Colombia on the Brink
by Ana Carrigan
In These Times magazine, October 1999
In Sept. 26, two news stories from Colombia precisely reflected
the edgy, roller-coaster quality that _ has characterized the
Colombian peace process from the start. In the first, the Colombian
government and the leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia (FARC) guerrillas announced the long-delayed opening
of peace negotiations, stalled since mid-July. In the second,
U.S. Ambassador Curtis Kamman formally announced in Bogota that
U.S. military aid would be forthcoming for the Colombian army
to bolster its fight against drugs and the guerrilla insurgency.
On the one hand, for the first time since the counterinsurgency
in Colombia began more than 40 years ago, the two sides have agreed
to open formal negotiations covering the full spectrum of the
political, economic and social causes of the war. This agreement
was achieved at zero hour. Since the breakdown of talks last July,
paramilitary violence and the secret, dirty war of selective assassinations
targeting prominent Colombian intellectuals and human rights defenders
has intensified. The momentum toward a full-scale civil war has
been gathering critical speed.
On the other hand, Kamman's announcement confirms that, for
all the fine words about support for the peace process, the only
help Colombia will get from this administration is an intensification
of Washington's failed drug eradication program. Drug Czar Barry
McCaffrey's determination to "wipe out drug production at
the source" has finally succeeded in erasing the line between
the U.S. drug war and the internal Colombian insurgency. The new
aid will include vastly expanded military aid for the Colombian
army to fight the FARC "narco-guerrillas." McCaffrey's
crop-spraying program also will be bolstered by a new 950-man,
U.S.-trained counter-narcotics battalion, scheduled to go into
operation against peasants growing coca under guerrilla protection.
These poor farmers cultivate drug crops to feed their families.
Perhaps it was always naive to believe that the Clinton ~
administration would provide the same support and leadership for
peace in Colombia that it has in far-away ~c countries like Ireland
and Israel with powerful U.S. Iobbies. The brutal fact is that
no one in Washington cares `, enough to commit the kind of resources
Colombian President Andres Pastrana requires to support his imaginative
and courageous commitment to a political solution of the country's
tangled web of interrelated crises. Unwilling to confront McCaffrey
and the Republican congressional leadership-who have always opposed
the peace process as an obstacle to the drug war-Clinton gave
President Pastrana's peace efforts half-hearted support for about
six months. Now, behind closed doors without any public debate,
the decision has been made to go the military route.
U.S. aid is anticipated to be in the neighborhood of $500
million a year for the next three years. While there still may
be time to resist being sucked into yet another tragic, unnecessary
Latin American quagmire, it is urgent that those who will sign
off on this policy take a hard, cold, honest look at what is involved.
The roots of the war and of Colombia's narco-trafficking are
the same: poverty, neglect, exclusion and impunity. Guns and helicopters
will never stop drugs. And spraying chemicals will not stop hungry
peasants from growing coca. Since 1985, nearly 500,000 acres have
been fumigated. The environmental damage, of course, has been
incalculable. But the Colombian drug crop has expanded to almost
300,000 acres of coca and 7,000 acres of poppies.
In fairness, no one familiar with the situation in Colombia
would deny that the Colombian government needs an honorable, modem,
professional army to defend and protect its institutions, and
to guarantee the security of all of its citizens from the violent
forces conspiring against it-be they - guerrillas, narco-traffickers
But denials to the contrary, Washington policymakers know
well that the Colombian army is light years away from attaining
those standards. By now, a reliable army would have devised and
implemented a concrete plan for dismantling the drug-trafficking
paramilitaries and arresting their leaders. The high command also
would have purged the right-wing extremists within their own ranks,
who those closest to the scene say still run the dirty war from
within military intelligence..
This is not to say the army does not have the capacity to
reform-but reforms take time. Claims circulating in Washington
that the army has cleaned up its act and become a law-abiding,
human-rights-respecting force are just untrue.
