Most Americans pay no attention to the goings on in a land just a
three hour flight from Miami. But that is all about to change.
Over the coming months, the U.S. Congress will be deciding
thumbs up or down on supplying the Colombian government with
some $1.7 billion in aid to combat the narco-terrorists and the
insurgents who threaten to topple the democratically elected
We have some real strategic interests in seeing that the current
government survives. First off, Colombia is a key exporter of oil
to the U.S. Second, continuing instability in Colombia threatens
its neighbors; Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador and Panama. A regional
crisis would clearly force heavy U.S. involvement. Third, drugs.
The vast majority of the cocaine and heroin finding its way into
America is produced in Colombia.
On the latter point, as I write this there was some good news as
the Colombian government arrested 46 individuals involved in a
massive heroin ring. U.S. help was important in pulling this off.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
So how did we get to this point, or rather, who are the players
and how did it all start?
Colombia is the 3rd largest nation in Latin America. Until the
1990s, it was a model for development on the continent. It had
been the only Latin American nation that didn''t have to
renegotiate its foreign debt in the 1980s. Today, it''s mired in a
The current ruling government, headed up by Andres Pastrana,
came to power in August of 1998. Pastrana had been preceded
by Ernesto Samper Pizano, an immensely corrupt politician who
was credibly accused of having accepted $6 million from the Cali
drug cartel during the 1994 presidential campaign. As a result,
the U.S. revoked his visa, prohibiting him from traveling to the
U.S., and our government fully decertified Colombia for failing to
cooperate in the fight against drugs.
Pastrana then won the election in 1998 and quickly won
recertification from the U.S. In addition, he sought to negotiate
a settlement with the insurgents over the decades long civil war
that had torn Colombia apart. There was a spirit of optimism
throughout the land. It didn''t last long.
Colombia is a land of left-wing insurgents and right-wing militias.
The principal guerrilla organizations are the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army
(ELN). Both date back to the 1960s.
FARC emerged from the period of fierce land battles in Colombia
known as La Violencia (1948-65) which claimed some 200,000
lives. ELN began as a student movement with links to a strand of
the Catholic Church. FARC has about 15,000 combatants and
ELN around 5,000. ELN is concentrated in the Northeast where
Colombia''s oil industry is located. FARC is in the rural areas.
During the Cold War, both FARC and ELN steeped themselves in
Marxist doctrine. Both once had ties to Castro but today, neither
takes their instructions from him.
In the mid-1980s, FARC attempted to enter mainstream politics
in Colombia by setting up the Patriotic Union (UP) party. This
displeased the large landowners immensely and, when the UP
began to gain at the polling booth, the landowners contracted out
paramilitary units (who often had the tacit support of Colombia''s
armed forces) to wage a systematic campaign of extermination
against UP officials. Several thousand were killed. As a result,
today, FARC has a tremendous amount of distrust towards the
It''s not exactly clear whether FARC and ELN want to shape
national policies or just maintain control of territory they already
have taken (at least 40% of the country). Both groups receive
about $900 million a year in revenues, $500 million of which is
derived from taxes on coca producers and the rest of which
comes from kidnapping and extortion . [Dot-com companies take
note. These are potential revenue sources.]
Colombia is the most violent nation in the world when raw crime
numbers are looked at. Some 10 Colombians are killed every day
in political violence and every political faction commits abuses.
The right-wing paramilitaries, however, are blamed for three-
quarters of the killings.
The growth of the right-wing militia groups has been one of the
most disturbing trends in Colombia today. Their size is estimated
at 4-5,000 combatants. The army and landowners organized
them as self-defense units in the 1980s. Their power is immense
and, as with the insurgents, it is the poor who suffer most.
The poor are also the principal victims of Colombia''s criminal
gangs. They are responsible for 85% of the 30,000 annual
The violence is spreading to, and beyond, the borders of
Colombia''s neighbors. Peru''s Fujimori has blasted President
Pastrana for being a wimp in negotiating with the rebels. It was
Fujimori who stood up to the Shining Path and Tupac-Amaru
revolutionary movements in his country. He couldn''t understand
why Pastrana was willing to negotiate away a large part of his
own territory. Venezuela''s President Chavez has basically
recognized the gains made by Colombia''s insurgents. And
violence has spilled over into Ecuador and Panama. In the case of
the latter, Panama has no standing army and the canal is easy
So you can see that U.S. involvement, either today or tomorrow,
seems inevitable. Former army officer and strategist Ralph Peters
says that to date U.S. policy has been "to send a check and cross
our fingers." The $1.7 billion package currently under
consideration would most likely include about 30 Black Hawk
and 33 Huey helicopters. Peters says that would be a drop in the
bucket. "We can keep the Bogota regime alive, but we cannot
make it victorious."
The main concern of most in Congress is how does the U.S. avoid
another Vietnam? Peters notes that Vietnam started with just
"advisers" and escalated, just as in the case of Colombia, the U.S.
actually has more of a strategic interest than they had in southeast
Asia. He comments that with respect to our advisers, they "tend
to bond with their student units and have been known to bend the
rules to extend their ''training rules'' into the battlefield." Peters
concludes, "The salient lesson of Vietnam is that no amount of
U.S. largess or American might can save a government unable to
save itself. We can only prolong the gruesome status quo."
But if the U.S. doesn''t support the democracy of President
Pastrana, as Alaska Senator Ted Stevens recently said, "Who
goes in if this thing blows up?"
The debate is heating up. We have real interests here. The
narco-terrorists cannot win, but the American people are not
ready to make a commitment. That''s a lack of leadership and
President Clinton is going to have to make a case to all of us if he
expects to carry the day in Congress and turn over a winning
strategy to his successor.
Source: "Colombia on the Brink," Foreign Affairs (1999).