Colombia - An Update
I last addressed the situation in Colombia this past April 13. With
Congress approving a $1.3 billion aid package to the embattled
government in Bogota and, with the release of new reports, I
thought it would be timely to update the story.
In my last missive, I reviewed the basic history of the two main
guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
(FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), so feel free to
turn to the archives for this information. Suffice it to say,
however, the level of violence in Colombia only seems to grow.
In an article for the July / August issue of "Foreign Affairs,"
former Colombian defense minister Rafael Pardo describes the
cost of the ongoing drug war in his nation.
"In the last 15 years, 200 bombs (half of them as large as the one
used in Oklahoma City) have blown up in Colombia''s cities; an
entire democratic leftist political party was eliminated by right-
wing paramilitaries; 4 presidential candidates, 200 judges and
investigators, half the Supreme Court''s justices, 1,200 police
officers, 151 journalists, and more than 300,000 ordinary
Colombians have been murdered."
Absolutely staggering. These are casualty figures associated with
civil wars in Africa, not conflicts in our own backyard. And the
violence continues to spread to neighboring Venezuela and
Ecuador as the rebels step up their kidnapping operations in those
When President Andres Pastrana took over in 1998, having
received the largest vote total in Colombian history, optimism
was high. Pastrana sought to negotiate with FARC and ELN,
eventually providing them with territory in an effort to make them
feel secure during full peace negotiations. [FARC received land
the size of Kentucky and ELN the size of Long Island.]
When I first read about this, I questioned the rationale behind
giving land away to terrorists. Now, it would appear,
negotiations are the only way to go.
Colombia has been turned upside down by the drug cartels. By
some estimates, drug revenue is up to 10% of the total economy!
Rafael Pardo relates that, going back to the late 1970s when the
cartels began to have such a heavy influence, the drug industry
"deformed Colombia''s morals. Riches, no matter how ill-gotten,
became the goal of many Colombians, and respect for civil rights,
education, and honest work declined."
In 1979, when the government made a commitment to begin
dealing with the problems, the narco-traffickers put out bounties
of $2,000 for each dead policeman. The war was on. And then
the drug money corrupted government officials to the point that
the nation is certainly one of the three most degenerate countries
in the world.
President Pastrana now has just two years left on his term. He
faces two overriding issues: drugs and control of the country.
There are three warring factions: the government, left-wing
guerrillas, and right-wing paramilitaries. As to the latter, see the
Pastrana''s popularity has been waning as he has shown little
success against the rebels after some early gains. The largest
guerrilla group, FARC, is now in the midst of a huge recruitment
drive to augment its estimated 15,000 militiamen, in anticipation
of conflict with the newly beefed up Colombian military once the
U.S. aid begins to flow.
FARC''s stronghold is where 90% of the country''s cocaine is
grown. ELN''s forces are concentrated in an area near
Colombia''s major oil pipeline. FARC receives some $600 million
a year in revenue for protecting the drug kingpins. ELN receives
a couple hundred million largely through extortion as blowing up
the pipeline, so vital to Colombia''s economy, has become their
Former U.S. assistant secretary of state Bernard Aronson recently
wrote that there are two misconceptions in trying to solve the
Colombian mess. (1) That there is a military solution and (2)
Eliminating the guerrillas will solve the drug problem. FARC has
been waging war for 4 decades. They will not be defeated.
Both Aronson and Pardo say that peace talks are the only way to
"A negotiated settlement of the war with the guerrillas - far from
being the ''soft'' position on drugs - would strike a major blow
against the narco-trafficking gangs, because the violence and
instability that the war has brought to Colombia is the sea in
which the drug cartels flourish."
But the mistrust between the parties is deep. Both FARC and
ELN fear that once a peace accord is signed and they give up
their weapons, they will be killed or thrown in jail. This is a
legitimate concern, since in the late 1980s, an entire FARC-
backed political party was annihilated after just such a
negotiation. [3,500 were murdered or disappeared.]
Pastrana, for his part, has lost the backing of his own government
for his bungled attempt to shut down the Congress. This was to
be accomplished through a popular referendum. Pastrana was
then to replace Congress with a new, more compliant body.
But Congress said Pastrana''s own job should be put to the vote
and now corruption charges are spreading against the president''s
But is there hope? Maybe. As Colombia collapses, European
nations are putting together a $2 billion aid package to augment
the $1.3 billion that the U.S. is now committed to. Europe''s aid
will be economic in nature, such as infrastructure projects, to
encourage economic development away from the drug trade.
75% of the U.S. relief effort is of a military nature.
Time is running out, however. FARC recently announced a new
plan to tax all wealthy Colombians within its territory and kidnap
those who refuse to pay. They are already carrying out summary
executions. Actions such as these show that FARC views itself as
a parallel government.
Notice how I have said zero about the drug demand side of the
equation. That''s because, realistically, little can be done. That''s
why the U.S. and Europe must become actively involved in trying
to broker a solution, diplomatically, with the threat of force in the
background. But that seems awful optimistic...and against my
Additional Sources: Bernard Aronson / Washington Post
Larry Rohter / New York Times
Next week, a look at Mexico after their historic election.