The Colombian army's atrocious history of human rights abuse
and corruption over the past two decades cannot be solved, as
American officials would have us believe, by firing two or three
generals. In spite of the best and most courageous efforts of
the Pastrana government-in collaboration with intense pressure
from the State Department-and new and honest leadership at the
very top of the military, far too many powerful senior figures
retain intimate links to corruption and extreme right-wing death
Before Washington lawmakers extinguish the Colombia peace
process and launch the United States into the middle of a bloody
and messy civil war, there are questions that need asking. For
starters, what precisely is the U.S. objective?
If, as per McCaffrey, the goal is to cut off the flow of Colombian
cocaine and heroin, then why is all the effort and investment
directed exclusively to fighting poor peasant farmers in the south
who grow drug crops under the protection of the guerrillas? Why
is there no similar plan to attack the paramilitaries, which,
according to the DEA, are far more heavily involved in processing,
trafficking and shipping drugs out of their fiefdoms in the north?
Or is the objective, as the Clinton administration claims,
to strengthen democracy and the rule of law in Colombia? Because
if that is the goal, then the administration needs to use its
leverage with the army to insist on a program of serious, systematic
reforms before granting hundreds of millions of dollars for lethal
new weapons. Claims that the army has severed links to the paramilitaries
open the way for the creation of an elite counter-paramilitary
battalion. Trained and equipped by Washington, with sole responsibility
for dismantling the paramilitaries, such a force would transform
relations with the population by returning authority and legitimacy
to the army.
The core of Pastrana's peace strategy, which originated with
leaders of the FARC, consists of ending the insurgency while simultaneously
ending coca production in the guerrilla-controlled territories.
The guerrillas even sent delegates to Washington to bring their
proposal to the attention of the administration almost two years
Pastrana's election. It's a very straightforward plan: manual
eradication of drug plants in return for massive infrastructure,
alternative crop development and access to markets. The price
tag? Around $1 billion a year for five years. In fact, the FARC
and the Colombian government are already collaborating in a $10
million pilot plan with the U.N. Drug Control Program. Pastrana
is not alone in his conviction that the precondition to solving
the drug problem in Colombia is to deal with the insurgency first.
Only the United States believes the opposite.
Current U.S. plans risk providing a tragic and bitter ending
to years of dangerous, dedicated efforts to persuade Colombia's
entrenched opponents to start talking to each other. For there
must not be any mistaken ideas about the consequences for Colombia
if U.S. military assistance- without a counter-paramilitary policy-tips
Colombia over the edge into full-scale civil war. Once unleashed,
that war will lead to a humanitarian disaster on a scale not yet
seen on this continent.
Forget the Central American wars, dreadful and destructive
though they were. Colombia is sui generis. The El Salvador war
was fought in a country of 8,000 square miles with a population
of 5 million. It lasted for 12 years and cost 80,000 lives and
$5 billion to support a 62,000-man army. Imagine the cost, in
lives and money, of a war fought in
Colombia-a country of 440,000 square miles with a population
of 40 million, several large urban centers teeming with militias,
three mountain ranges slicing from north to south, a large Amazon
jungle in which only the guerrillas know how to survive, and an
army forecast to become three times the size of El Salvador's.
When Colombia's cities and landscape have been scorched and
the 1.5 million internally displaced people (already more than
those driven from Kosovo) have multiplied many times over; when
Colombian refugees and their pursuers spill across the borders
into neighboring countries, bringing violence and destabilization
to the impoverished and fragile democracies of Ecuador, Bolivia,
Peru, Venezuela and Panama; And when finally the war moves away,
following the international drug trade as the traffickers shift
their production centers south into Brazil or north into Panama,
in eternal pursuit of the U.S. cocaine market: Who will calculate
the cost of Colombia's destruction then?
Ana Carrigan is the author of The Palace of Justice, a Colombian
Tragedy (Four Walls Eight Windows) and is writing a new book of
Colombian memoirs for Seven Stories Press.