A Confounding, Complex Tragedy


Jun 17, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on June 17, 2001.

In supporting Plan Colombia, the United States has taken on a major commitment. It has done so with remarkably little information about the dynamics of the struggle we have joined, and with considerable uncertainty, not to say gloom, as to whether we will succeed, or even what that means.

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 full.

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 the insurgents.

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 working outward.

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 tactics.

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 this process.

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 lucrative zones.

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 marginalized.

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.

Jenkins, a former captain in the Army Special Forces, is an authority on conflict and international crime. He is senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corporation.

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