Threats to democracy and stability in the Andean region of South America could confront the United States with its most serious security crisis in this hemisphere since the Central American wars of the 1980s. Within the region, Colombia is facing the most severe challenges.
The interaction of an armed Marxist insurgency that has been operating in the country's remote backlands since the 1960s with the drug traffickers that emerged over the past decade has generated an entirely new phenomenon — neither an old-fashioned insurgency nor a criminal drug cartel, but something that incorporates elements of both.
The corrosive influence of the guerrillas, other illegal armed groups, and drug traffickers has exacerbated even deeper problems in Colombian society, including the loss of government authority, economic deterioration, and social disintegration. The economy, historically one of the strongest in Latin America, is experiencing its worst recession since the 1930s. The violence has generated 1.5 million internal refugees — a figure larger than the number displaced in the Balkan conflicts — and has severely strained social institutions.
In short, the violence is destroying the fabric of Colombian society.
U.S. policy continues to focus almost exclusively on bolstering Colombia's anti-drug capabilities, but even the successes of U.S. counter-narcotics policy have not diminished the scope of the drug problem in Colombia and, in some ways, may have exacerbated it.
The Medellin and Cali cartels, which dominated the Colombian drug trade in the early 1990s, have been replaced by groups that are flatter, less hierarchical, more diversified and hence harder to penetrate and combat. The disruption of the so-called air bridge linking the coca fields in Peru and Bolivia and the refiners in Colombia simply prompted drug traffickers to move coca cultivation to Colombia, with devastating consequences for that country's stability.
The central problem for Colombia is whether the institutions of the central government will become so weakened that they can no longer maintain authority or political order. The contraction of the Colombia state's authority is linked functionally to the corrupting effects of the drug trade, but also the growing power of illegal armed groups, the strongest of which are the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia known by its Spanish acronym, FARC, and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), an umbrella organization of right-wing paramilitary groups.
Since the 1980s there has been a dramatic and continuing expansion of FARC activity. From ambushes and small-scale attacks the FARC guerrillas have moved to operations involving columns of several hundred fighters. At the same time, the guerrillas have expanded their area of operation, from their original base areas in thinly populated, inhospitable regions in Colombia's periphery to densely populated and economically strategic areas in the country's heartland.
Over the past five years, the FARC has established new units in the eastern cordillera of the Andes, bringing its forces closer to the capital, Bogota, and giving it control of poppy-growing areas and a stake in the growing heroin trade.
The AUC or paramilitaries, as they are commonly known, are the third party in Colombia's three-sided civil war. Their membership includes cashiered Colombian army officers as well as former guerrillas. They have achieved notoriety for the brutality of their attacks and are increasingly involved in the drug trade. The paramilitaries originally emerged as local self-defense forces in reaction to the guerrillas' actions, but in recent years have evolved into full-time professionals who have succeeded in displacing the guerrillas from some of their traditional strongholds.
Although, unlike the guerrillas, the AUC does not seek to overthrow the government, it nevertheless constitutes another competing power center challenging the state's frayed authority, spawned by the state's own weakness.
Plan Colombia, the Colombian government's response to the crisis, incorporates elements of a national strategy to reverse the downside trends and re-establish its authority in contested areas. The military part of the plan involves counter-narcotics operations in drug-producing areas in order to deprive the guerrillas and other illegal armed groups of drug income and thereby weaken them militarily.
Some of the premises on which the Plan rests, however, are open to question.
Many believe — in Colombia and abroad — that the Colombian government's approach derives less from an analysis of the strategic situation in the country than from the political constraints in U.S. policy that can only justify aid in terms of counter-narcotics assistance.
The Pastrana government's political strategy relies on the success of the peace negotiations with the FARC, a problematic prospect at best. In an effort to prompt negotiations, the government conceded to the FARC effective control of an area of some 42,000 square kilometers in south-central Colombia, essentially sanctioning a "state within the state." Senior Colombian military officers privately concede that this zone constitutes a major strategic asset for the FARC.
The FARC uses this demilitarized zone as a sanctuary from which to launch operations, rest and refit its forces, move drugs and arms, and even hold prisoners and hostages. The Pastrana government also proposed to concede an analogous (if smaller) zone in the strategic middle Magdalena valley to a smaller guerrilla force, the National Liberation Army, over the vociferous objections of local residents.
The impetus for all of this is a desperate desire on the part of the Colombian elites for peace at almost any cost. But the FARC does not appear to be in any hurry to negotiate a peace agreement. Having fought for 40 years in the mountains of Colombia, they have no incentive to lay down their arms as long as they believe that they may be able to win a military victory, or at least dictate the terms of the peace.
U.S. policy recognizes the nexus between the guerrillas and the drug traffic, but sees the problem as essentially one of counter-narcotics policy.
As a result, U.S. efforts are focused on strengthening Colombian anti-narcotics capabilities while insisting that U.S. military assistance is not directed against the guerrillas themselves. U.S. policy therefore misses the point that the political and military control that the guerrillas exercise over an ever-larger part of Colombia's territory and population is at the heart of their challenge to the Bogota government's authority.
The United States ought to rethink whether this distinction between counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency can be sustained, and whether Colombia and its allies can be successful in the war against drugs if the Colombian government fails to regain control of its territory and population. By taking the lead in mustering international support for Plan Colombia, the United States has raised its stake in the success of the Colombian government's strategy.
If that strategy falters, the United States would be confronted with the choice of either escalating its commitment or scaling it down. The latter option would involve a significant loss of credibility and a degradation of the United States' ability to protect its interests in this critical region bordering on the Caribbean basin.
In the end, it is up to the Colombian government and society to win or lose the conflict. U.S. support will be important, but cannot substitute for Colombian political will and clear strategic thinking. There has to be a thoroughgoing military reform, including implementation of the Colombian High Command's goal of replacing conscripts — who currently constitute 70 percent of the military personnel — with an all-volunteer force and remedying weaknesses in mobility, intelligence, and communications.
The overarching task for U.S. policy is to devise a comprehensive, integrated strategy that reconciles and prioritizes counter-narcotics and political-strategic objectives and reinforces the Colombian government and its armed forces in critical areas.
Human rights is an important U.S. value and the United States should continue its stress on improving the human rights performance of the Colombian security forces. But this emphasis need not be inconsistent with improving Colombian military effectiveness.
The second prong of a proactive U.S. policy should be to work with Colombia's neighbors and other concerned Latin American governments to contain the threat of spillover and regional destabilization. In particular, the United States should find ways to help countries such as Panama and Ecuador regain control of their borders with Colombia. Shutting down the narco-traffickers' and guerrillas' pipeline to the outside world is critical to the success of any Colombia strategy.
Drugs and insurgency in Colombia are intertwined in complicated and changing ways, but the former cannot be addressed without the latter. Strengthening the state and its security forces — which bear the brunt of the struggle to re-establish the state's authority — should be the focus of U.S. policy toward Colombia.
Rabasa is a senior policy analyst at RAND, the Santa Monica-based research institute, and co-author of the report Colombian Labyrinth: The Synergy of Drugs and Insurgency and its Implications for Regional Stability.
This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on June 17, 2001. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.