Replacement Of Military Commanders Is Only The First Step In Colombian President’s Plan For Peace

On Friday, August 13th, Colombian President Gustavo Petro held a news conference to announce new military and police commanders, specifically chosen because they haven’t been accused of corruption or human rights violations. Petro designated General Helder Fernán Giraldo to command the armed forces, General Luis Mauricio Ospina Gutiérrez the Army, Vice-Admiral Francisco Hernando Cubides the Navy, General Luis Carlos Cordoba the Air Force, and General Henry Armando Sanabria the national police. The replacement of leadership represents the new president’s first step in advancing human rights in the Andean nation of 50 million people.

“The concept of human security means that success lies not in the number of dead, but in substantially reducing deaths, massacres and increasing substantially peoples’ liberties and rights,” Petro said at the press conference, adding that enemy death tolls would no longer be a reason for the promotion of security personnel. Echoing the president’s push for peace-based security, Colombia’s national peace commissioner Danilo Rueda announced at the conference that the government would take the necessary “judicial and political steps” to make peace talks possible with the National Liberation Army (ELN), a rebel group with an estimated 2,500 fighters in Colombia. Representatives of both sides already met in Havana, Cuba earlier that week. According to Al Jazeera’s observers, those “necessary steps” likely refer to lifting arrest warrants for ELN negotiators currently exiled in Cuba. Rueda stated, “We believe that the ELN has the same desire for peace as the Colombian government… And hope that they are listening to the many voices in different territories who are seeking a peaceful solution to this armed conflict.”

Petro and Rueda’s advocacy for and efforts toward widespread peace is certainly a breath of fresh air for Colombians after nearly six decades of corruption scandals, human rights abuses, and internal armed conflict. By aiming for national security through peace talks with the rebel groups, instead of further escalating the conflict by waging war against them, Petro’s government shows a genuine desire to achieve lasting peace. This is a notably different strategy from that of the previous administration, which sought military victory over the rebel groups in lieu of true peace and security among their citizens.

The last time peace talks were attempted with the ELN was in 2019. These negotiations were abandoned after a rebel car bomb killed more than 20 cadets at a police academy in Bogota. Following the bombing, Colombian authorities released arrest warrants for ELN leaders, who traveled to Cuba for peace negotiations. Hoping to preserve its status as a neutral nation, Cuba refused to extradite the rebel leaders. 

If Petro negotiates a peace deal with rebels now, it wouldn’t be the first successful agreement with a rebel group in recent Colombian history. In 2016, a previous Colombian government made a peace deal with the nation’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which reduced kidnappings, homicides, and forced displacements in the following years. 

Despite the 2016 peace agreement’s success, rebel-caused violence continues to devastate Colombia in recent months. CERAC, a think-tank that tracks violence in Colombia, reported that criminal groups staged almost 90 attacks on the police and military and killed 13 police officers in July, making it one of the most dangerous months for Colombian armed forces in the past 20 years.

President Petro, recognizing these dangers, is pushing for effective peace strategies that will de-escalate conflict and reduce violence. He pledged during his campaign that soldiers accused of human rights violations will stand trial in regular courts instead of military ones, and he promised to dissolve the ESMAD riot squad, which recently came under international criticism for its role in protester deaths. Now that he’s begun his reform of the military, it’s reasonable to expect that these changes will be accomplished too as part of Petro’s plan for long-lasting peace in Colombia.