Bullet-Proof SUVs Face Chop as Colombia Eyes First Peace Savings

  • Finance Minister Cardenas backs 50% cut in security outlays
  • Bodyguards violating traffic rules cause friction with Mayor

Walk past Bogota’s top restaurants, and you’ll often see bullet-proof SUVs parked outside, and armed bodyguards standing around in dark suits while the lawmakers, ministers and judges they guard have a meal inside.

This feature of Colombian life will soon become less common if the government gets its way. Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas is seeking cuts of 50 percent in the security details of government officials following a peace accord with Marxist guerrillas last year.

The insurgents “are going to give up their arms this year, so it makes sense to me that government officials don’t need as much security as we used to,” Cardenas said Wednesday, in an interview at Bloomberg’s New York offices.

It’s a first installment of a peace-dividend after the government signed the accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, ending a half-century of conflict with Latin America’s largest guerrilla group. It comes as the government seeks to crack down on waste wherever it can, after falling oil revenues left a large hole in its finances. Cardenas said security cuts, like his decision to fly coach rather than business class, are meant to signal that Colombia has entered an age of austerity.

At the peak of drug cartel violence in the 1980s and early 1990s, four presidential candidates were assassinated, as well as a Justice Minister, a prominent newspaper editor and other high-profile figures. After cartel leader Pablo Escobar was shot dead on a rooftop in Medellin, violence against political figures became less common, and Cardenas and others have concluded that the sums spent on protecting officials are now disproportionate to the threat they face.

Resentment

Colombia’s National Protection Unit guards about 6,500 Colombians, including trade union leaders, political activists and journalists, and the 268 members of Congress. Last year this cost about $150 million, of which roughly $45 million went on protecting public servants. 

The National Police, the Ministry of Defense, the Attorney General’s Office and the Inspector General’s Office all run their own parallel protection programs. Members of Congress have more than 500 armored vehicles assigned to them. Cardenas said his proposed cuts would only apply to government officials.

Escorts and police outriders often cause resentment among other drivers when they halt traffic to allow convoys of armored cars to scream through red lights. It has also led to friction with City Hall. Bogota’s Secretary of Security, Daniel Mejia, has taken to Twitter to tell billionaire Luis Carlos Sarmiento, who controls Colombia’s biggest banking group, that his security detail wasn’t allowed to hold up traffic.

“No one, other than the President, can disobey with bodyguards traffic lights or traffic rules,” Mayor Enrique Penalosa wrote in a post on Twitter last year.

Ongoing Threat

While attacks on public figures have fallen, the threat hasn’t disappeared. In 2012, a hitman stuck an explosive device to the vehicle of former Interior and Justice Minister Fernando Londono while it was stopped at traffic lights. Londono blamed the attack, which killed the driver and a bodyguard, on the FARC.

In 2005, German Vargas Lleras, who was then a Senator and is now Vice President, survived a car bomb attack as he left a radio station.

There were 187 kidnappings in Colombia in 2016, according to the police, which is 95 percent fewer than in 2000. Common criminals were responsible for most acts of hostage-taking last year, while the National Liberation Army, or ELN, a guerrilla group that hasn’t signed a peace accord, were responsible for about 11 percent.

The FARC renounced kidnapping for ransom in 2012, and are currently in the process of concentrating in zones monitored by the UN, where they’ll hand over their weapons. A dissident group of mid-ranking FARC commanders in southern Colombia is refusing to join the process, meaning that Colombia may be years away from be able to enjoy its peace dividend in full.

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