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Colombia - Army (Ejercito Nacional) - History

Unlike the military of several Latin American countries, the Colombian forces played a subordinate role during the first few decades of the nineteenth century. A strong antimilitarist tradition emerged in the postindependence period among the nation’s civilian leaders, who wanted to prevent the military from becoming an autonomous power.

Colombia’s current armed forces had their origins in the militia organized in 1811 by a rebellious league called the United Provinces of New Granada. The force — composed of poor, uneducated, campesino volunteers — was divided into infantry and cavalry units trained by a senior officer corps. The constitutional charter of 1811 assigned the power to raise and organize the army to the nascent Congress, which proved supportive of the military. Spanish military structure and traditions were adopted and plans laid for the creation of an academy to regularize military training. Many key military leaders died during the first phase of the war for independence that lasted from 1810 to 1816, and their troops gradually came under the command of Simón Bolívar Palacios.

The Republic of Colombia founded by Bolívar is referred to retrospectively as “Gran Colombia,” or “Great Colombia,” to distinguish it from the smaller present-day Republic of Colombia. And it took almost four years for all the far-flung lands theoretically included to come under the Colombian flag. Bolívar’s victory at the Battle of Carabobo, on June 24, 1821, delivered Caracas and virtually all the rest of Venezuela into his hands, except for the coastal fortress of Puerto Cabello, which held out another two years. The liberation of New Granada’s Caribbean coast was completed when Cartagena fell to General Mariano Montilla’s army in October 1821.

But when General José Antonio Páez, the leading military figure in Venezuela, was summoned to Bogotá early in 1826 to answer charges against him in the Congress of the Republic (Congreso de la República), he refused to go, and most of Venezuela joined him in defiance. In New Granada (the traditional name for the Colombian provinces carried over from the dissolved United Provinces of New Granada), there was virtually no support for an attempt to retain Venezuela by force. Instead, many New Granadans were happy to see the Venezuelans go.

In 1849 divisions in the Conservative camp allowed the opposition candidate, General José Hilario López Valdéz (president, 1849–53), to triumph. The Liberels again expelled the Jesuits, abolished the last vestiges of slavery and the colonial tobacco monopoly, authorized provincial assemblies to divide up Amerindian communal lands into private plots, and reduced the standing army to a maximum of 1,500 men.

The country’s two-party system, which limited the leading party’s power to establish absolute control over the military, also held military influence in check. It was customary for the opposing party to raise its own army. Government opposition to the development of a strong professional military led to the transformation of the armed forces in the 1860s into a sort of Colombian national guard as well as to the creation of official state-level militias with marked sectarian loyalties. When factional fighting subsided in the 1880s, the government approved the first laws governing the military and defined its constitutional responsibilities of providing for domestic order and external defense. The constitution of 1886 also called for a program of universal male conscription, which was not enforced until the early twentieth century. These measures encouraged limited progress in military discipline and morale. However, the 1899 revolt by the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal), which marked the start of the War of the Thousand Days, set back these military-reform efforts (1899–1903).

A government campaign to revitalize the country following the civil war included plans for the reorganization and modernization of the armed forces. Although there were concerns over border tensions with Venezuela, efforts to modernize the military at the start of the twentieth century were motivated by an interest in creating a nonpartisan, professional, and, above all, apolitical military. The reforms had two main objectives: to subordinate the armed forces to civilian authority and to purge the military of the political rivalry between supporters of the Liberal Party and those of the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador). The centerpiece of the first military reorganization that began in 1907 was the establishment of education centers to provide nonpartisan training in doctrine, tactics, and technology.

Chilean military officers trained in the Prussian tradition developed the curricula in the newly founded Military Cadet School (Esmic), the Superior War College (Esdegue), and the Naval Cadet School (Enap). The first Military Aviation School (Emavi) began operating in 1921 as the flight school of the newly established Colombian Air Force (FAC). In 1933 Emavi moved from Flandes, Tolima, to its present location in Cali and, in the late 1950s, named itself after Marco Fidel Suárez (president, 1918–21). The second military aviation school, the Army Aviation Branch School (Escuela de Arma de Aviación del Ejército), also opened in 1921. Meanwhile, the government widened the conscription base and set new standards for salaries and promotions.

After this flurry of reform activity, official interest in the armed forces began to wane. On December 6, 1928, the government called on the army to suppress a banana workers’ strike against the United Fruit Company (see Decline of the Conservative Hegemony, ch. 1). The army’s use of extensive and indiscriminate force in that incident, in what came to be known as the “massacre of the banana workers,” raised doubts as to the military’s professionalism. During the 1932–34 border conflict with Peru over Leticia, Colombia had serious problems with military readiness, which spurred increases in ground forces and military spending in the 1930s.

Efforts to modernize the armed forces remained thwarted by the persistent partisanship of certain segments of the military. Despite efforts to depoliticize the forces, many high-ranking officers remained loyal to the Conservative Party, whereas the lower ranks were more partial to the Liberal Party. In 1944 disgruntled mid-ranking officials attempted to overthrow Alfonso López Pumarejo (president, 1934–38, 1942–45) for his reformist political agenda. Although the coup attempt failed for lack of support by the military command, the action suggested that the military’s restraint from political involvement was deteriorating.

In the late 1940s, the military abandoned any pretense of neutrality when the Conservative government of Luis Mariano Ospina Pérez (president, 1946–50) openly employed the army to harass the Liberal opposition. Conservative officers received favorable treatment in terms of salaries and promotions, whereas many of their Liberal counterparts were discriminated against, cashiered, or sent to fight in Korea.

This split echoed a broader rupture within Colombia’s law and order institutions, as the police in Bogotá aligned themselves with the Liberal Party, whereas rural police were loyal to the Conservatives. The principles of modernization and professionalism in the military were dealt a severe blow following the assassination of presidential contender Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948, when the army was called out to help defend Bogotá after the police sided with the rioters protesting events.

In 1953, at the height of La Violencia, Colombia’s military leaders overthrew the archconservative Laureano Eleuterio Gómez Castro (president, 1950–53), placing General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (president, 1953–57) in power. Despite having engineered the only successful coup d’état since the War of the Thousand Days, the military command was reluctant to accept Rojas’s efforts to involve the services in political affairs. Although he dubbed his administration the “government of the armed forces,” opposition by military leaders forced Rojas to jettison plans to create a political support group directed by the army chief of staff. In the midst of growing tension with top military leaders, Rojas transferred certain powers from the General Command to the Ministry of War and the army’s General Staff. Colombia’s armed forces were strengthened overall during the Rojas dictatorship. Troop strength more than doubled in the 1950s to 32,000 soldiers, and reforms with lasting repercussions included the reorganization of the National Police under the direct control of the military. In addition to implementing a one-year obligatory military service, Rojas created the Military Industry (Indumil) as an autonomous company to manage the domestic production of weapons and ammunition, established two new training schools, including the Tolemaida training base modeled after Fort Benning, founded the Military Club for officers, built the military hospital, and created the military’s National Administration Center.

In 1957 the military again intervened in politics. Dissatisfaction with the internal situation, rising popular discontent, and growing concern that corruption charges against the general would further tarnish its image led the army to overthrow Rojas in a bloodless coup. His successor ruled with a military junta that one year later turned power over to the first National Front government (1958–78).

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Page last modified: 05-05-2021 19:19:22 ZULU