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Colombia’s navy eyes new president Gustavo Petro with ‘deep unease’


This weekend, a ceremony will happen in Bogotá that will have been unimaginable only a few years in the past: exterior the presidential palace, the highest brass of Colombia’s armed forces will stand earlier than former leftwing guerrilla Gustavo Petro and acknowledge him as their new commander-in-chief.

The importance of the second is unlikely to be misplaced on Colombians. Petro, who will probably be sworn in as president the identical day, spent greater than a decade within the M-19, an city insurgent motion. As a younger revolutionary within the Eighties, he says he was twice arrested by troopers and tortured. He describes components of the present navy management as corrupt.

As soon as Sunday’s occasions are over, Petro will take the reins of a rustic wherein the armed forces are on the coronary heart of nationwide id. After a civil conflict that has dragged on for greater than half a century, closely armed troopers and law enforcement officials are nonetheless a typical sight in lots of Colombian cities. The nation spends extra of its gross home product on the navy than every other nation in Latin America.

The brand new president will inherit a rustic nonetheless mired in battle, regardless of the much-heralded 2016 peace deal with the very best recognized of its guerrilla teams, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

In line with the Crimson Cross, six separate conflicts are ongoing in Colombia. They contain the state, Farc dissidents who refused to enroll to the 2016 deal, different Marxist guerrillas, rightwing paramilitaries and mafia-style organised crime teams. Scores of troopers, law enforcement officials, guerrillas, neighborhood leaders and armed criminals are killed in Colombia yearly.

All of this implies Petro’s relationship with the armed forces — which has by no means been good — will probably be important to his success.

“There’s deep unease throughout the navy about Petro for various causes,” stated Elizabeth Dickinson, senior Colombia analyst on the Worldwide Disaster Group. “He’s been a critic of the establishment for fairly a while however, past that, his historical past as a demobilised guerrilla could be very laborious for lots of prime brass to swallow.”

“That is an establishment that’s been formulated on the concept of rooting out an inside enemy — leftist guerrilla actions — so to have a president who comes from these very actions goes to require a mentality shift.”

Petro says he was not an armed guerrilla throughout his M-19 years. He was primarily a political activist, though he saved weapons for the group and had hyperlinks with different, bloodier insurgent teams together with the Farc. His antagonism in the direction of components of the navy continued lengthy after he renounced the armed wrestle. As a congressman within the 2000s, he uncovered hyperlinks between the military, politicians and rightwing paramilitaries.

Throughout this 12 months’s election marketing campaign, he claimed some Colombian generals have been “on the payroll” of the Gulf Clan, a strong organised crime group that has unleashed a wave of latest violence within the nation. The pinnacle of the military retaliated in a public Twitter spat and has since resigned.

Gustavo Petro speaks to university students at an event in Colombia
Colombia’s incoming new president Gustavo Petro is anticipated to shake up the nation’s navy management © AP

After profitable June’s election, Petro ruffled feathers once more by naming prosecutor Iván Velásquez as his incoming defence minister. Velásquez helped fight drug cartels within the Nineties and, like Petro, uncovered hyperlinks between the state and paramilitaries. Many regard him as a courageous investigator, though he isn’t a navy man.

One rightwing senator, Paloma Valencia, responded to the appointment by saying Velásquez “is aware of nothing about safety or defence”, whereas Enrique Gómez, a conservative politician who stood in opposition to Petro within the election, described it as “an act of revenge, plain and easy”, suggesting Velásquez would pursue a vendetta in opposition to rightwing politicians and the armed forces.

“The navy and police have been already fairly frightened of a Petro authorities and now with Iván Velásquez as defence minister they’re more likely to be much more so,” stated Jeremy McDermott, a former British military captain and co-director of InSight Crime, a Colombia-based think-tank that specialises in safety points. “It’s an attention-grabbing selection. It definitely gained’t reassure the navy institution.”

McDermott stated that if Velásquez tries to root out corruption within the armed forces, as appears inevitable, “it’s going to fire up a hornet’s nest”.

Corruption and human rights scandals have tarnished the navy’s repute in recent times. Essentially the most stunning revelations have been that troopers killed civilians and dressed them up as guerrillas to inflate their physique counts. In return, they acquired advantages and promotions. Final 12 months, a tribunal recognized greater than 6,400 of those so-called “false optimistic” killings relationship from the 2002-2010 rule of hawkish rightwing president Álvaro Uribe, who’s beneath investigation in an unrelated case and will come beneath additional scrutiny with Velásquez as minister.

Petro has outlined a number of reform proposals for the safety forces. He desires troopers who’re accused of human rights abuses tried in civilian courts, not navy tribunals. He additionally desires to separate the police from the defence ministry, which might carry Colombia in to line with different Latin American nations. Nonetheless, Juan Carlos Restrepo, a former nationwide safety adviser and intelligence chief, stated such a transfer could be a mistake.

“These different nations haven’t suffered from the rebel actions we’ve had, or needed to confront guerrillas who’re in league with drug cartels,” he stated. Any structural change to their relationship must be completed rigorously and steadily, he stated.

Petro desires to abolish navy service, which is nominally obligatory for grownup males. He has additionally vowed to disband the Esmad, the police anti-riot squad answerable for a number of the deaths in last year’s protests in opposition to the outgoing authorities of Iván Duque.

The brand new president goals to renew peace talks with the Nationwide Liberation Military (ELN), a Marxist guerrilla group. Duque broke off talks with the ELN after it bombed a police school in Bogotá in 2019, killing 22 individuals, principally younger cadets.

Amongst Petro’s first duties will probably be naming new generals. He isn’t obliged to take action however analysts say he’ll in all probability not depart the present prime brass in place. They have been appointed by Duque, whose navy management, Restrepo stated, is “extremely politicised”.

Though the connection between Petro and the navy is more likely to be fraught, there may be little threat the armed forces will attempt to topple him — the nation has largely averted the navy coups which have blighted Latin America.

“Relations are very tense in the meanwhile, unquestionably,” stated Oscar Palma, a defence and safety skilled at Bogotá’s Rosario College and a former navy officer. “However I don’t suppose the navy will sabotage Petro’s proposals. Colombia’s armed forces are very respectful of the constitutional order.”

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