Colombia: Crossing a Dangerous Threshold

December 1, 2000 Topic: Security Regions: Americas Tags: Business

Colombia: Crossing a Dangerous Threshold

Mini Teaser: America may indeed have a strategic interest in aiding Colombia. But it should not do so without a clear-eyed assessment of a complex situation.

by Author(s): Brian Michael Jenkins

Although the United States has been involved deeply in Colombia's internal affairs for some time, we stand now on the threshold of a momentous change in the nature of that involvement. This has provoked intense, if not always edifying, debate. Perhaps it is inevitable in this case, as in all public discussions, that complex issues are reduced to a single, simple question: Should the United States provide Colombia with sixty helicopters, including thirty sophisticated Black Hawks, to enable its army to attack remote cocaine refineries and, perhaps, persuade its guerrillas to negotiate? But in focusing on aircraft, there is a danger that Colombia's complex political landscape will be reduced to mere background scenery.

"La Violencia"

Colombians refer to one of the bloodier periods of their bloody twentieth century as La Violencia -- the Violence -- as if the violence were not a consequence of Colombia's political conflicts or culture, but rather a malevolent, independent actor. Violence in Colombia sometimes does seem to be a Goya-etched monster whose appetite for corpses cannot be sated or suppressed. Neither repeated efforts to negotiate settlements among the warring parties nor mere weariness of the bloodshed can end it. Colombia's scholars probe its pathology. National commissions are appointed to examine it. Creative and complicated political contraptions are devised to contain it. But there is no simple or single explanation for it and, so far, no redemption from it.

Colombia confronts a host of Marxist guerrillas, private armies, criminal gangs and hired guns. The current guerrilla wars have killed an estimated 35,000 people. In the last few years, the paramilitaries have accounted for a growing share of this violence. These are private militias, initially organized as self-defense units and financed by landowners, that have worked with Colombia's army to destroy the guerrillas and their supporters. The paramilitaries appear, however, to be evolving into more autonomous actors, financing themselves through drug trafficking, cooperating with government security forces where convenient, but pursuing their own economic and political goals.

The bulk of the violence is not related to politics or to drugs. Sicarios, young hoodlums who can be hired to murder for a few pesos, along with ordinary people steeped in Colombia's violent culture, do most of the killing. They have made Colombia one of the most violent countries in the world. In addition to those killed in the guerrilla wars, approximately 30,000 people are murdered each year, giving Colombia an annual homicide rate of nearly 100 per 100,000. To get an idea of its national impact, applying Colombia's murder rate to the U.S. population would make a quarter million murders a year -- year after year. Almost every Colombian has been personally touched by the violence. Since fewer than 15 percent of deaths can be attributed to the guerrilla fighting, ending those wars and reining in the paramilitaries would still leave Colombia a very violent place, even if all the factions and fronts put down their guns.

To the murders and the guerrilla war killings add the kidnappings, which in Colombia have reached industrial scale. In 1982, 19 kidnappings were reported in the country. Today the number reported each year runs into the thousands, and some estimate the unreported total to be much higher still. The fortunate ones are ransomed. The remainder are killed, or at least never reappear. Ransoms provide a major source of revenue for the guerrillas. Everybody with money who does not pay for protection is a target, and nearly every family of means has at least one member who has been held hostage. Drug-financed private death squads called "Death to Kidnappers" were created in reaction to the guerrillas, but they expanded their operations to target left-wing supporters and other persons regarded as troublesome by the traffickers-turned-conservative landlords. Criminal gangs also engage in kidnappings, as on occasion the drug traffickers themselves have done. When he was running for mayor of Bogot‡, Colombia's current president, Andres Pastrana, himself was kidnapped and held for a week by the "Extraditables", a name adopted by drug lords facing extradition.

Amazingly, until recently this degree of violence has not prevented political, social and economic progress in Colombia. Colombia's democratic institutions remain intact; its new constitution decentralizes power and brings more people into the political process than ever before. Its literacy rate is one of the highest in Latin America, while its forty universities are full. An impressive number of women are enrolled in higher education and serve in public office. Colombian businessmen are entrepreneurial and competitive. Colombia has the fourth-largest economy in Latin America and is the only country in the region never to have defaulted on its debt. There almost seem to be two Colombias: a sophisticated South American Milan attached to a brutal South American Congo.

Lately, however, the violence has begun to undermine the progressive Colombia. It has discouraged investment and impeded the country's economic development. Two million people have been displaced, while 800,000 have fled. Government resources have been drained. The 1997 Asian economic crisis dried up money and knocked Colombia into its worst recession since the 1930s. This is the wider background against which the civil war must be viewed.

The Guerrilla Forces

Arrayed against the Colombian armed forces in the struggle in which the United States seems about to involve itself are the 17,000 Marxist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the 5,000 fighters of the National Liberation Army (ELN). The FARC has been fighting for nearly forty years, but its origins reach back to the veterans of the armed movements of the 1950s and to the political warfare of the 1940s. Manuel Marulanda, the leader of the FARC, began his career as a gunman for the Liberal Party after his mother had been shot by Conservative Party gunmen. He was only 15. The year was 1941.

The guerrillas mainly survive in the remote areas of the country where the government has never been able to establish its authority. In these remote areas, the FARC is not merely a guerrilla movement, but a guerrilla subculture. We know very little about this other "society." Indeed, beyond estimates of strength and order of battle information, one is struck by the poor quality of intelligence about the guerrillas. They remain numbers on briefing charts, blobs on maps.

The guerrillas' cash flow has improved with increased kidnappings and involvement in drug trafficking. Various estimates place their total income at somewhere between $300 million and $900 million a year. Between $170 million and $500 million comes from taxing coca production, the rest from extortion and ransoms. Finances are important. The guerrilla organizations and the opposing militias have become competing economic enterprises. Even allowing for the highest estimates of the costs of supporting a guerrilla in the field, the estimated cash flows suggest that these non-government armies operate at a profit. That enables them to corrupt officials and purchase weapons. It also gives them a powerful incentive to maintain their exclusive control of territory.

The money has facilitated the expansion of the guerrilla forces and enabled the FARC to field larger units and launch coordinated attacks. The fighting has moved beyond the hit-and-run attacks of traditional guerrilla warfare into mobile warfare involving larger-scale battles, although recent successes by government forces have to some extent forced the guerrillas to revert to traditional tactics. They cannot "take" Bogot‡ or seize other cities; they would be destroyed in a pitched battle with the army. And Colombia's political parties know (or used to know) how to mobilize and fight. Urban offensives by the guerrillas are likely to be limited to brief raids and terrorist campaigns.

Despite their apparent transformation into criminal enterprises that live off kidnappings and the drug trade, tarnishing their reputation as revolutionaries, the guerrillas maintain a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of many Colombians: naturally in the areas where they are the only authority, but also among the dispossessed, the landless, the marginalized, left-wing romanticists and even, and most tellingly, among the general population. Although President Pastrana claims that 95 percent of the people believe in democracy and the rule of law, according to a public opinion poll, Marulanda is more trusted than any other political figure in the country, a cynical commentary on the credibility of Colombia's politicians. The guerrillas' claim to legitimacy reflects a fundamental failure of Colombia's political system to address the deep-rooted problems of rural and urban poverty, land reform, injustice and the rigid class structure, which account for the country's partition into haves and have-nots.

One cannot be overly optimistic about peace negotiations with a guerrilla army that has been in the field for forty years, is well funded and popular, and is led by a man who started fighting when Franklin Roosevelt was president of the United States. The Colombian government's current peace initiative is the latest in a series of unsuccessful attempts to end the conflicts. After seizing power in 1953, the government of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla offered a generous amnesty and promises of economic assistance to those guerrillas (then mostly from the left-wing of the Liberal Party) who turned in their weapons. Some 6,500 took advantage of the offer, but within twelve months, the communists within the Liberal Party slipped away to build strongholds in the mountains, and a new guerrilla war began. When Rojas Pinilla was forced to resign in 1957, the newly elected government of Alberto Lleras Camargo offered the guerrillas a new amnesty and assistance. This time there were few takers.

