Pubdate: Sun, 19 May 2002
Source: Baltimore Sun (MD)
Copyright: 2002 The Baltimore Sun, a Times Mirror Newspaper.
Author: Michael Hill of the Baltimore Sun
Bookmark: (Colombia)


Amid Longtime War And Drug Production, Colombians Prepare For A Crucial 

THE UNITED States military is engaged in a place where warfare has gone on 
for generations, where large areas are in the hands of dangerous fighters 
with loyalties to only themselves. Many poor residents find cultivating 
illegal drugs the best way to make a living. To defeat the worst of the 
insurgents, some advocate making alliances with unsavory characters, 
otherwise the fighting is left to a national army of questionable 
competence and undeniable corruption.

That might sound like Afghanistan, but it's a place much closer to home - 
Colombia. A few years ago, the Clinton White House made Colombia the front 
lines in the war on drugs. Though Colombia was already getting almost $300 
million annually from the United States - putting it third on the foreign 
aid list behind Israel and Egypt - Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey helped 
push a $1.3 billion package through Congress in 1999, money that was 
supposed to stem the flow of cocaine from the country that supplies 90 
percent of America's consumption. The cocaine continues to pour out of 
Colombia. The Bush administration is backing a modification in the aid 
package, sending money for direct military assistance, this time under the 
anti-terrorism rubric.

All of this takes place as a crucial election approaches in Colombia. But 
with the Middle East and Afghanistan dominating America's attention, little 
attention is paid to the growing U.S. involvement in what has become a 
three-way war, fighting that dates back almost 40 years, part of the 
violence that has been part of the scenery in this in Colombia for much of 
the last century.

"This is not a civil war in the sense that you have a polarized nation with 
one half one side and the other half on the other side," says Michael 
Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue in 
Washington. "What you have is very well-financed, well-armed groups 
competing for power, and you have a state that is very weak."

The difference between Colombia and many of the other countries that have 
endured long, intractable wars is that few contend Colombia is a basket 
case of a nation. "It is a viable nation-state," says Peter Siavelis, a 
political scientist at Wake Forest University. "It has clear national 
borders, a sense of national identity and longstanding political institutions."

Shifter says that Colombia has the best economic performance in Latin 
America over the past 40 years. "It's a bizarre and strange coexistence. 
There are highly sophisticated sections in Colombia, but it is bloody and 
dysfunctional in other areas."

Siavelis notes that "this is one of the longest-standing democracies in the 
Western Hemisphere."

That democracy will go to the polls in a week in an election that most 
expect will lead to Alvaro Uribe becoming Colombia's next president. Uribe 
takes a hard line against the rebel groups. His popularity can be traced to 
the failure of the tactics of current President Andres Pastrana, who took 
office four years ago determined to negotiate with the main leftist rebel 
group, the FARC - the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of 

"A year ago, Uribe's rhetoric seemed way out there," says Russell Crandall, 
a Colombian specialist at Davidson College in North Carolina. "Now, he 
seems moderate."

Pastrana gave the FARC dominion over a big chunk of Colombian countryside. 
But his attempts at peacemaking were spurned. "Pastrana gave them the 
ranch," says Crandall. "He bet his entire administration's success at the 
peace table and FARC said, 'Screw it.'"

Pastrana broke off negotiations in February and fighting has intensified 
since. Earlier this month, a gas cylinder bomb fired by a FARC mortar hit a 
church in Choco, killing 119 and injuring more than 100, all civilians 
seeking to escape the fighting in the sanctuary. This past week, more than 
80 combatants died in fighting.

The ideological origins of the conflict have been lost.

"In recent years, you have seen the end of ideology," says Crandall, who 
notes that in their early years in the 1960s, the current leftist groups 
had a Robin Hood-like appeal in this economically stratified country. "What 
these groups want right now is the $1 million question. Everybody thought, 
and I did, too, that once they got autonomy, they would sit down with 
Pastrana and cut a deal. We were completely wrong."

