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Defense Minister Discusses Human Rights and the Armed Forces

by Jineth Bedoya Lima

Translated, with the author’s permission, by Eric Fichtl

Kidnapping has become one of the worst scourges of Colombia. The case of Elvia Cortés, who was killed by a “collar bomb” in May 2000, shocked both the country and the world. Colombia’s Minister of Defense Luis Fernando Ramírez Acuña spoke with the Bogotá daily El Espectador‘s Jineth Bedoya Lima on this topic, as well as the armed forces, human rights and the peace process.

Jineth Bedoya: What can insure Colombia against kidnapping?

Ramírez Acuña: We have to establish minimum sentences, because we’ve seen cases where kidnappers, for good behavior, get set free after a only few years. It has to be clear to kidnappers that they will spend the majority of their lives behind bars.

JB: The Elvia Cortés case made it clear that anyone, from a wealthy industrialist to a poor peasant, can become a kidnapping victim.

RA: Only when each Colombian reacts to the death of a fellow Colombian will we be able to make decisions that, as a whole, move us in the right direction to rescue the values of this society. I think Colombia’s educational system has failed, because people’s values have been blurred. We have to realize that we are not educating our children well, and thus they simply prefer easy money over the principles that have always guided Colombians. The spiritual leaders of all religions have failed or are failing when people have stopped fearing God.

The media, our government, the society as a whole—has failed or is failing, when it allows these people (“the criminals”) to corner it, to force it against the wall. And to improve this situation, we have to once again provide the authorities—the armed forces and the police—with all the tools necessary for them to defend the population. We can’t have people thinking they need to hire a bodyguard or give a “protection” payment to a paramilitary or some other group on the margins of the law.

JB: How are the Armed Forces involved in the peace process? Does the President talk with you? Does he consult you?

RA: Yes. I have always said, as have the military commanders, that the Armed Forces and the Police support the peace process. We favor a negotiated solution to the conflict, and we would like to save ourselves from a purely military confrontation. But what one has to ask oneself, and at times one runs out of options, is: What do we do if those people are unwilling to accept the Colombian society’s offer to begin a peace process? It’s not that we’re war-mongers, but rather, that it’s our responsibility to defend the lives of Colombians. For this reason, we have to continue strengthening the armed forces. As the President has said, the Colombian people are not obligated to pay any price for peace. It has to be done in unselfish terms. We will not allow those who are violent and at the margin of the law to impose the rules of the game.

JB: What can you tell us about the weapons that were recently delivered to Colombia? Supposedly they were worn out and run down.

RA: If we were using Colombia’s funds to purchase outdated equipment, it would be a cause for concern. What has happened in a few emergency situations is that we’ve asked the United States if they can supply us with, or donate, some type of weapon. And on specific occasions, they have told us very clearly, “We have one of those that’s used, and if you want it, we’ll give it to you.” It’s been our decision to accept such offers.

JB: What do you think of the Centro de Estudios Estratégicos (Center for Strategic Studies) and the restructuring of the Colombian Armed Forces?

RA: It’s going well, but we’re in the process of trying to get financing from the private sector and international organizations so that we can be certain to have quality researchers, a database and an information center. The idea is to convert security, national defense and public order into topics [analyzed by] something akin to Fedesarrollo [an independent research institute that seeks input on Colombian socioeconomic policy decisions from both the public and private sectors] in the economy, for instance—an organization that will cause civil society to work shoulder to shoulder with the military, since [the restructuring of the military] is a matter that has to be resolved by both of these sectors.

JB: This is the first time the military will integrate itself in this form with civil society. What changes will it bring to the military?

RA: It’s a chance for more interaction. It’s the recognition of the fact that defense and security are not the sole responsibility of the military, and that a society cannot abandon its armed forces, because, in general, these types of wars against criminals are neither won nor lost by the military alone. They are won or lost by countries. It sends a very clear message to the criminal elements that they have no chance to come to power through armed means or by continuing to profit from illicit activities.

JB: When you speak of criminals, who are you referring to?

RA: I refer to all of the people at the margin of the law: the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, common criminals, drug traffickers.

JB: Do you think the Center for Strategic Studies will be beneficial to Colombia in terms of human rights?

RA: Without a doubt. It will be an important step in terms of human rights within the armed forces, which is something even the NGOs recognize. We must reduce human rights violations to the level of zero. At this time there is absolute clarity within the armed forces and the police that the only way to earn the support of the Colombian public is for the armed forces not to commit human rights violations.

JB: When you and the military commanders denounce a human rights violation by the guerrillas, the guerrillas say it’s a montaje, a set-up. What do you think of this?

RA: A number of things are very clear to Colombians: that the guerrillas represent practically no one; that nobody chose them to represent anyone; that the only way they can operate is through intimidation and the use of arms; that their ideas have not been able to function without being backed up by weapons; and that channels have been opened for them so that in the event they show signs of willingness to work for real peace, the society will be unselfish and receptive in giving them opportunities to do just that. In almost no country does the possibility exist to switch from being a guerrilla to a congressman. Public opinion is also very firm on the fact that the 3,000 kidnappings that happened last year [1999] were not “set-ups.” Attacking a village with gas cylinders isn’t a set-up. The Colombian people fully understand that what we are dealing with here is not some kind of psychological warfare, but rather a real war.

JB: Is it true that there is a document confirming that the FARC’s demilitarized zone is no longer 42,000 square kilometers, but rather 93,000 square kilometers? If so, it appears that the armed forces have lost control of the municipalities around the perimeter of the demilitarized zone.

RA: No, we have not sent any such report to any authority. Clearly, in the past, the FARC have used the demilitarized zone as a base to launch attacks against neighboring communities, then later returned to the zone to take refuge where the public forces could not pursue them. From my point of view, it’s evident that the guerrillas have destroyed various Police stations and killed several hundred police, especially in towns along the perimeter of the demilitarized zone, as a strategy to improve routes for their military activities.

Jineth Bedoya Lima is an investigative reporter with the Bogotá daily, El Espectador. Despite being abducted and brutalized while researching a story in a Colombian prison last year, she remains an active journalist in Colombia. This feature originally appeared in the May 28, 2000 edition of El Espectador. Translated, with permission from the author, by Eric Fichtl.


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Colombia Journal, 15 January 2001
Original post here.

This article first appeared in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador. The translation appeared originally in Colombia Report, an online journal that was published by the Information Network of the Americas (INOTA).

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