In the early 1960s, finding inspiration and encouragement from the Cuban Revolution, new guerrilla movements appeared in Colombia. These did not replace but operated alongside the older, established Marxist guerrillas of the 1950s, who were consolidating their control over remote areas of the country, creating a parallel government in what had become virtually "independent republics." Manuel Marulanda commanded the "republic" of Marquetalia in the Central Andes. A huge government military offensive in 1964 recovered Marquetalia, but the guerrilla leaders escaped the net to create the FARC. Two other Marxist guerrilla groups -- the (Castroite) ELN and the (Maoist) People's Liberation Army -- also took the field.

Belisario Betancur, who took office in 1982, completely rejected a military solution to the guerrilla problem and launched an ambitious peace effort. He offered combatants the most generous amnesty ever. His was a genuine attempt, made in good faith, to persuade at least some of the guerrillas to lay down their arms. Less optimistic Colombian officials expressed the hope that the amnesty would cause divisions within guerrilla ranks, thereby bringing, if not peace, some respite in the fighting. Skeptics saw it merely as an opportunity to insure greater public support for future government actions if the guerrillas rejected the offer. As one defense official told me in 1984, "If the guerrillas reject this amnesty, they lose all political pretensions. They show themselves to be traficantes de violencia, who, like traffickers of drugs, are pure criminals deserving no mercy."

President Betancur claimed that of the 6,000 or 7,000 guerrillas in the field, about a third had taken up the amnesty, but since the amnesty did not require the guerrillas to present themselves and formally renounce violence, there was no way of counting. A national police report indicated that only 1,089 guerrillas took advantage of the amnesty. Of these, 818 were members of M-19, a new movement that had emerged in the early 1970s, while, ominously, only 152 members of the FARC and 75 members of the eln accepted the government's offer. In fact, far from abating, the fighting escalated and kidnappings soared. The minister of defense noted that one-fourth of all the soldiers killed in combat during the previous twenty years died during the first two years of Betancur's peace initiative.

To further the peace process, the government negotiated a series of ceasefires with the guerrilla groups. These agreements, however, broke down under Betancur's successor, Virgilio Barco. Despite the ceasefires, the violence never actually stopped. Some of the guerrilla organizations, or hardline elements within them, continued fighting while anti-guerrilla gunmen initiated an assassination campaign against former guerrillas. Further peace efforts were undertaken by Barco's successors, but the fighting continued to escalate, complicated by the guerrilla's growing participation in the drug trade and the emergence of the paramilitaries. President Pastrana's current peace initiative is thus only the latest in a series of -- up to now -- failed efforts.

Washington's Intervention

The U.S. government's planned assistance package to Colombia combines a legitimate effort to assist a beleaguered South American democracy with America's dubious strategy in its "war" on drugs. Cloaking efforts to reverse a deteriorating security situation in Colombia with talk about combating the drug trade is, presumably, a way of engaging an apathetic American public. But such political chicanery blurs our objectives and muddles our thinking. It is not surprising that, among Americans, there persists an appalling ignorance of Colombia's hellishly complicated realities. The vicious mix of guerrilla armies, private militias, drug traffic, deep-rooted corruption and endemic violence bewilders and dismays even many Colombians themselves.

Clearly, Colombia deserves U.S. assistance. A long-time ally of the United States, it has strategic importance in the hemisphere and is an important economic partner. Its democratic institutions have survived extraordinary stress. It is also the major source of the illegal drugs consumed here. American debates should put aside politically popular notions that defy evidence -- including irrelevant comparisons with Vietnam -- and focus instead on the important questions: What are our objectives in Colombia, and what is the best way to achieve them? Are we as a nation willing to stick to a commitment that will certainly exceed the $1.3 billion currently planned, and probably will take us far beyond the four-year parameter of Plan Colombia?

