This commentary appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on June 17, 2001.
Colombia is a decent democracy, less flawed than almost any we have assisted
militarily in the last 50 years. Its collapse would torpedo efforts to control
the flow of narcotics, threaten a potentially important source of energy for
the United States, and create serious problems for the region. Without external
assistance, Colombia cannot defeat the guerrilla-gangster Minotaur that consumes
it. It is in our national interest to help. At the same time, it is necessary
that we fully comprehend the harsh realities we and our Colombian allies face.
The situation is confoundingly complex. Colombia confronts a host of Marxist
guerrillas, private armies, criminal gangs and hired guns. The current guerrilla
wars have killed an estimated 35,000 people, but the bulk of the violence is
not related to the insurgency or the drug war.
Sicarios, young hoodlums who can be hired for a few pesos, along with ordinary
people steeped in Colombia's violent culture, do most of the killing. They have
made Colombia one of the most violent countries in the world. In addition to
those killed in the guerrilla wars, approximately 30,000 people are murdered
each year. To get an idea of its national impact, applying Colombia's murder
rate to the U.S. population would make a quarter million murders a year! End
the guerrilla wars and Colombia remains a very violent place.
To the killings, add the kidnappings, which in Colombia have reached industrial
scale. In 1982, 19 kidnappings were reported in the country. Last year, the
reported total exceeded 3,000. Few families of means have not had at least one
member who has been held hostage, including the president of Colombia himself.
Amazingly, until recently this degree of violence has not prevented political
and economic progress. Colombia's democratic institutions remain intact. Its
literacy rate is one of the highest in Latin America. Its 40 universities are
Colombia has the fourth largest economy in Latin America and is the only country
in the region never to default on its debt.
There almost seemed to be two Colombias: a sophisticated South American Milan
and a brutal South American Sierra Leone co-existing in the same national territory.
This paradox lasted until the late 1990s when Colombia slid into its worst recession
since the 1930s. The consequences of the Asian economic crisis was part of the
reason, coupled with poor fiscal policy. But the deteriorating security situation
and economic warfare waged by the guerrillas doubtless contributed to the decline.
The conflict has displaced 2 million people. More than a million have fled
the country. The emigres have the best educations; they are the entrepreneurs
and managers of Colombia's future economic growth. This departure represents
a significant loss of a precious resource.
Arrayed against the Colombian armed forces in the struggle in which the United
States is about to involve itself are the 17,000 Marxist guerrillas of the Revolutionary
Armed forces of Colombia (FARC) and the 5,000 fighters of the National Liberation
Army (ELN). The FARC has been fighting for nearly 40 years, but its origins
reach back to the internecine political warfare of the 1940s. The guerrillas
traditionally have operated in the remote areas of the country where the government
has never been able to establish effective authority, but in recent years, they
have expanded their presence throughout the country.
On the opposite side of the political spectrum are the 5,000 to 8,000 members
of the paramilitaries. These are private militias, initially financed by land
owners and drug lords to protect their interests. The paramilitaries, however,
evolved into more autonomous actors, financing themselves through drug trafficking,
attacking guerrilla strongholds (and coca-growing territory) in pursuit of their
own economic and political goals.
Clandestine cooperation between some Colombian army units and the paramilitaries
provoked growing criticism. Although ferocious fighters, the paramilitaries
were also notorious for mass kidnappings, massacres of civilians, and other
atrocities. The government worked to sever links between military commanders
and the paramilitaries, and for the first time this spring, the army began attacking
paramilitary bases while police went after their financial backers. Up to now,
paramilitary units, some led by ex-army officers, have not attacked the security
forces, but that could change, moving 8,000 men from the category of undesirable
allies to active foes.
Plan Colombia offers a framework for ordering national priorities and mobilizing
international support -- it is not a strategy. Neither Colombia nor the United
States has formulated a national strategy.
Goals are easily agreed upon. Detailing strategy might reveal subtle but significant
differences between Colombians and Americans.
We see things differently. Americans focus on Colombia's continued production
of cocaine, or to a lesser extent, on the conflict's threat to regional stability.
That means going after the traffickers whether guerrillas or gangsters, defeating
Most Colombians, 70 percent of whom live in cities, see the war as a distant
phenomenon, except when it touches them directly in the form of a terrorist
bombing or guerrilla kidnapping. All fervently desire peace, but they have lived
with war for 40 years. They don't believe in military victory.
They want protection against soaring crime, less violence, a better system
of justice, less corruption, more economic opportunities. That means improving
and extending the institutions of government, starting in the cities and gradually
There has been no national mobilization in Colombia. Legislation prohibits
sons with high school diplomas from being sent into combat. Ending conscription
and creating on all-volunteer professional army may improve military effectiveness,
but in a country supposedly engaged in a struggle for survival, it also says
something about national will.
Colombians don't want to escalate the war. They want to cut a deal, as they
have in the past, that will get them through the immediate danger, insulate
the populated enclaves from the conflict.
