Santos attended the Colegio San Carlos,a private secondary school in Bogotá, where he spend most of his school years until 1967, when he enlisted in the Colombian Navy and transferred to the Admiral Padilla Naval Cadet School in Cartagena, graduating from it in 1969, and continuing in the Navy until 1971, finishing with the rank of Naval Cadet NA-42 139
After leaving the Navy, Santos moved to the United States where he attended the University of Kansas. A member of Delta Upsilon Fraternity, he graduated in 1973 with a Bachelor in Economics and Business Administration. He later attended the London School of Economics and Political Science, graduating with a Master of Science in Economic Development in 1975, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, graduating with a Mid-Career Master in Public Administration in 1981. A Fulbright visiting fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 1981, and a Nieman visiting fellow at the Harvard Business School at Harvard University in 1988, Santos also holds an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.
He was named Minister of Defense on 19 July 2006. During his tenure as Defense Minister, the administration dealt a series of blows against the FARC guerrilla group, including the rescue of Fernando Araújo Perdomo, the death of FARC Secretariat member Raul Reyes in a 2 March 2008 air strike against a guerrilla camp located within Ecuador's borders, and the non-violent rescue of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt held captive since 2002, along with fourteen other hostages, including three Americans.
During his time as Defense Minister, notable controversial events included a military raid inside Ecuador's territory that killed FARC leader Raúl Reyes on 1 March 2008.There was a misuse of an International Committee of the Red Cross symbol during Operation Jaque used to safely rescue hostages from FARC.
In 2008 the 'false positives' scandal was uncovered, referring to revelations concerning extrajudicial executions carried out by members of the military in order to artificially increase the number of guerrillas killed by the Army and claim rewards from the government.On 4 November 2008, Santos admitted that the military had carried out extrajudicial executions and he pledged to resolve the issue.Twenty-seven military officers, including three generals and eleven colonels, were sacked after an internal army investigation concluded that they were responsible for administrative failures and irregularities in reporting enemy casualties and operational results. The Commander of the Colombian National Army, General Mario Montoya, resigned.
In June 2009, United Nations Special Rapporteur Philip Alston declared that extrajudicial executions had been carried out in a "more or less systematic manner" by numerous Colombian military personnel and found the number of trials for those implicated to be lacking, but stated that he had found no evidence of the executions being an official government policy and acknowledged a decrease in the number of reported cases.
In March 2010, Santos publicly stated these executions had stopped since October 2008 and that this had been confirmed by the CINEP, one of Colombia's foremost human rights defense institutions. Semana, a well-respected news weekly, reported that a few days later the CINEP responded to Santos's declarations by issuing a press release which stated that, while the number of reported cases had been significantly reduced after the Defense Ministry's measures were announced, the period between November 2008 and December 2009 still saw 7 such executions and 2 arbitrary detentions.
Juan Manuel Santos announced his resignation from the Defense Ministry on 18 May 2009. Santos said that his resignation did not necessarily imply tossing his hat into the 2010 presidential race and that his participation in the electoral race depended on whether Uribe would pursue a third term, which he was willing to support. His resignation took effect on 23 May 2009. When the Constitutional Court ruled out the possibility of Uribe's participation in the upcoming elections, Santos officially launched his campaign for the presidency of the Republic of Colombia.
On 20 June 2010, after two rounds of voting in the Presidential election, Juan Manuel Santos Calderón was officially elected as President of Colombia and was inaugurated on 7 August 2010 in the midst of a diplomatic crisis with Venezuela, which was quickly resolved.
Santos announced on 27 August 2012 that the Colombian government has engaged in exploratory talks with FARC in order to seek an end to the conflict. He also said that he would learn from the mistakes of previous leaders, who failed to secure a lasting ceasefire with FARC, though the military would still continue operations throughout Colombia while talks continued.According to an unnamed Colombian intelligence source, Santos would have offered FARC assurances that no one would be extradited to stand trial in another country.The move has been viewed as a cornerstone of Santos' presidency. Former President Uribe has criticized Santos for seeking peace "at any costs" in contrast to his predecessor's rejection of talks.
In October 2012, Santos received the Shalom Prize "for his commitment to seeking peace in his country and worldwide." Upon accepting the award from the Latin American chapter of the World Jewish Congress, Santos stated that “Both the people here and the people in Israel have been seeking peace for decades,” adding that Colombia is in favour of a two-state solution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict.