Colombia: Key to Security in the Western Hemisphere

Report Americas

Colombia: Key to Security in the Western Hemisphere

June 2, 2003 12 min read
General James Hill
Bradley Fellow in Education Policy

This lecture was delivered on April 16, 2003 at The Heritage Foundation.

For the past 200 years, the common destinies of Latin America and the United States have been inseparable. While we have had our share of bumpy, even stormy relations in the past, today, more than ever, our common security and prosperity are mutually dependent. The region is menaced by many ills, but increasingly narco-terrorist and drug-trafficking violence are destabilizing the region, damaging fragile economies, and threatening nascent democracies. The well-being of the Americas demands we focus our attention on this particular cancer at its current stage.

Well-being is a broad term, but let me break it down into three parts, equally applicable for all who live between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego. First, well-being means being secure, secure in our homes, free from fear and unpredictable violence. Second, well-being means being able to count on a stable, democratic government that has the best interests of its citizens at heart. Finally, well-being means having viable economic opportunities. All three parts are interdependent, especially in this hemisphere, and all of them can be seriously undermined by the criminals who imperil our region.

Since taking command of U.S. Southern Command eight months ago, I have traveled extensively throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. There are many success stories. Nowhere are national armies facing one another across a zone of hostility and tension, making the likelihood of war between Latin American nations remote. The democratic nations of the region have foresworn the development of weapons of mass destruction. Military spending on a per capita basis is lower in Latin America than anywhere else in the world. With only one exception, we are not troubled by unpredictable, anti-U.S. dictators.

Despite the bright spots, however, there are troubling areas. Regional leaders and their people face mounting challenges to security, stability, democracy, and their economies. The expectations derived from popular elections and free-market reforms, seemingly so achievable at the close of the last century, are not being realized at the dawn of this one. Economic stagnation, endemic corruption, and unprecedented challenges to sovereignty by criminal non-state organizations fueled primarily by drug money threaten many of the hemisphere's fledgling democracies. Without sustained support, some of these democracies could fail, bringing about an unwelcome return to authoritarian regimes that respect neither human rights nor democratic principles.

Fighting Terrorism
The war on terrorism is my number one priority in the region. While the primary front in this global war is in the Middle East, Southern Command plays a vital role fighting the malignancy here in our hemisphere. We are increasingly engaging those who seek to exploit real and perceived weaknesses of our newest democracies. Shoring up our allies also serves to shore up our own homeland security. Given our proximity and general ease of access, Latin America is a potentially vulnerable flank of the homeland, providing many seams through which terrorists can infiltrate.

To our south, just a short plane ride or Carnival Cruise away, radical Islamic groups that support Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamiyya al-Gamat are active. These cells, extending from Trinidad and Tobago to the tri-border area of Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil, consist of logistics and support personnel. However, terrorists who have planned or participated in attacks in the Middle East, such as Khalid Sheik Mohammed, have transited the region. These terrorist cells continue to reach back to the Middle East and solidify the global support structure of international terrorism.

Beyond these extensions of Middle Eastern extremism are three larger and better-armed groups, all originating in Colombia. Many familiar with Colombia's conflict and most press accounts still romantically describe these illegal groups as "revolutionaries," "guerrillas," "rebels," or "militias," lending them some kind of tacit legitimacy with those words. I find these terms misleading and out-of-date. Simply put, these groups consist of criminals, more precisely defined as narco-terrorists, who profit at the expense of Colombia and its people. These terrorists with their ideologically appealing names--the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC; the National Liberation Army, or ELN; and the United Defense Forces, or AUC--directly challenge the legitimate authority of the Colombian administration yet offer no viable form of government themselves. Some of them have had 40 years to win the hearts and minds of their countrymen, yet they garner no more than 3 percent public approval. All they have to offer is more innocent blood being spilt by their greed for white powder profits.

Colombia is on the very front line of the regional war against terrorism. Its people suffer daily from murder, bombings, kidnappings, and lawlessness practically unimaginable to us. In this war-torn country, the conflict has been hyper-accelerated by illicit drug money, claiming thousands of lives and creating millions of refugees. Some 1.5 million Colombians have been displaced from their homes. Last year there were more terrorist attacks in Colombia alone than in all other nations of the world combined--an average of four per day. This country has the highest homicide rate in the world--77.5 per 100,000--13 times the U.S. rate, making homicide the most likely cause of death. Violence has become so endemic that one Colombian company specializes in bulletproof vests for children. Furthermore, over 3,000 people were kidnapped last year, making Colombia also the kidnapping capital of the world.