As in Afghanistan and several dysfunctional African countries, warfare 
seems to have become a way of life, offering the best job many can find in 
the countryside.

"War in Colombia is big business," says Abel Ricardo Lopez, a native of the 
Colombian capital Bogota who is a history graduate student at the 
University of Maryland, College Park. "People make a lot of money."

FARC took advantage of its autonomy to expand coca production in the area 
it ruled, adding its profits to its main source of income - kidnapping for 
ransom. The U.S. State Department says there is a greater risk of being 
kidnapped in Colombia than in any country in the world. Pastrana ended 
negotiations when FARC operatives hijacked a civilian airplane in February, 
kidnapping Sen. Jorge Gechem Turbay. A few weeks later, they grabbed 
presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and provincial governor Guillermo 
Gaviria. All are presumably still being held.

In moving into the cocaine business, FARC joined the business of its major 
adversary, the right-wing AUC, a paramilitary operation funded by cocaine 
producers in part because the military was so incompetent in fighting the 
left-wing rebels. The paramilitary groups have been brutal and ruthless. 
But a growing number of people in Colombia seem ready to adopt their tactics.

For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the Bush administration 
is proposing $98 million in direct military aid to Colombia. Most of that 
would protect the Cano Limon-Covenas oil pipeline, which runs through 
northeastern Colombia. It was attacked by guerrillas 166 times last year. 
But $25 million would go to the military for anti-terrorism activities, 
justified by growing evidence of links between FARC and international 
terrorist groups. This money is part of a total package of $275 million in 
military assistance -- mainly for an expansion of anti-drug efforts -- and 
$164 million in economic aid.

Though human rights groups are wary of such military aid, many think this 
is a propitious time for increased U.S. involvement - but only if applied 
correctly, aimed at strengthening the Colombian state, dealing with 
Colombian problems, not just American issues of drugs and terrorism.

"Eradicating coca in southern Colombia doesn't necessarily produce a 
stronger state," says Shifter. "What would really contribute to moving the 
process further along is support directed at helping the state perform its 
job better. Then you could settle the conflict and deal with the drug problem."

A major part of moving the state along involves forming a viable army and 
police force in all areas of the country that could provide security for 
citizens so they wouldn't turn to the rebels or paramilitary forces for 

Most think Colombia can deal with its drug problem, noting that a crackdown 
in Peru drastically reduced coca growing there and that its cultivation is 
not endemic in other nearby countries. Peter Reuter, a drug expert in the 
criminology department at the University of Maryland, College Park, says 
that if Colombia had a similar crackdown, production would most likely move 
somewhere else. That would not help the United States but could improve the 
life of Colombians.

To make that work, Colombia would have to offer alternatives to growing 
coca, something possible only in a well-functioning economy.

"One of the reasons this war was created and has lasted this long was 
because of the poverty and unemployment," says Colombia native Lopez. 
"People go to the guerrillas or the paramilitaries just to have some money 
to survive because there are no other options. You have to start creating 
options for people. They have to have the possibility of getting a job."

One problem is the high level of all sorts of violence in Colombia. The 
3,500 people who die in the war annually are dwarfed by over 25,000 murders 
in this country of 40 million. The murder rate of 77.5 per 100,000 is more 
than 13 times that of the United States.

"The violence goes back not just decades, but centuries," says Crandall, 
who adds that some of what passes for civil conflict are old feuds dressed 
up in political clothing. "Colombian people have traditionally solved 
domestic and economic problems through violence."

Still, Crandall has hope for the country. "I am an optimist, one of the 
rare ones who studies Colombia. With the paramilitaries and FARC, it's a 
real tightrope for the United States to walk. We have to follow the lead of 
the Colombians. It's like the Hippocratic oath, 'First, do no harm.' And 
the United States, in its post-Sept. 11 fervor, needs to be very careful, 
to support a Colombian solution to a Colombian problem."
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