Juan Manuel Santos wants to be president of Colombia, but he may be remembered as the best minister of defense the country has had. This year will go down in history as the most important one for the military. Even though the guerrillas were experiencing a process of gradual weakening, in 2008 they
took some mortal blows. Although behind each of these military achievements there were many people, Santos was at the helm of the political and military leadership of these operations. A major part of the success that the government had in the war is because of three qualities of the minister: his character, which gives him the gravitas to lead the military; his audacity, which enables him to make risky decisions and his good luck.
Of all the risks that Santos has taken in his life, “Operation Checkmate” is perhaps the greatest. On July 2, in the minutes that passed while a military intelligence group was fooling FARC guerrillas from the First Front and was snatching 15 hostages, including three Americans and Íngrid Betancourt, Santos was putting on the line not only his position as minister of defense but also his political future.
Santos had opposed the demobilization of towns that the guerrillas had requested for an eventual humanitarian exchange and was perceived by many sectors as a saboteur of the efforts to achieve a negotiated liberation of the hostages. His bet was on a rescue and it was not easy to think of a plan in which the hostages could survive, considering the rescue attempts that ended in tragedy such as that in Urrao, in which former Minister of Defense Gilberto Echeverri and Antioquia Governor Guillermo Gaviria died.
That is why, when the “Checkmate” plan was presented to him, he was exhaustive with his questions, but did not hesitate to give the plan his go-ahead. He convinced President Álvaro Uribe that the ploy of a humanitarian mission was viable. The bet was to win – or lose – everything. They won. “Operation Checkmate” was brilliant. It brought freedom to the captives, it inflicted the greatest political defeat to the FARC in its history and showered military glory on the government, the military and to Santos.
It wasn’t the first time that Santos felt the rush of risk. He had started the year betting hard against the FARC. On December 31, 2007, Uribe announced to the world that the FARC did not have Emmanuel, Clara Rojas’ son, in its hands. The guerrillas had promised to liberate him and diplomatic representatives from across Latin America were in Colombia standing by. The unusual story that Uribe told, and that Santos had transmitted, was that the boy had been living in a Bienestar Familiar, the government-run child welfare agency, home in Bogotá for two years.
There were indications but no overwhelming proof that the boy found in Bogotá really was Emmanuel. Many believed that this was a tall tale by Santos in order to obstruct the unilateral gesture of the guerrillas. But after DNA tests, the Ministry of Defense was proven to be correct and the FARC was shown to be a bunch of frauds. This episode gave the government the initiative with regards to the hostages, after Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez had converted it into his propagandistic banner.
In March Santos again demonstrated his liking of going against the grain and for making daring and difficult decisions. The military, in coordination with the police, bombarded the camp of “Raúl Reyes” in Ecuadorian territory. He was the first member of the FARC Secretariat who would die at the hands of the Colombian military. With that, the myth that guerrilla heads were untouchable was brought down.
Santos, an expert in international relations and a pugnacious contradictor of Venezuela and Ecuador, did not ignore that this would stir up the already choppy waters in the region. The Colombian government had spent years observing how its borders had become escape routes for guerrillas who were pursued by Plan Patriota, a government military offensive financed by the United States against guerrillas in the south of the country. The guerrillas’ ability to operate in neighboring countries was an important political rearguard which provided them maneuvering space for their quest for power.
As he has always done, Uribe took charge of tense relations with Ecuador and assumed political responsibility for having violated Ecuadorian sovereignty. But it was Santos, with the computer of Reyes, who shook up the geopolitics of the continent.
The agendas of security and defense became the center of Colombia’s international relations and the computer the main diplomatic instrument. Links with the FARC with influential politicians in Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil, for example, were unmasked. Their tentacles with drug trafficking in those countries were also brought to light. FARC diplomacy in Europe and in the United States that many believed to be a myth was now proven to be true. The serious error that the Colombian government committed by violating Ecuadorian territory became ultimately an international political victory thanks to the information found in the computer.
As if it were nothing, Santos has been accompanied by good luck. The FARC had not been able to react to the blows it had taken when its top leader, Manuel Marulanda “Tirofijo,” died of old age in the jungle. It was a significant death, given that “Tirofijo” embodied the myth surrounding the foundation of the guerrilla and provided cohesion for that group. In another risky decision, Santos leaked the news before the media or even the FARC Secretariat could confirm it.
Neither “Operation Checkmate,” the attack on the camp of “Reyes” nor the unusual find of Emmanuel are just merely lucky breaks or because of the audacity of a man like Santos. They are all results of the gradual modernization process that the military has experienced in the last decade, in which several ministers and military commanders are included. It is also a process which Santos, since he arrived at the Ministry of Defense, has invigorated and harvested.
