four years, which is usually followed by starting or resuming military service.

Not until recently was substitute service available for conscientious objectors. For years it was argued that the institutionalized practice of forced recruitment went against Article 18 of the 1991 Colombian Constitution, which states the following: “The freedom of conscience is guaranteed. Nobody will be bothered by reason of his convictions nor beliefs neither compelled to reveal them nor obliged to act against his conscience.” Article 18 conflicted with Article 216 whereby it is stated that “All Colombian citizens are obliged to take up arms when there is a public need for this in order to defend national independence and the public institutions.  The law will determine the conditions which at all times qualifies an individual for exemption from military service and the benefits for service in them.”

The former Article now trumps the latter. In September of 2010, the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that conscientious objectors have the right to be exempt from the duty of serving in Colombia’s obligatory military service if the objections of these individuals are judged to be “deep, fixed, and sincere.” Though this is a step in the right direction for transforming the political conflict toward just governance, there are other government practices of military recruitment, like arbitrary detention and the others already mentioned above, that continue to unjustly target the poor.

It is well understood that illegal recruitment is commonplace. These recruitment practices – raids referred to as batidas – are forced and have been constituted by the UN as forms of arbitrary detention. A significant number of the poor are forcibly detained on the streets, at bus stops, and market places and taken to recruitment centers and barracks where they are forced to perform military service. Since these recruits are considered deserters, they are then taken to different locations around the country to conflict areas, even though it is clear under Law No. 48 that they are supposed to perform their “duty” in their local areas.  In these cases the exploitation of Colombia’s poor is evident while many of the privileged fortunate individuals born into wealth continue to have the opportunity to opt out or not be targeted for detention.

As a result of such practices, policies, legislation, and an almost lethargic judiciary when it comes to investigating potential cases of illegal attainments of military service records, the poor continue to carry the burden of Colombia’s conflict. Colombia’s history is marked with many of its people treated merely as a means to an end.  Laura Yusem and Herbert Braun, respectively, were right in recognizing that “In Latin America, we learn early that our lives are worth little” and that “In the struggle for land, human life in Colombia has been devalued.” Human rights activist Manuel Rozental was correct to paint Colombia’s history with the following pattern: people are massacred or enslaved, displaced, the land is freed, and the elite, foreign powers, and multi-national corporations come in to exploit the land and the labor force.

The recruitment practices and blind eyes of our branches of government and the international community are nothing more than part of this historical pattern.  In short, many Colombian lives are treated with little importance – as if they are mere instruments, commodities, or replaceable and expendable objects – and used to maximize the power and the wealth of a select few. This needs to change for a more just and fair society to flourish in Colombia. We cannot allow this issue to die after a politician declines to comment when asked why he – or his or her son(s) – never partook in Colombia’s ‘obligatory’ military service.

Julián Esteban Torres López has a BA in Philosophy, BA in Communication, and MA in Justice Studies from the University of New Hampshire.  He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia Okanagan concentrating on Political Science and Latin American Studies.  A Medellín native, he is presently working on his dissertation, which focuses on trying to find feasible paths for political conflict resolution in Colombia.  You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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