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Applying for exemption from military service in Colombia: a personal account

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

A guest blog by Santiago Forero about his experience of applying for exemption from military service in Colombia.

In Colombia military service has been mandatory throughout our history. Every male has to register with the military by their 18th birthday. However there are some exemptions to military service. Conscientious objection is now one of the grounds for exemption from military service in Colombia.

Youth are affected by the historic internal conflict in Colombia and by a militarist culture more generally. Having a ‘military service card’ (confirming that you have resolved your military situation according to the law) is important. It is necessary to have this card to get a job and in the past you had to have one to receive your college diploma.

The right to conscientious objection was first recognised in the Colombian constitution in 2009. However, the Army failed to guarantee this right in practice. They argued that there was no law which regulated this right. It was not until February 2015 that the first conscientious objector to military conscription openly obtained a professional degree without the ‘military service card’.

The process starts in school; each educational institution has to give a list of the names of every male in the eleventh grade (the last academic year in high school in Colombia) to the military. Then, once you have reached eighteen years of age, you have to register on the military’s webpage, and attend the next recruitment day in the military district you’re registered in.

If someone misses this meeting, they are called a ‘remiso’. (When used as an adjective, ‘remiso’ means ‘reluctant’. When used as a noun, the nearest translation is ‘draft dodger’). ‘Remisos’ are fined and have to attend a special meeting. In the last few years, there have been huge numbers of ‘remisos’. Many people are not interested in doing their military service. Nor are they willing to pay fines. The military have been organising specific call-up days for ‘remisos’ where they offer to waive the fines and people can resolve their military situation.

In my case, I didn’t receive a date for resolving my military situation and one day I was listed as a ‘remiso’ on the military’s web page. I had to attend one of these special meetings in order to avoid being fined. I knew that I wasn’t fit for mandatory service as I meet the criteria for several of the physical health exemptions. However, I didn’t know that I had the right to apply to be a conscientious objector. I didn’t hear about this right until years later. Despite the fact that the military has a duty to inform / educate people about their right to conscientious objection, most people do not know about it so they cannot access this right.

Online information meeting for young people about conscientious objection, 2020.

Organised by the Asociación Acción Colectiva de Objetores y Objetoras deConciencia, the Secretariat for Social Integration, and the Mayor’s Office for Bogotá

After this meeting, I had to go on one of the recruitment days to resolve my military situation. It was a very tough experience. I was pretty young at the time, and my mother decided to go with me. However, an accompanying person cannot enter the military district. It was pretty early in the morning.

In my case, I arrived at 6.00 and there was already a long queue. Once you’re in, you can’t go outside or you’ll lose your place in the queue, which is pretty difficult as you must spend all day in there. For example, I started at 6.00 and I finished at 20.00, more than twelve hours in the queue with no food, or beverages, or anywhere to sit down. Just a lot of young people and army commanders.

At 16.00 I started to feel sick as I’m epileptic and I wasn’t able to take my meds. For this reason, my mother found a defender of human rights from the State and she told him about my situation. He looked for me and took me to another queue where I was able to resolve my military situation faster.

However, I was there another two hours as I needed to present documentation and do a so-called psychological exam, as well as a physical exam.

In my case, I was able to do it faster because of my medical condition, but other people had to stay there until goodness knows what time. Moreover, it’s quite a heavy psychological experience when you see the military taking young people declared fit for military service and putting them on a bus going to other military districts in the country where they’ll receive military training and they’ll spend at least one year. Their families are crying as they don’t know if they’ll see their sons again and if they are going to be alright.

But this is not the end of the process. In Colombia it is not enough to be declared fit, or not, for military service, you also have to pay for the ‘military service card’. This document is like National ID.

Getting a job without it is hard, as enterprises could face fines, and public institutions cannot hire you without it.

The amount you pay for your ‘military service card’ is based on your parents’ income. In some specific cases, you don’t have to pay anything but this is quite uncommon. This is a pretty difficult situation because it not only requires a lot of documentation, but if you don’t have the money there’s nothing you can do.

You can refuse to pay it, but this may lead to problems in the future in accessing education or getting a job. There’s no legislation which allows you not to pay it. Even conscientious objectors have to pay it. Despite the fact that they’re saying no to war, they must pay it and give funds to war. If your application to be exempted as a conscientious objector is accepted, and you pay for your ‘military service card’, then you are automatically put in the reserves …

My case is not the worst. Actually, it is pretty normal here and I feel privileged that my mother could afford to pay for the ‘military service card’, that I do not have to do military service, and I was able to access education. But I cannot be quiet just because I was fortunate.

Later, when I found out about conscientious objection, I felt deceived. For me, it’s not enough to have been exempted from military service on physical health grounds. I don’t want to be part of the army, I don’t believe in the unnecessary historical internal conflict. I don’t want a big army for my country. It’s awful to think that year after year, families are suffering because this institution takes their kids and makes them fight in a conflict that doesn’t belong to them and they don’t want to be involved with. We don’t need more conflict.

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