BOGOTA -- Over the last half-century, Colombia’s military has earned a reputation as one of the most battle-ready forces in the hemisphere as it has taken on leftist rebels, drug cartels and heavily-armed gangs.
Now, the armed forces may have to prepare for peace, as the government hopes to hammer out a deal with the nation’s largest guerrilla group, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said Wednesday.
All the branches of the armed forces have been ordered to come up with contingency plans if peace is achieved “either through reason or through force,” Pinzón said, at the opening of a defense-industry exhibition. Even so, a strong military will be key to keeping other criminal forces from stepping into the power vacuum, he added.
“Our security challenges over the next couple of months could be high, even in a post-conflict scenario,” he said. “We must keep our current military force strong so it can be a dissuasive force for any criminal terrorist organization that considers returning to crime.”
Government negotiators and members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, guerrillas have been in talks to end the country’s 48-year-old civil conflict, and the two sides are scheduled to continue those discussions in Havana on Nov. 15.
While the FARC aren’t the nation’s only security threat, much of the military is geared to fighting the largely rural guerrillas, who are thought to number about 9,000.
With U.S. backing, Colombia has built one of the most formidable militaries in the region, pumping $86 billion into its security apparatus from 2000-2010, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Colombia’s military expenditures during the decade averaged 3.5 percent of national gross domestic product — the highest rate in the hemisphere except the United States, which averaged 3.8 percent of GDP.
In the process, the nation has become a regional player.
Since 2005, Colombia has trained amore than 13,000 officials from 40 nations, Pinzón said. And the military is playing an increasing role in fighting drug trafficking in Central America and the Caribbean.
The military is also becoming more self-sufficient and has spawned 18 state-affiliated companies that make everything from small airplanes, rifles, prosthetic limbs and unmanned areal vehicles.
“Our products and services are being tested daily in combat,” Pinzón said, talking about their commercial potential abroad. “For the moment, that experience is a seal of quality.”
The conflict has forced the military to innovate, said Naval Cap. Jaime Jiménez.
Colombian marines used to stack sandbags in their U.S. donated patrol boats to fend off FARC attacks, he said. Now, Colombia makes its own fully armored riverboats that look like floating tanks. Brazil has ordered four of the craft, which have a starting price of $2 million, and there are hopes of exporting them to Africa and Asia, Jiménez said.
“Not so long ago, Colombia was seen as a problem country,” Pinzón said. “But that dark past is being left behind and Colombia is little by little becoming part of the solution.”