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 or paramilitaries.

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 squads.

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 ago-long before

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.

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