October 6, 2020

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COLOMBIA: Upcoming clash over security reveals political undercurrents

BY Nicholas Watson

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( 3 mins)

Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo faces two different motion of censure actions in the coming days. The proceedings are likely to generate significant political noise without seriously threatening the government or the minister’s position. Instead, the opposition offensive against Holmes Trujillo will be more significant for what it reveals about the balance of power in Congress, internal dynamics within a battered Uribista movement, problematic security issues, and their interplay with simmering social tensions.

On the ropes?

The basis of the congressional summons is based on three claims:

  • By failing to issue an adequate apology for the systematic violation of the right to protest and disproportionate violence by police in last year’s protests, the minister is in contempt of a recent Supreme Court ruling that the government issue a formal apology.
  • The Senate was never consulted about the presence of a small number of US troops currently on Colombian territory.
  • The minister has presided over a worsening security situation, with dozens of mass killings since President Ivan Duque took office, including as many as ten since August.

Tomorrow, 7 October, Holmes Trujillo faces a grilling in the lower house, which will focus on the first claim, while he will face a similar process over the following two claims in the Senate on 13 October. Both sessions are the pre-amble to motion of censure votes that could theoretically force his ouster.

Security problems

The offensive against Holmes Trujillo, which is being spearheaded by two prominent Senators, Jorge Enrique Robledo (formerly of the leftist Polo group) and Roy Barreras (“U”), follows a series of security failings and scandals. In addition to the rise in mass killings and incidents of police brutality, these include continued attacks on social activists; earlier revelations that military intelligence ran surveillance operations against journalists and political opponents; and a sexual abuse scandal in the military.

Moreover, security forces are struggling to counter illegal armed groups. A recent report from the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Pares) reports that the National Liberation Army (ELN) now has a presence in 167 municipalities, up from 99 in 2018. The Clan del Golfo neo-paramilitary group is present in 211 municipalities. Less potent but causing ripples nonetheless are the different dissident groups that emerged from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

A platform for Holmes Trujillo

Despite all this, Holmes Trujillo is likely to survive the censure votes and could in fact profit politically from them. After continually struggling in Congress, Duque has strengthened the coalition backing his administration and should count on enough votes to shield Holmes Trujillo. The sessions provide the minister with an opportunity to step into Alvaro Uribe’s shoes while the former president remains under house arrest and bogged down in legal questions. Holmes Trujillo will defend the armed forces (still generally popular in Colombia even if the police have seen their credibility plummet) and present himself as a guarantor of law and order and the institutional framework. These issues resonate with Uribistas downcast by Duque’s weak presidency and Uribe’s legal predicament, but also with some moderates who worry about a rekindling of social unrest, and further ahead, the possibility of a leftist government coming to power with a radical agenda. The call for a new round of demonstrations on 21 October brings these fears into immediate focus.

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