Colombia remains the world's leading producer of cocaine and accounts for 90 percent of the U.S. supply. If that weren't enough, we are seeing a surge in poppy cultivation and heroin production. To exacerbate the drug problem, this country also suffers from a paralyzed judicial system in which 97 percent of crimes go unpunished and three million cases remain backlogged.

Helping a Neighbor
So if Colombia has so many internal problems, why should we want to be involved? First and foremost, because it is in our interest. Colombia is the second oldest democracy in the hemisphere, our fifth largest trading partner in Latin America, and our ninth largest supplier of petroleum. A destabilized Colombia threatens the Andean ridge and disrupts regional trade. Violence causes many of their best and brightest to leave in search of normalcy. A country that loses its entrepreneurs and public servants forgoes its future. Good neighbors do not stand idly by when asked for help. And they have asked. America should not turn its back on a democratic ally.

The help we are providing is not operational but instead in training and assisting Colombians to deal with their internal problems themselves. Of course we have a vested interest in the outcome, but it must be primarily a Colombian fight. President Uribe was elected on a platform of going after the terrorists aggressively, and his actions so far in office back up his campaign promises. He has increased the size and effectiveness of his military, raised revenues, and implemented judicial, economic, and political reforms. These actions have generated momentum against the criminals in Colombia, and our deployed forces have seen a noticeable boost in the attitudes of those we are training.

Our physical presence is rather modest, by law being no more than 400 troops and 400 civilian contractors. But you've seen what a few dedicated men working with allied forces have done overseas. We're having a similar effect in Colombia. Their military proficiency is rising. This means they can respond quicker, move faster, and fight better than they have ever been able to. The training of the 1st Counter Narcotics Brigade and the establishment and training of a commando battalion to pursue enemy leadership has already produced results since its first deployment in January. Recently, U.S. Special Forces have also been training Colombian armed forces in Arauca to protect a portion of the 772-mile pipeline that has been a frequent target of FARC and ELN attacks.

Colombia's situation is unique in two ways. First, they are facing enemies that are financed orders of magnitude better than the groups other countries have had to face. Even at the height of the Cold War, none of the proxy-Marxist groups anywhere in the Americas were so well-paid, equipped, and supplied as those the Colombians face today, all due of course to the hyper-profits from the drug trade. Secondly, Colombia is fighting justly, in accordance with democratic values and human rights. This is simply foundational to what they and we are striving to achieve. The Colombian government is not going to resort to rural concentration camps, peasant roundups, massacres, disappearances, or any other tactics used by their enemies.

Advancing Human Rights
There remain concerns about the human rights record of the Colombian military. But if you read the entire 90-page 2002 Colombian human rights report that was recently released, and not just snippets found in the press, you come away with a much better appreciation of the strides the government has made. And you can't fail to understand that the vast majority of human rights abuses, over 98 percent, are committed unequivocally by illegal armed groups, primarily the three narco-terrorist groups, and not by government forces. Additionally, the government doubled operations against paramilitaries last year and has quadrupled the number captured since 2000.

The report also finds that, "the government has an extensive human rights apparatus coordinated by the office of the president's advisor for human rights. That office coordinates with local human rights groups. Most notably, it established a special "momentum" committee to advance judicial resolutions of 100 key human rights cases.

Southern Command has played a leading role in advancing the cause of human rights in Colombia and throughout the region. We are the only combatant command to have a full-time human rights staff directorate. Respect for human rights is embedded in everything we do, whether training their forces, educating their officers, or conducting exercises.

Over 290,000 members of Colombia's security forces have received human rights training since 1996, conducted by the International Red Cross, the Colombian Red Cross, the Roman Catholic Church, foreign governments, and other government offices and agencies. In September 2001, the ministry of defense signed an agreement with two national universities and the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights to conduct research and training on human rights issues and to organize seminars designed to foster dialogue with NGOs and academics. So while there is still work to be done, they are making tremendous progress.

The narco-terrorists, on the other hand, manifest the vilest aspects of the human condition. According to the report, in 2002 the FARC killed nine mayors, forced the resignation of 400 more, killed journalists, labor union leaders, and religious leaders. They kidnapped, tortured, and killed off-duty members of the security forces. They kidnapped thousands of civilians for financial gain and political press. They used children as soldiers and workers and female conscripts as sex slaves. The AUC committed all the same crimes as the FARC, but added to the list the category of "social cleansing," the killing of homosexuals, prostitutes, drug users, vagrants, and persons with mental disabilities.

Colombia's Sacrifice
I've been to Colombia eleven times since taking command. I am cautiously optimistic about its future. Columbians are sacrificing many of their best young men to make their country secure. In November, I visited a hospital for military amputees. These were all young men, seriously maimed from combat with the enemies of the Colombian people. Those young men sacrificed their bodies but not their spirits. In the light of their eyes you could see their dreams of a peaceful, safe, and prosperous country. Those were proud young men, just like the proud young men and women we have in our armed forces. I'm confident the Colombians possess the resolve to see this through.

