Colombia has begun to appear on the front pages of U.S. newspapers, but it is still such terra incognita that Americans often misspell its name (using a “u” instead of an “o”). Those who can conjure up this South American country see drug cartels and flashy kingpins, images fed to them by press and policymakers since the 1980’s. The reality, as always, is too complex for sound bites, like the nation’s geography that goes from the tropical Amazon to the mountainous Andes to the Caribbean seascape. And like other far-off places that receive attention only once they’re in shambles, this worsening tableau of internal war, crime and drugs comes complete with a handwringing chorus wondering whether outsiders can help fix what ails this troubled land.

When the word “Colombia” is used, get ready to read and hear new buzzwords attached to it: failed state, quagmire, slippery slope. Are these exaggerations? Statistics suggest a society coming apart at the seams. Colombia has been the world’s kidnapping and murder capital for some time, but it set records last year. More than 3,000 people were kidnapped, 205 massacres were committed, and more than 38,000 were killed in all. Long the principal refiner of cocaine, the country has become the world’s biggest coca grower. A 36-year-old guerrilla insurgency and right-wing vigilantes are growing stronger, profiting from the drug trade and weak government. More than a million people have been displaced by the violence, hundreds of thousands more have left the country, and one-fifth of those who remain are unemployed. Peace talks with the rebels, initiated by President Andres Pastrana, have faltered, and the public has lost hope.

Who can help? Who is to blame? President Pastrana and the U.S. government crafted a $7.5 billion rescue effort called Plan Colombia, to be funded by international donors and the Colombian government. But it, too, has bogged down in suspicions and recriminations. Europe, envisioned as a major source of development aid to replace the drug economy, has provided only a fraction. At the Clinton administration’s behest the U.S. Congress did progressively increase aid, making Colombia the largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel and Egypt. U.S. aid to Colombia and its neighbors grew to $289 million in 1999 and then to $1.5 billion last year. The U.S. aid is primarily aimed at eradicating drugs, with the collateral goals of reducing guerrillas’ income and shoring up the government. Most of it is going to create three Colombian army anti-drug battalions, which are being trained by U.S. Special Forces, and to buy 58 helicopters. The United States is also upgrading a host of intelligence assets, an operations base deep in the Colombian jungle, and a base in Ecuador for U.S. anti-drug surveillance flights (to replace closed U.S. bases in Panama).

Drugs and the war are getting worse, together. Colombia’s drug production skyrocketed in the late 1990’s, in part because next-door Peru and Bolivia radically reduced theirs. Colombians have figured out how to get much higher yields of cocaine per hectare. Much of it is bound for Europe, where prices are twice that in the United States, and Russians are swapping arms for drugs. Colombia also created a heroin industry from scratch and now produces eight metric tons each year.

Set foot in the countryside and what is found is a tangled brew of drugs, guerrillas and vigilantes. Essentially it is no man’s land. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC (its Spanish acronym), fields 15,000 to 18,000 fighters and a clandestine political arm called the Bolivarian Movement. The second insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN), has perhaps 5,000 members. It carries out mass kidnappings and 50 to 100 times each year it blows up the country’s oil pipelines. But the FARC has a far more formidable structure of 66 fronts scattered all over the country.

The FARC readily admits levying protection fees on the drug trade as well as legitimate economic businesses in areas it controls and kidnapping those who don’t pay the requested “tax.” It claims the right to collect taxes and profit from the drug trade as others in Colombia do. The government estimates that the guerrillas earn some $550 million annually, much of it from drugs. (They charge $2,500-$5,000 for drug planes to land on airstrips they control and $50 a month per hectare for guarding coca plantations.)

The right-wing vigilantes do this, too. The top vigilante leader, Carlos Castaño, acknowledged on national television that 70 percent of his funding comes from drugs. His group is strongest in the north but is moving into southern Colombia to kill what it claims are civilian supporters of the rebels and to capture some of the lucrative drug trade. Castaño forces number about 10,000. These paramilitaries are responsible for the vast majority of massacres and other abuses.

Colombia’s military is poorly equipped and funded and is comprised of mostly conscript combat troops, numbering about 55,000. The military’s human rights record has improved greatly since the early 1990’s, but paramilitary groups also use military bases, locate their camps nearby, and maintain frequent contact with the troops. Colombia’s military commander told me in an interview that many soldiers join the paramilitary groups after they perform their obligatory military service, since the groups pay relatively high salaries of $300 to $400 a month. U.S. aid requires the Colombian government to rein in abuses and sever the military’s links with the paramilitaries, but these requirements were temporarily waived. The military chief has new powers to dismiss officers. It is hoped that he will remove those linked with the paramilitaries, as was done when Colombia’s police went through a similar process in which thousands were fired.

The debate about how to cope with the situation in Colombia has just begun. In addition to human rights, skeptics in this country and in Colombia doubt the utility of attacking drug supply since producers simply relocate. Others want a different mix of carrot and stick, more emphasis on coca substitution than forced eradication. Some believe the top priority should be peace talks. Others fear the United States will inevitably be dragged deeper into the war, despite officials’ vows that U.S. trainers will not go out on operations and Americans will never be used as combat troops in Colombia.

Will the Bush administration wade in deeper, or wash its hands? In his one speech addressing Latin American issues, candidate George W. Bush did advocate supporting Colombia’s democracy from the threats of both drug trafficking and guerrilla insurgency. Yet his general stance on foreign policy has been to limit U.S. involvement, to subcontract peacekeeping duties to others, and to eschew nation-building missions altogether. On January 17, Colin Powell said to the Senate: “One country that will be uppermost in our mind is Colombia. Colombia is a country in difficulty. Their democracy is in difficulty.”

Stay tuned.

Linda Robinson, a 2001 Nieman Fellow, reported on Latin America for U.S. News & World Report for 11 years. She recently published an article on Colombia in the World Policy Journal (Winter 1999/2000) entitled “Where Angels Fear to Tread.”

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment