December 19, 2002

December 19, 2002 | Commentary on Latin America

Turning the Corner in Colombia

Since President Alvaro Uribe Vélez was inaugurated last August 7, things have begun to look up in Colombia. Acting on a popular mandate to curb drug trafficking and bring the country's three terrorist groups to justice, fumigation of coca plants has exceeded that achieved the previous year under President Andrés Pastrana and secret talks have yielded a ceasefire between one of the country's outlaw armies - the United Self-Defense Forces (AUC) and Colombian security forces.

Whether such progress will continue is another matter. Colombia is still one of the most-violent countries on earth. The day of Uribe's inauguration, guerrilla mortars rocked the capital city, killing 14 people. In September a newly named district police chief, Fernando Mancilla, was gunned down in Medellín. And this month, a car-bomb injured 58 when it detonated in a Bogotá parking lot.

Declaring a state of emergency shortly after his inauguration, Uribe assessed a one-time tax on assets of middle and upper-class Colombians to raise $780 million to help train two new elite army battalions and establish a network of paid civilian informants. He also plans to double Colombia's army combat and police forces from 100,000 to 200,000 troops.

But Uribe's plan also requires sustained foreign support, including some $500 million over the next year drawn from the Bush administration's Andean Regional Initiative. So far, funding is stuck in the FY 2003 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act which the 107th Congress failed to approve before it adjourned last month - potentially delaying counternarcotics assistance to Colombia and other countries in the region.

But that seems in keeping with Washington's spotty record regarding Colombia, one of Latin America's longest-running democracies and a staunch ally since the Korean War. In the early 1990s, U.S. counternarcotics aid led to the defeat of the country's major drug cartels. But the United States cut off security assistance in 1996 upon allegations that President Ernesto Samper received campaign contributions from kingpins.

When it was restored two years later, not only had narcotics trafficking picked up again, but Colombia's two major rebel armies, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) had cemented a relationship with drug lords to finance an expansion in their operations. Incoming president Andrés Pastrana won a commitment for renewed security assistance from the Clinton administration to fight the traffickers, but not the Marxist guerrillas.

To address local terrorism, Washington backed Pastrana's idea to entice the guerrillas to the negotiating table with an unconditioned, open-ended peace dialogue. During these fruitless talks, guerrilla numbers swelled from about 14,000 to 22,000 and their reach extended to 70 percent of the countryside - kidnapping, murdering local officials, and blowing up infrastructure such as oil pipelines and electrical towers. Meanwhile right-wing paramilitary strength ballooned from 4,000 to 10,000 members to combat the guerrillas in the absence of regular police or army patrols.

This year, the Bush administration finally persuaded Congress to lift restrictions on security assistance to permit the use of U.S.-provided equipment and U.S.-trained Colombian counternarcotics units to fight terrorism. But such expanded authority will probably have to be renewed on a yearly basis. That's because many in Congress and even the U.S. Department of State still view Colombia's troubles as a drug issue, when, it fact, they go deeper to a historically weak state with little presence outside of the country's major cities.

Colombia's prospects are clouded on other fronts, too. The possibility of civil conflict in neighboring Venezuela has increased over the past year. The disintegration of democracy at the hands of autocratic President Hugo Chávez could depress Colombia-Venezuela trade while offering Colombian drug traffickers and guerrillas expanded territory in which to operate - out of the reach of Colombian security forces.

Promises to open borders and "deal with Colombia's guerrillas peacefully" by recently elected President Lucio Gutierrez in Ecuador could result in the FARC strengthening its presence in Ecuador's northern Sucumbíos department. Meanwhile, a major recession in South America has reduced markets for some of Colombia's legitimate exports and global coffee prices remain at an all-time low.

Although Colombia's prospects look better with a new president determined to corral outlaw armies and make government respond to the will of the people, Colombians are not out of the woods yet. Rebel forces that make up to $100 million a month from extortion and drug trafficking will not give up easily, and Colombia's weak neighbors can only be expected to provide modest cooperation like intelligence sharing in joint counternarcotics operations, as opposed to aid.

Instead, it will be up to allies like the United States to support Colombia's efforts beyond the drug war to establish public order, improve governance, and jumpstart economic recovery through reforms. Considering political winds blowing against U.S. interests in other parts of Latin America, it's an opportunity that Congress and the White House should not let slip.

On his December 4 trip to Colombia, Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters that the Bush administration is committed to working with Colombia on "common goals of strengthening democracy, increasing respect for human rights, combating drugs and terrorism, and especially, and perhaps most importantly, widening the circle of economic prosperity to include all Colombians." Maybe he realizes that this nation's problems are bigger than drugs - as will be the solution.

Stephen Johnson is policy analyst for Latin America in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation

About the Author

Stephen Johnson Senior Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

Related Issues: Latin America

Originally appeared on National Review Online