When most Americans think of Colombia, they view it as the placid home of coffee growers like TV's Juan Valdez. But the reality -- that drug-related crime is overwhelming the country's fragile democratic government and threatens to unleash a flood of refugees to the United States and its neighbors -- is very different.
In fact, Colombia is teetering on the edge of chaos. Guerrilla groups that have enriched themselves through the narcotics trade now have the potential to take it over, as well as destabilize nearby Venezuela and Ecuador. Should any of these nations fall under the power of the guerillas, it would cripple the U.S. war on drugs and trigger an exodus of immigrants that could dwarf Cuba's 1980 Mariel boatlift, which sent some 125,000 refugees to U.S. shores.
Ironically, it is America's own appetite for cocaine and heroin that has facilitated Colombia's potential collapse. The traffickers who supply drugs to the United States -- an estimated $3 billion to $8 billion a year industry -- now control vast tracts of Colombia's rural land. When cocaine production blossomed in the mid-1990s, two Marxist guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), stepped in to provide protection. These groups field more than 17,000 heavily armed combatants and operate their own air forces. About half of their annual income of up to $500 million comes from the drug lords.
Saddled with a weak judicial system and no real presence outside of the major cities, the Colombian government faces an uphill fight. Drug kingpins undercut government efforts by bribing and extorting public officials. Those who interfere are kidnapped or killed. Worse, the uncertainty of foreign aid has led the government to revive a once-moribund peace process with the narco-guerrillas, despite their unpopularity with the public.
FARC's wish list includes authority over drug-producing territory and the usual Marxist mix of property seizures and nationalization of strategic industries. But its true aim, in my view, is to keep the government tied up in talks while the rebels attempt to buy off even more public officials.
Beyond Colombia's borders, narco-guerrilla prospects are just as bright. Drug traffickers and the FARC already operate in Ecuador, where the government recently collapsed, leaving a caretaker administration and a broken economy. Venezuela's capricious authoritarian president is friendly to Fidel Castro, and has already made contacts with Colombia's ELN group. Potential rebel governments in Colombia and Ecuador, encouraged by oil-rich Venezuela, could be a dangerous alliance against the hemisphere's fledgling democracies.
Drugs and thugs have already touched off heavy migrations. Last year, 300,000 Colombians were forced to flee their homes, while an additional 350,000 fled the country. A recent Gallup poll showed that half of Colombia's 40 million people would consider leaving their homeland if the violence worsens. Such an exodus could easily overwhelm the resources of neighboring states and greatly increase refugee and immigrant flows to the United States.
The Clinton administration now realizes how Colombia's distress might affect the United States and has hastily crafted a $1.6 billion aid package -- now before Congress -- to apprehend drug traffickers and support the government. But like anything put together in a rush, the proposal has many loose ends. Last August, Senate staffers couldn't talk the White House into supplying even six additional helicopters to help Colombian security forces; now the administration wants 48 helicopters, 30 of which haven't been built yet. The proposal also lacks a strong regional drug-interdiction strategy, which is vital to prevent traffickers from simply moving to other countries to set up shop. And it does little to help Colombia's democratic government protect law-abiding citizens from drug outlaws, vigilantes and rebels.
The time to help Colombia is now. With each passing day, the window of opportunity to prevent a narco-guerilla takeover shrinks. Colombian President Andres Pastrana is friendly to the United States, but his term ends in two years. Denying aid will give the kingpins and rebels the upper hand. Not providing the right kind of aid will prolong Colombia's distress.
Stephen Johnson is a Latin America policy analyst in the Davis Institute for International Studies.
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