Pubdate: Sun, 18 Apr 2010
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2010 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Bryan Bender


Lawlessness, Drug Crimes Down Sharply

BOGOTA -- It is a pretty typical scene even for a weeknight. 
Restaurants and bars are teeming with patrons, the beat of 
traditional Latin music spilling out on the crowded sidewalks. Stores 
are packed with evening shoppers and a steady stream of international 
business executives and tourists are checking in to gleaming new hotels.

But it is a remarkably different setting for Colombia's capital than 
a few years ago, when many people rarely left their homes after dark 
for fear of bombings, homicides, and kidnappings by drug cartels, 
criminal gangs, and guerrilla fighters.

With billions of dollars in military and development aid from the 
United States, Colombia's image as one of the most dangerous 
destinations is fading. And now, the Obama administration is hoping 
to transfer key elements of Colombia's strategy to other nations in 
the region struggling with drug violence, lawlessness, and crushing poverty.

 From Mexico, which some fear is on the verge of civil war, to 
Central America and the Caribbean, the United States is taking 
tentative steps to help export the Colombia approach. And some even 
suggest there are lessons here for the war in Afghanistan, where the 
Taliban and Al Qaeda also benefit from the illegal narcotics trade 
and a weak central government.

"They face similar kinds of problems with insurgents and narcotics 
and crime," Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said on a visit here 
last week, itself a testament to the improved situation in a city 
that not long ago was considered too dangerous for an American 
Cabinet secretary.

The Colombians "have clearly learned some very important lessons in 
terms of counterinsurgency and how you have a broad civilian-military 
approach to dealing with security issues," he added, calling for more 
cooperation between Colombia and other countries in the region.

The official statistics are impressive: Coca cultivation has been cut 
in half since 2002, terrorist attacks are down an estimated 84 
percent, kidnappings by 88 percent. According to some estimates, more 
than 50,000 insurgents and paramilitary fighters have been disarmed. 
As a result, Colombia is enjoying a construction and investment boom 
that is the envy of Latin America.

"This battle hasn't been entirely won, but we are winning it," 
President Alvaro Uribe said after meeting with Gates. "That battle 
can be won throughout the world."

Uribe, who will leave office this summer after two terms, has been 
credited by many with bringing about the improvements. His leadership 
and almost obsession with breaking the back of the cartels and rebel 
groups is seen as a crucial factor.

Colombia, the region's oldest democracy with a population of 45 
million, has suffered the scourge of drug cartels, paramilitary 
groups, and leftist guerillas for decades. The largest rebel group, 
the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known in Spanish by its 
acronym FARC, has waged a Marxist-inspired insurgency for much of the 
last 50 years, fueled by illegal profits from cocaine. Until 
recently, it controlled a large swath of jungle territory that made 
up about 40 percent of the country.

Other major rebel groups include the National Liberation Army, a 
leftist group that dates to the 1960s, as well as far-right 
paramilitaries such as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.

But in 2000, Colombia launched Plan Colombia, a multibillion-dollar, 
multiyear effort to try to seize the initiative. To date the effort 
has received more than $4 billion from the United States that has 
helped finance helicopters, communications equipment, and military training.

The government now estimates that FARC has been reduced by as much as 
80 percent, while some of the largest drug cartels have been broken 
up or forced into hiding. "They can no longer operate in the big 
cities, they can no longer operate with impunity," said Carolina 
Barco, Colombia's ambassador to the United States and a former 
foreign minister. "We have done away with a lot of their structures 
and they have less income."

But as the situation has improved in Colombia, it has worsened 
elsewhere in the region, adding urgency to finding ways to share what 
has been accomplished here.

As Gates met with top Colombian officials, the Pentagon hosted a 
meeting with the top military leaders of Colombia and Mexico to help 
foster cooperation. A dozen Mexican helicopter pilots are being 
trained in Colombia at a US-financed training center, while the 
United States is also facilitating the training of Peruvian Marines 
in Colombia.

On his visit here, which also included a stop in Peru and Barbados in 
the eastern Caribbean, Gates said the United States is "prepared to 
facilitate the growing regional cooperation."

And Colombia may also have lessons far beyond the region, Gates said, 
including for the fragile government in Afghanistan. The Pentagon is 
helping to prepare two units of Colombian Army volunteers to deploy 
to Afghanistan later this year -- one of about 35 soldiers with the 
United States and 50 others with Spain -- to help train the Afghan Army.

However, US officials say the most promising model to replicate is 
not the military effort but how Colombia combined military and law 
enforcement operations with civilian development, judicial reforms, 
and greater attention to human rights to gain the confidence of the 
population and undercut the influence of the cartels and insurgents.

There are signs of social and economic progress here to match the 
security gains, according to government officials, economists, and 
independent analysts.

For example, the percentage of Colombians who are covered by health 
insurance has grown from 51 percent in 2002 to 91 percent this year, 
and more than a million more children are enrolled in elementary and 
high schools than eight years ago, according to official statistics. 
The city of Medellin, once the center of the most powerful drug 
cartels, has seen a total of 26 schools built in the last eight years.

The economic benefits of greater stability have followed. Foreign 
investment topped $10 billion last year and the World Bank ranked 
Colombia 37 out of 183 economies in a report earlier this year on 
business investing -- moving it up 42 positions just since 2007. 
Annual growth went from 1.7 percent in 2002 to 7 percent in 2008 and 
last year Colombia's economy continued to grow.

Some analysts warn that Colombia's model can only go so far in other 
countries. Colombia has a long history of democracy, while other 
countries have much less experience in representative government.

Colombia's security forces also have far more capacity than their 
neighbors. And without a similar US investment -- seen as unlikely 
any time soon given Washington's other commitments -- it will be hard 
for Mexico, Peru, or others to take the strong stance of Uribe's government.

Markus Schultze-Kraft is the Latin America director for the 
International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization that 
tracks the security situation from its Bogota office.

"The government has taken strong action," he said. But it has had 
consequences. Millions of Colombians have been displaced in recent 
years by government action against the cartels and insurgents, he 
said, while there remains strong evidence, corroborated by a recent 
United Nations investigation, of extrajudicial killings by government forces." 
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