Who Fights Colombia’s Wars?

The biggest opponents of Colombia's peace process are the most removed from the reality of war.

Colombian soldiers in 2013. Wikimedia Commons

The staunch opposition to Colombia’s peace process has confused many observers abroad. Many don’t understand why so many people are so reluctant to any form of settlement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and seemingly willing to allow bloodshed to continue.

Of course, the reason for this is that many Colombians aren’t affected by the war. In the aftermath of last October’s plebiscite, in which an initial draft of the peace agreement was rejected, many electoral maps showed that the remote rural areas which saw the heaviest fighting were the most likely to vote “yes.” Many who voted “no” did so without having to live with the potential consequences.

But there isn’t just a gap between urban and rural Colombians. The nature of the country’s military service also means the working class, wherever they might live, are the ones who suffer most in the war.

Many nations employ some form of military service, but most are rarely engaged in conflict. Colombia, which has suffered from civil war almost continuously since 1948, is quite different. While the conflict has waxed and waned, with long periods of relative peace punctuated by peaks of violence, serving as an enlisted member of the nation’s military has never been a safe occupation.

This makes the rampant corruption and class discrimination in the process of conscription all the more appalling. Military service only applies to those who cannot afford to bribe their way out of it. It essentially sacrifices the lives of the poor to protect the interests of the wealthy — one of the most obvious effects of the rampant stratification which exists in one of the world’s most unequal countries.

A 1993 law states that all Colombian men must “define” their military situation upon reaching the age of majority. This vague term hints at how the law applies differently to men of different classes. The vast majority of the middle and upper class pay to avoid serving. The poorest members of society, especially those from neglected rural areas, are those who are forced to fight because they are unable to pay these legalized bribes.

Even among those who serve, there is legalized discrimination. Soldiers who have finished high school are assigned to non-combat zones and formerly had to serve only one year. Those who have not finished high school, usually from the poorest and most neglected places in the country, must serve between eighteen months and two years, usually in the most dangerous parts of Colombia. Because of this, the vast majority of those killed in the conflict — soldiers, guerrillas, and civilians — are among the poorest people in Colombia.

Those who do not serve or pay to avoid conscription cannot obtain the coveted libreta militar card. Without this, one is unable to graduate from university, obtain legal employment, or buy property. Those without it are also subject to continual harassment and possible forced recruitment by the military. Illegal round-ups known as batidas are commonplace; poor young men who cannot present their libreta are forcibly taken to army bases in order to be enlisted.

Of course, these typically take place in poor neighborhoods of the cities or in rural areas. The idea of a batida taking place in El Poblado or Rosales is laughable.

For decades, this callous disregard for the lives of the poor has continued, and it has rarely registered as a problem in public discourse. The rich, who set the agenda for politicians, are evidently content with the situation. Even the most rabidly anti-FARC figures would never condescend to see themselves or their children in the military.

The most notorious example is former president Álvaro Uribe, a hardliner who has continually fought against the peace process. He never served in the military, nor did his sons. This has not deterred him, nor his legions of supporters, from their warmongering attitudes.

Ironically, one of the most common reasons given for rejecting the peace deal is anger at FARC’s forced recruitment of minors. A common, hypocritical attitude seems to be that the war must be fought, but that one’s own family should not be involved in doing so. For middle-class or wealthy Colombians, there is no stigma attached to paying for the libreta

Nevertheless, there has always been some acknowledgement that the system is deeply unjust. In 2002, Francisco Santos (cousin of current president Juan Manuel Santos) said that “the poorest of the poor do the fighting, and the rich people drive the generals’ cars, if anything.” While he has gone on to be one of the biggest opponents of the peace deal and has done absolutely nothing to rectify the problem, his point is valid.

The issue came to the forefront during the plebiscite campaign last October. During a “no” rally in the Pacific coast city of Buenaventura, one of the country’s poorest and most violent places, Uribe was confronted by a student named Leonard Rentería. Rentería, in a passionate speech, pointed out that many of those most opposed to peace are the ones most removed from the war: “The children of the rich don’t go to the war, we go to the war, the poor.”

In the 2014 election campaign, Santos seemingly recognized the unpopularity of military service. He claimed that, should the peace process prove successful, it would be abolished. There is now no sign of this happening. In fact, the period of service for those who have not graduated will be increased, with all such soldiers now serving for two years.

There have only been a few half-hearted measures at reform. For instance, one can now secure legal employment and gradually pay for the libreta over the following months. Obviously, this will continue to make life difficult for the poor.

The Colombian military is one of the biggest human-rights abusers in the Western Hemisphere, so this practice of forced recruitment is far from its greatest crime. It pales next to the widespread killing of civilians to boost kill counts — euphemistically known as “false positives” — or the collusion with right-wing paramilitaries in the displacement of millions. Nevertheless, it is one of the most glaring examples of the appalling inequality in Colombia.

Since independence, the Colombian state has acted almost entirely in the interest of the rich and of private industry. Over the course of the current civil war, the Colombian military has continued to uphold the privileges of the few, while forcing the masses to serve as its foot soldiers.

Hopefully, Santos’s promises to abolish military service will eventually prove to be in good faith. So long as the lives of the working class are treated as dispensable commodities, the country will never achieve a lasting peace.