REVIEW: Article

Coca and Cocoa - Colombia Bitter and Sweet: This Deployed Military Lawyer’s Experience

I was deployed to Colombia as the Plan Colombia Staff Judge Advocate Liaison Officer. I am a reserve military lawyer in the United States Air Force. I know Ambassadors Sue and Chuck Cobb from another life, a life in a ski town called Telluride. The last time I saw them was several years ago at a dinner party in Costa Rica when I lived part-time in Costa Rica. Imagine my delight when I received the e-mail from Ambassador Sue Cobb saying that she and a group of retired Ambassadors, through the Council of American Ambassadors, were on a fact-finding mission to Colombia.* They graciously invited me to accompany them on their visits with the Colombian Ministries and Ministers of Justice, Trade and Defense.  It was a pleasure to get to know the members of the group. As a result of the group’s visit, I have written this article to share my experience of Colombia.

In my position, which I held for eighteen months, I worked with the Colombian Public Forces (Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and National Police). I served as the only resident legal representative for the United States Southern Command in Colombia and as the primary action officer for the command’s legal missions in Colombia. I was responsible for advising, planning, and implementing the Congressionally-mandated $2.5 million in legal and human rights reform line items from the Plan Colombia supplemental aid package.  

Colombia is a country desperately working to get to the post-conflict stage. This country of 40 million people has been combating narco-terrorism for more than 40 years.  The human costs are high. Colombia has the highest reported rate of landmine casualties in the world. Colombia has the second highest number of internally displaced persons in the world. Only Sudan has more internally displaced individuals.

A significant portion of Colombia lacks a presence of government authority. Such areas provide spaces for narco-terrorist guerrillas to exert control and influence, as has often been the case for generations. While the Colombian military and police are mandated to protect the lives of the Colombian population, Colombia is unable to amass sufficient military and police forces to protect its people. The attrition costs for the Colombian military are astronomical.  For every 2.6 enemy personnel killed, one Colombian military member dies.[1]  The number of Colombian military personnel killed in combat each year is on par with the number of US members killed annually in Iraq.

Colombia is a strategic and invaluable ally of the United States. The United States spends over $700 million a year in Colombia in counterterrorism and counter-drug efforts.  Plan Colombia II is scheduled to continue to provide a substantially equivalent sum despite our obligations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our second largest embassy in the world is in Colombia. Yet despite our equipment and support, the internal war against the narco-terrorist guerrillas has not come to victory in over four decades of combat.   

The Colombian military and national police have had an international image of engaging in human rights violations. Stories of peasants being shot by the Colombian public forces and then re-clothed for investigators in the military uniforms of the narco-terrorist guerrillas perpetuate the stereotype of the Colombian public forces as human rights violators. Each death of a narco-terrorist guerrilla by a member of the Colombian Public Forces is investigated as a homicide. At first blush, this appears outrageous. Yet, if an investigation does not occur, the individual and the Colombian Public Forces lack the evidence to defend against accusations by others, including human rights groups and the leaders of the narco-terrorist guerrilla groups, regarding whether an unlawful killing occurred. During the investigation, which may take up to eight months, the military member may be placed in jail. The investigating military justice offices receive from the Ministry of Defense approximately $1.75 per month for office expenses. A $1.75 per month is not even enough to pay for necessary paper expenses (in a heavy paper-based legal system), not to mention utilities and telephone expenses.

Colombia’s history of human rights abuses has resulted in a military justice system in which military defense counsel is not provided. The Colombian military must avoid any appearance that it defends and protects those who violate human rights. So, those who are alleged to have violated human rights are not prosecuted within the military justice system but rather in the Colombian civilian criminal courts.  Because the Colombian military does not provide defense counsel for its troops, the military member must pay for defense counsel from his own pocket. The salary of a conscripted military member is around $30 a month. On that salary, the conscript has difficulty paying for personal hygiene items, not to mention an attorney. Unlike the United States, the young members of the Colombian Forces are conscripts. They do not volunteer to serve. Desertion is the number one military crime committed by members of the Colombian Public Forces. Without troops, the military cannot defend Colombia. 

The narco-terrorist guerrillas also conscript their personnel. They recruit by kid-napping children to become child soldiers. It is not unusual for them to obtain their recruits by informing a farmer that her 16 year-old is to join the guerrillas with the unspoken assurance that if the teenager does not, the family will be murdered. The kidnappings do not only happen in the countryside and with peasants. It is not rare to encounter Colombians whose family members have been kidnapped by narco-terrorist guerrillas, held for ransom, and then, after about a year, murdered. And the holding of captives is not limited to Colombians. Three US citizens are still held captive by narco-terrorist guerrillas years after their plane went down.        

As part of institutional investment, the Colombian Ministry of Defense put Military Justice Reform on its List of Top Five Priorities. The Colombian Ministry of Defense came to realize that without a credible and legitimate military justice system, the operational end of the war was not likely to improve. 