The Colombians are on the front lines daily, but the cancer spawned by their narco-terrorists reaches deep into this country. According to an Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) document, 19,000 Americans die annually as the direct result of drug-induced cases. This constitutes, in my mind, the equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction. Think about that again, 19,000 Americans dead, not to mention the second- and third-order effects on all those families and the lost productivity of all those lives cut short. And those are just the direct deaths. We lose another 55,000 Americans to indirect drug-related causes. As a nation we cannot afford to give up on nearly 75,000 of our own.

When defining national security as the safety and well-being of our citizenry, illegal drugs are certainly a major national security concern. In the battle against illicit drugs and narco-terrorist violence, some suggest simple fixes on the demand side of the equation will solve our problems. Others contend it's the supply side. A few understand the depth and breadth of the problem. Narcotics have a corrosive effect on good society. They rot the human spirit. They spawn corruption and greed. And those corrupting influences can threaten us here just as much as our southern allies. The drug war is part of the war on terrorism, and like the war on terrorism must be waged on all fronts.

Beyond the loss to our own citizenry, narcotics also undermine the survival of longstanding democratic allies in the region through the unabated violence and terror they spawn. Beyond fear, drug profits damage honest business and breed corruption. Unstable countries cannot attract investment, nor prevent capital flight. I've used Colombia as an example because our efforts there most closely affect us at home today. But we are not losing sight of the big picture, which means a regional approach to security, democracy, and prosperity. We simply can't afford to win the battle in Colombia and lose the war across the region.

The most important role we play in Southern Command is promoting the professionalism of our neighbors' armed forces. This is not heavy-handed imposition, but a changing of the mindset, a generational process. We encourage maximum military-to-military contact between our forces and theirs. Latin American officers attend our professional schools. We conduct training exercises all over the hemisphere. Our fundamental concept of military subordination to civilian authority is steadily becoming the norm.

I want to highlight one powerful example of how ingrained those democratic values are becoming in both the nations themselves and in their armed forces. Seven countries have stepped up to become full members of the coalition to disarm the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. They took unpopular stances. But those governments were able to do so because they felt no threat from within, from their armed forces who previously might have played upon popular discontent. These countries, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia, fully grasp the essence of what democratic nations bring to this earth. They are also examples of how our continued cooperation has built trust in places where much residual distrust remained from the Cold War. Democracies take time to mature. As time passes, with a continuing cycle of popular and free elections, an apolitical military becomes embedded in the consciousness of the nation. The slow, steady work of building professional militaries and supporting new democracies is a testament to my predecessors at Southern Command and a tradition we intend to uphold.

Common Destiny
I look forward to continued cooperation with Latin America. It is good business for us and good business for them. I'm excited about our common future, but first they must have security and stability to succeed economically. We've seen positive benefits from NAFTA, and eventually we can expect similar benefits from a full-up Free Trade Area of the Americas. There are enormous reservoirs of oil we can tap from friendlier sources of trade in our hemisphere. And we gain in cultural affinity every day. We currently have 34 million Americans of Latin American descent here in the United States, and this number will only grow. We are all in this together, North, Central, South, and Caribbean Americans. Our common destiny calls us to work together today to rid our hemisphere of terrorist violence. We cannot delay and we cannot wish away our problems.

Our region faces many challenges, but we are meeting them together. I've described the help we are giving the Colombians in their fight. But let me end by telling you about the help they are giving us in ours. Private First Class Diego Rincón, a Colombian national serving in the U.S. Army, was killed in action in Iraq on March 29. In his last letter to his mother in Colombia, he wrote, "so I guess the time has finally come for us to see what we are made of, who will crack when the stress level rises and who will be calm all the way through it. Only time will tell. We are at the peak of our training and it's time to put it to the test." He closed the letter by writing "I just hope that you're proud of what I'm doing and have faith in my decisions. I will try hard and not give up." Clearly he was speaking literally and personally but I believe, metaphorically, for us as Americans and other freedom-loving people of the world.

I've spent my life in service with heroes such as Diego Rincón. I have asked myself many times, in the jungles of Vietnam, on the mean streets of Haiti, in the deserts of Iraq, and in a church in Conyers, Georgia, last Thursday afternoon attending Diego Rincón's funeral: Where do we get such people? I have no answer, but thank God we do!

General James T. Hill is Commander, United States Southern Command.


General James Hill

Bradley Fellow in Education Policy