Innovating from the War Economy: Formal, Informal and Illicit Economic Activities of the Military in Colombia


Over the last decade, the Colombian military has successfully rolled back insurgent groups, cleared and secured conflict zones, and enabled the extraction of oil and other key commodity exports. As a result, official policies of both the Uribe and Santos governments have promoted the armed forces to participate to an unprecedented extent in economic activities intended to consolidate the gains of the 2000s. These include formal involvement in the economy, streamlined in a consortium of military enterprises and social foundations that are intended to put the Colombian defense sector “on the map” nationally and internationally, and informal involvement expanded mainly through new civic action development projects intended to consolidate the security gains of the 2000s. However, failure to roll back paramilitary groups other than through the voluntary amnesty program of 2005 has facilitated the persistence of illicit collusion by military forces with reconstituted “neoparamilitary” drug trafficking groups. It is therefore crucially important to enhance oversight mechanisms and create substantial penalties for collusion with illegal armed groups. This is particularly important if Colombia intends to continue its new practice of exporting its security model to other countries in the region. The Santos government has initiated several promising reforms to enhance state capacity, institutional transparence, and accountability of public officials to the rule of law, which are crucial to locking in security gains and revitalizing democratic politics. Efforts to diminish opportunities for illicit association between the armed forces and criminal groups should complement that agenda, including the following: Champion breaking existing ties between the military and paramilitary successor groups through creative policies involving a mixture of punishments and rewards directed at the military; Investigation and extradition proceedings of drug traffickers, probe all possible ties, including as a matter of course the possibility of Colombian military collaboration. Doing so rigorously may have an important effect deterring military collusion with criminal groups. Establish and enforce zero-tolerance policies at all military ranks regarding collusion with criminal groups; Reward military units that are effective and also avoid corruption and criminal ties by providing them with enhanced resources and recognition; Rely on the military for civic action and development assistance as minimally as possible in order to build long-term civilian public sector capacity and to reduce opportunities for routine exposure of military forces to criminal groups circulating in local populations.

Publication Date




Document Type