To legitimize and add credibility to the system, the Ministry of Defense appointed its first civilian to head the Colombian Military Justice Corps.  Previously, the head of the Colombian Military Justice Corps had always been an Army general officer with a law degree. The previous heads were not practicing attorneys and did not rise through the ranks of the Military Justice Corps. They came from other military backgrounds.  It is currently impossible for a uniformed military lawyer to obtain the rank of general.  The highest rank that a Colombian Military Justice Corps uniformed lawyer can obtain is that of colonel.  As such, the leaders, while hard workers, came without the necessary experience. The result was a lack of legitimacy and credibility.

In the fall of 2006, the Colombian Ministry of Defense named Dr. Luz Marina Gil to be the Director of the Colombian Military Justice Corps. Dr. Luz Marina Gil is an internationally renowned human rights and international humanitarian law attorney. She has represented Colombia in the Inter-American Human Rights Court in San Jose, Costa Rica.  The appointment of Dr. Gil was a critical first on the road to legitimacy. However, the Colombian Ministry of Defense is also paying her about half of what it paid her predecessors.  The rational given is that she is not a general.  In the Colombian Army, only those who attend the Army military academy based in Bogotá are eligible to rise to the rank of general. The Colombian Army military academy does not admit women.

The most time consuming part of my job was the proactive effort to train the second largest Military Justice Corps, after the United States, in the world in the accusatorial system. Legislation is currently in the Colombian Congress to change the Colombian military justice system from an inquisitorial (paper based) system to an accusatorial (oral advocacy) system. The Colombian military suffers from a perception that it covers up crimes (such as shooting peasants and then putting them in guerrilla clothing to make it look like a lawful killing occurred). This perception is further reinforced when cases drag on interminably as they do in an inquisitorial type system without adequate resources. Evidence suggests that changing to an accusatorial type system can reduce processing times and costs by over 80 percent. 

I was able to work with the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies (DIILS) in Newport, Rhode Island. DIILS provided instructors and instructional materials. For six months we crisscrossed Colombia, training 100 percent of the Colombian Military Justice Corps (Colombian Army, Navy, Air Force, and National Police judges, prosecutors, and paralegals). The work prior to the actual training required about five months of conceiving, planning, selling, financing, coordinating, and implementing required high-level meetings with Colombian commanders, judges, and prosecutors around the country. It possibly was the most extensive training ever conducted by uniformed US military lawyers outside of the United States. 

US military operations require the advice, counsel, and insight of experienced military lawyers. The Colombian active duty operational law attorneys are directly out of law school. They belong directly to the division commanders and are not part of the Colombian Military Justice Corps.  Instead, they are low-ranked officers who are paid half as much as the Colombian Military Justice Corps uniformed attorneys. As a result, they lack the experience and ability to adequately advise regarding operational law matters. As a reservist, I was interested in Colombian military reservists. The reservists in Colombia are generally wealthier citizens who are interested in the trappings of a military uniform.  They receive no pay. In the past, reservists had been the ones performing acts of charity for military troops. That is changing. A dedicated group of reserve attorneys are a potential gold mine for the Colombian military. At the present time the Colombian Ministry of Defense is analyzing the possibility of incorporating reserve attorneys into positions of operational law.

For all of its problems, Colombia is also a paradise. The child in me delighted in the hot chocolate served for breakfast. Cocoa is one of Colombia’s crops. For me, the country is an undiscovered tourist paradise with beaches, snow covered mountains, and jungles. One does not have to wait for changes of seasons. A plane ticket and a few hours to fly are all one needs. Coming from a skier’s background, the only lack is that of a ski area. The capital is Bogotá, a city of approximately nine million people with an airport at a higher elevation than the highest commercial airport in the continental United States. The Legend of El Dorado, memorialized in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, can be found in Colombia, both at the Lake of Guatavita and at Bogotá’s gold museum, the foremost in the world. It is the land raped by the conquistadores who supplied the churches and royalty of Europe with Colombian gold. 

The Colombia that I now hold in my memory is a nation of contrasts. There are the cool mountains and the hot, equatorial coasts. There are the many members of the Colombian government and military struggling to create a nation where their children can live safely and without fear. And then, there are other Colombians, who terrorize their own countrymen and women for the riches of cocaine. There is the Colombia where I met and made many friends, and there is the Colombia where I had to be protected by bullet-proof glass and bodyguards. Coca and cocoa: the bitterness of cocaine and the sweetness of hot chocolate for breakfast.            

* Editor’s Note: The Council of American Ambassadors sent a delegation of its members to Venezuela, Colombia and Nicaragua from September 17-27, 2006. The delegation’s report, published in the fall 2006 issue of The Ambassadors REVIEW, is available at

[1] “Logros y Retos de la Politica de Defensa y Seguridad Democratica,” a publication of the Colombian Ministry of Defense.

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Former Plan Colombia Staff Judge Advocate Liaison Officer