As for the drug traffic, most Colombians agree with President Bush -- it's
a demand problem. Americans have to curb their appetite for cocaine.
Armed conflict in Colombia has become an economic enterprise. The guerrillas
have a parasitical relationship with the oil companies that operate in Colombia.
They kidnap ex-patriate employees; collect extortion from local contractors,
set up front companies to gain intelligence and revenue. The FARC taxes coca
cultivation and is increasingly directly involved in the production and export
of cocaine. Robberies, extortion, ransoms, and drug trafficking bring the guerrillas
an estimated $300 million to $900 million annually. It is a greater sum than
Plan Colombia will provide to Colombia's armed forces.
The paramilitaries battle with FARC to control the drug-producing areas. Soldiers
are paid, arms are purchased; even then, the estimated cash flows suggest that
these non-government armies operate at a profit.
The money has facilitated the expansion of the guerrilla forces and enabled
the FARC to field larger units and launch-coordinated attacks. The fighting
has moved beyond the hit-and-run attacks of traditional guerrilla warfare into
mobile warfare involving larger scale battles, although recent successes by
government forces have to some extent forced the guerrillas to revert to traditional
One cannot be overly optimistic about peace negotiations with a guerrilla
army that has been in the field for 40 years, is well funded, and led by a man
who started fighting when Franklin Roosevelt was president of the United States.
The Colombian government's current peace initiative is the latest in a series
of unsuccessful attempts to end the fighting that go back to 1953.
Colombia's guerrillas have not fought for 40 years for the mere privilege
of quitting. Recognizing that it cannot impose a military solution, the government
sees negotiations as an alternate way to end the fighting.
Not so for men who have devoted their entire lives to fighting, who believe
in the efficacy of violence, have built an alternate society and economy based
upon continued struggle, and who profit by its continuation.
Demobilizing or disarming would deprive their leadership of authority and
expose them to retaliation. They recall that many of those who accepted previous
amnesties and entered the political process as candidates were gunned down.
In addition to ideological reasons, there are the tens of thousands who have
suffered at their hands, lost relatives, paid ransoms would have personal scores
to settle. And peace would end a profitable enterprise.
Peace is not at hand. Neither is a military victory by government forces in
the foreseeable future. Nor is a guerrilla victory. What then?
Continued stalemate is the most likely scenario for the next several years.
The guerrillas are not about to quit, but nowhere near being able to take
over. Colombia's armed forces cannot destroy them but can defeat them in large-scale
fighting. The conflict may escalate. Under such circumstances, will the economy
fully recover or decline?
A more optimistic scenario would envisage a creeping victory. Colombia's armed
forces already have made significant improvements, restructuring themselves
to free more troops for combat, but they still suffer from a number of serious
problems. With more than 140,000 soldiers, the army outnumbers the guerrillas
by eight to one, but fewer than a quarter of them are deployable. A significant
portion are tied down in small outposts, guarding oil fields, power stations,
and other infrastructure.
Better tactical intelligence, which the United States can help provide, better
trained units, improved mobility that comes with the helicopters now being delivered
will allow the Colombian armed forces to increasingly wrest the initiative from
the guerrillas. Will it be enough?
If it is not, Colombia may move toward political accommodation and de facto
partition. Elements of this exist now. The government has granted FARC huge
demilitarized zone, in which to negotiate peace, in fact, it is a sanctuary
from which the FARC continues the war. The ELN seeks a smaller tract. During
the 1950s, the Communists sought to create virtually independent republics in
the more remote portions of the country. Political accommodation would formalize
Many Colombians might even find some kind of territorial accommodation and
attractive option if it reduced the overall level of fighting. However, the
paramilitaries might not abide unless they had revenue-producing territory of
their own to control, and even then, would battle the guerrillas for the most
The trouble with accommodation and partition is that it would seriously impair
the campaign against cocaine production. It also can deteriorate into a "warlord
Colombia" perpetually at war with itself, its economy crippled, foreign
investment deferred except perhaps for oil and coal, its national government
Another constellation of scenarios lies at the far edge of plausibility: all-out
civil war -- a reprise of the vicious violence that killed 200,000 Colombians
in the late 1940s and early 1950s, collapse of the central government, a military
coup to prevent chaos. Alarming and unlikely, such events are all within the
living memory of older Colombians, lessons hard-learned -- exactly why they
would prefer to cut a deal if possible.
The outlook is bleak. The guerrillas remain strong, the paramilitaries hostile.
The peace talks seem unlikely to succeed. The conflicts will persist. Escalation
is more likely as coca eradication efforts intensify, as guerrillas and paramilitaries
seek to demonstrate their power before next year's presidential election in
Colombia, as American assistance gives the Colombian army more capacity to carry
the fight to the guerrillas. Violence will remain high, the economy precarious.
U.S. resolve will be severely tested.
Above all, we will be compelled to carefully define our own interests and
the price we are willing to pay to protect them.
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