Exporting security? Questioning Colombian Military Engagement in West Africa

With skills and expertise in fighting insurgencies and drug trafficking networks, Colombia’s armed forces are increasingly being sought for engagement in similar security challenges in West Africa. But increasing Colombian engagement gives rise to a number of important questions – not least of which is the goal and expected outcomes of replicating militarised approaches to the war on drugs that have already failed in Latin America.


These approaches are being increasingly questioned in Latin America and continue to lose support even among high Government representatives and Presidents. Replicating them without further evaluation and careful reflection about what has worked – and what has not – is not a promising approach. Instead, approaches to drugs and organised crime in West Africa must be based on lessons learned, to avoid the repetition of past ineffective policies and their harmful effects.

These are excerpts of my first post in the blog Sustainable Security, a project of the Oxford Research Group. Both, highly recomendable for all those interested in the long-term drivers of global insecurity, and in an approach that prioritises the resolution of the interconnected underlying drivers of insecurity and conflict and the emphasis on preventative rather than reactive strategies.

If interested, you can access the whole article here.


Old and New Violence(s)

It was possibly the World Bank who best explained it in the World Development Report 2011. Around 1.5 billion people worldwide live in situations that cannot be described as war or peace, amidst repeated cycles of political and criminal violence.

Interstate wars are in decline. If we want to understand contemporary violence, let’s forget the II World War and similar events. Internal (intrastate) wars are more typical today, with 32 armed conflict active last year. The figure is relatively stable although numbers of victims were higher in 2012 (mainly due to the Syrian situation).

There is a proliferation of settings worldwide where the accurate description of the type of violence at stake is difficult, not to mention the nature of the actors involved. Traditional categories are not enough to define and classify those processes. Among the consequences, many of them receive scarce attention in mainstream media and, when they do, they are over-simplified.

More than 60.000 persons were killed in a six-year period in Mexico, under the Government of Felipe Calderon (2006-2012). Even if you leave aside kidnapping, disappeared people, and victims of torture and human rights violations, that figure is higher than in many wars. But here the war is against drugs: between the Government and the narco-trafficking groups, among the groups and within them. International Humanitarian Law does not apply. But the cartels area of influence reaches most of Mexican territory, as The New York Times shows in this map.

In countries so different and distant such as Afghanistan or Colombia, political violence and war intertwine with the illegal economy of drugs and organized crime groups. War actors take part in this business. And there is a growing debate about the methods and path of counter-insurgency. More accurately, the question is: Is it possible to fight at the same time against insurgency and against drugs? Or do both objectives need differentiated approaches? According to some analysts, among them Vanda Felbab-Brown in her book Shooting Up, both ‘wars’ are incompatible: if you engage in forcible drug eradication, farmers without feasible alternatives will turn to insurgent groups for protection. From this point of view, counter-insurgency is at odds with counter-drugs.

Terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and its regional ‘franchises’ (like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP) perpetrate attacks in their own countries and/or in others. Some of them take advantage of old smuggling routes and isolated areas to finance themselves through kidnapping for ransom (especially of Western citizens) and illegal smuggling activities. This is the case of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQMI.

Meanwhile, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), local militia and members of neighbouring Governments fuel and finance a continuous cycle of violence through mining and exploitation of valuable mineral resources like gold and coltan. The latter is strategic for many industries and sectors, among them electronics. This deadly conflict has been called ‘the PlayStation war’.

The typologies and categories of contemporary violence are complex but their outcomes and consequences are clear. This map of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre provides an overview of forcibly displaced population worldwide. The instability arch has worldwide dimensions and specially affected are South countries.

This is far from casual. Contemporary organized violence is rooted in complex set of causes: national and international; individual and societal; political and economic. Youth unemployment; inequity and poverty rates; increasing rates of marginalized urban population; regional, social, ethnic and religious tensions…

All those factors, and others, cause civil unrest and may derive in violence, especially when they coexist with fragile institutions and bad governance. At times institutions have been hollowed out from power and means. And traditional mechanisms and procedures to accommodate interests and resolve societal conflicts have been weakened or even crushed under the pressure of socioeconomic, political and demographic changes.

In many places there is another factor to take into account. Informal and illegal economic networks that many people join as a coping strategy are frequently connected with international financial markets and developed economies. Where do illegal drugs, coltan or gold go, if not here? Weapons, on its part, travel in the opposite direction.

The geographical and social distribution of contemporary violence has strong and structural roots. It is not an anomaly or a fancy. Lack of development and equality give place to frustrated expectations, illegal economies, violence and insecurity. On its part, conflict and violence are barriers for development, as the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and State-building has pointed out.

It’s not possible to understand why violence erupts and why it is so durable without a correct understanding of that vicious circle. Any effort to put an end to violence cycles requires, as a first step, get a better insight on what is happening and why.