Colombia vows to break up drug gangs, beat rebels

by Reuters
Tuesday, 24 May 2011 23:29 GMT

* Experts say new plan offers continuation, some change

* Security policy aims to dismantle new criminal groups

By Jack Kimball and Luis Jaime Acosta

BOGOTA, May 24 (Reuters) - Colombia issued a new security plan on Tuesday, vowing to break up criminal gangs, minimize drug trafficking and improve security in the next three years in the world's No. 1 cocaine producer, still wracked by a guerrilla war.

After decades of drug lords and leftist rebels running amok in the Andean nation, Colombia has seen a dramatic fall in violence and cocaine production over the past decade thanks to a U.S.-backed military offensive under former president Alvaro Uribe.

The security plan -- the first issued by current President Juan Manuel Santos -- Bogota aims to focus on using police and military action as well as social programs to defeat rebels and dismantle criminal groups linked to ex-paramilitaries.

"The defense sector will deal in depth with ending illegal groups, identifying and extinguishing their funding sources," Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera said. <^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Graphic on coca growing

Factbox on Colombia's risks [ID:nRISKCO] ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^>

Santos, who has served as defense minister and finance minister, took office last year vowing to keep up Uribe's tough stance on guerrillas, drug lords and paramilitary gangs. He scored an early victory when troops killed a top FARC leader.

Santos, however, has taken a more pragmatic approach than Uribe, especially with neighboring ideological foes Ecuador and Venezuela, which share border areas with Colombia rife with rebels and drug trafficking.

The new policy will focus more on the police, include urban delinquency into the national security offensive, and use different approaches for each region, said Javier Ciurlizza, director of Latin America at the International Crisis Group.

"It's a logical sequence because the scenario is very different but it's also a shift of doctrine. It's a very pragmatic approach to a problem instead of a very ideological approach like Uribe had," Ciurlizza said.

"As much as the plan tries to say that it's a continuation, it's clearly a shift from the exclusive focus on the military approach for security," he said.

Santos says leftist guerrilla groups must stop violence, halt criminal activity such as drug running and release all hostages before any talks.

Unlike Uribe, Santos has said new criminal gangs known by their Spanish acronym "Bacrim" are a major threat.

"Specialized intelligence and police action will be devoted to dismantling the Bacrim," the security policy said. "The defense and security sectors will work to end these organizations and so that they're not a threat for security."

The Bacrim groups -- made up of ex-members from paramilitary groups that were created initially to fight leftist rebels but became heavily involved in drugs -- have been largely responsible for an uptick in massacres in recent years.

"There is a continuity in several lines with Uribe's security policy. The difference is more in the way of operating, in strategic adjustments, in the new threat of the Bacrim ... and in public safety," said Jairo Delgado, a security expert at the Institute of Political Science.

"Radical changes? No. There are some new elements such as the Bacrim. (The policy) has a greater focus on consolidating peace but otherwise it retains terrorism and drug running as the threat." (Editing by Anthony Boadle and Bill Trott)

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