If Plan Colombia has helped in the technological and logistical modernization of the defense sector, Santos has contributed in a significant way to modernize the thinking of the military and its war doctrine.
On the one hand, he made the coordination between different branches of the military a reality, something that, although it had been a stated purpose, had not been implemented in practice. It was not long ago when the police and the army competed against each other and hid information from each other. Santos was able to make team work and information sharing a reality, even though much more needs to be done.
The Ministry of Defense has entered into long –term processes that go to the core of the problem and which consist in defining very well the roles and functions of each one, so that they don’t compete among themselves. This is reflected in many blows like the attack on the camps of the “Negro Acacio,” José Antonio Lozada and “John 40” and in the implantation under the command of General Freddy Padilla de León of an elite group of special operations with the capacity to infiltrate in the jungle for weeks.
Perhaps the biggest support that Santos has made to the dynamics of the recent military victories has been in intelligence. One of his best moves was to seek Israeli advisors who would help identify the missing link in intelligence, that is, to connect the information with tactical operations and to modernize the methods and procedures in decision making. It is producing results.
The aggressive and very controversial policy of compensation and desertions has borne fruit. The penetration that the military has in almost all levels of the FARC enabled them to capture Marín Sombra and the incredible desertion like that of the feared “Karina” who had been with the FARC for 20 years.
Although many sectors question the payment of large amounts of money to guerrillas who betray their own comrades, what is sure is that this has been an effective way to achieve objectives such as the liberation of hostages who possibly never would have survived without this strategy. Such is the case of Óscar Tulio Lizcano, who gained freedom this year because “Isaza,” the guerrilla responsible for his security, was attracted to the incentive of a reward and a new life in France. The case of “Rojas,” the guerrilla who killed Iván Ríos and later cut his hand as a proof in order to get the compensation, is an extreme case. This macabre and shameful episode showed the country the moral limits of a controversial policy which could lead to a greater degradation in the war if it is not controlled.
What has most damaged Santos politically has been the “false positives” scandal, in which civilians were assassinated in order to appear as guerrilla combat deaths. This is a very serious episode for the country in which, even if the president and minister have no direct responsibility, they are undoubtedly the most affected by barbarous acts of this nature within the military’s ranks.
Santos is vulnerable under the concept of political responsibility. Even though he had nothing to do with these actions, they did occur under his watch. The minister was able to neutralize the criticisms by taking the bull by the horns. Thinking about the impact that a transgression of this magnitude could have on the legitimacy of the public forces and of the government’s security policies, Uribe and Santos made the decision to dismiss 27 military officials, including three generals.
Many think that Santos’ decision came too late. Possibly. But what is sure is that in the military these dismissals are usually made discretely, with the argument of not affecting the image nor the morale of the institution. Or they are made via a judicial ruling. In this case, however, the president and the minister demonstrated for the first time that the security policies which include respect for human rights take priority over internal military workings.
Despite the difficulties, during Santos’ tenure for the first time a human rights policy was approved, and had the blessing of the United Nations. There was also the start of the modernization of military penal justice. There was also an active cooperation with the Fiscalía, the prosecutor general’s office, in such difficult cases as that of Jamundí, San José de Apartadó and the extrajudicial executions cases.
Why has Santos been able to lay the foundations for these changes? Because there have been few times that there has been a minister of defense who has had so much political power and the authority to set the military straight. Although on several occasions his political ambition has made him commit errors.
That is what happened this year when he led a community security meeting in a neighborhood of Bogotá, which rightly offended Bogotá’s mayor. Or when in a meeting of academics in Washington he expressed his personal opinions about the Chávez government and generated an unnecessary diplomatic storm. It is one matter to have specific political influence and another to act with arrogance for believing that he is the best minister of the cabinet.
In the inner circle at the Casa de Nariño presidential palace it is well-known that Santos is the only minister that Uribe treats with respect because of his political weight in the cabinet. Like a tiger tamer, Santos knows how to align human resources with financial resources in order to improve security performance. This is less visible than the military achievements, but is what in the long-term guarantees the continuity of the efforts of Uribe during his term in office.
Santos is a man who does not hide his ambition to be president of Colombia. That is why lately he has been seen traveling across the country from town to town and has been criticized when he goes to the extremes of giving gifts to communities and inviting along journalists from different regions. Today nobody doubts that he will be a candidate for the presidency and that the successes of this year have been key to catapult his political future. Before being minister, Santos had 2 % popularity. Today he leads presidential preference surveys.
Although Santos has been able to take on the challenges of war and has demonstrated in his public life to be a skillful politician, in order to make his dream of becoming president a reality he will have to deploy all of his audacity and talent. For that he will have to prepare himself for the most difficult battle of his life: the battle for votes, which have thus far eluded him.