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
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
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.
Johnson is policy analyst for Latin America in the Kathryn
and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the
Originally appeared on National Review Online