Increased involvement in Colombia's internal conflicts will intensify debate here about the U.S. strategy in the war on drugs. That in itself would not be a bad thing. If viewed as it has been billed -- a measure to increase Colombia's capacity to suppress the drug trade -- the planned assistance package represents a significant shift of drug war resources to source country control. Unfortunately, study after study has shown this to be the least effective way of reducing domestic drug consumption. Helicopters and crack battalions will project government power into now inaccessible areas, but it is naive at best to believe that this will suppress the supply of cocaine and heroin enough to reduce drug consumption in the United States by even a single user. In fact, despite considerable U.S. and Colombian efforts to date -- including the controversial use of herbicides, which the plan will increase -- coca cultivation in Colombia has significantly increased. If the paramount U.S. objective is reducing drug consumption, then clearly this is not the best way to spend $1.3 billion. Even if the objective is to reduce the financial base of the guerrillas and militias, we still might achieve more by shifting resources toward lowering demand, even though it may take years before the effects of falling consumption would seriously impact drug revenue.

The fact that U.S. assistance contributes to a counternarcotics plan prepared by the Colombian government should impress no one. Governments seeking foreign assistance always depict their enemies in terms that appeal to the prospective donor. Inviting Americans to join in nasty guerrilla fighting that has lasted for nearly forty years would get few takers, the Cold War having now been over for more than a decade. If going after drug traffickers is the way to win U.S. material support, then it is as an anti-drug campaign that Colombia's national plan will be pitched.

It is perhaps not surprising that President Pastrana has had trouble mobilizing Colombian support for a new plan couched in these terms, for Colombians tend to see their problems as a consequence of America's appetite for drugs. They worry little about cocaine refineries in some distant jungle of their own country, much less about crackheads in Los Angeles. To most Colombians, the drug war is America's war -- Colombians are its victims. Further escalation, especially greater use of herbicides, wins Pastrana no applause.

Whatever the spin, U.S. assistance to Colombia is not solely about stopping drugs. It is intended also to help Colombia reverse an eroding security situation created by the growing challenge of Marxist guerrillas, whose recent military offensives have penetrated to the outskirts of Bogot‡ itself. Any division between the two issues is artificial: Colombia's insurgency and its role in the drug trade are inextricably intertwined. So long as U.S. demand for cocaine and heroin remains high, Colombia's guerrillas and gangsters will have ample funds to field their armies, and so long as they field armies, the drug trade will continue.

Questions arise when the assistance package, as currently envisaged, is assessed in terms of its contribution to combating the insurgency. Colombia's armed forces have made significant improvements lately, restructuring themselves to free more troops for combat and gain greater mobility, but they still suffer from a number of serious problems. With more than 140,000 soldiers, they outnumber the guerrillas by eight to one, but fewer than a quarter of them are deployable. The army is garrison-bound, scattered in small outposts; a significant portion of it is tied down guarding oil fields, pipelines, power stations and other infrastructure. It lacks equipment. Mostly poor conscripts, its soldiers lack motivation. They also lack the support of a nation that, despite its precarious situation, has failed to mobilize for war. Colombian officers also complain that the armed forces are hampered by outmoded U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, unreasonable human rights constraints and weak-kneed politicians.

Unless we were to replace the country's nationalistic officers with English-speaking toadies, dependent on U.S. assistance and approval, the Colombian armed forces will continue to fight their own wars and resist U.S. military interference. This will be no Vietnam. Traditional counterinsurgency strategy would support improved tactical intelligence, the creation of crack fighting units, and increased air mobility, all of which comprise the bulk of the assistance package. However, experience suggests that effective military units take time to develop. High-tech helicopters are hard to maintain and today may be countered with low-cost air defense weapons. In any case, military superiority by itself does not guarantee success. While Black Hawk helicopters will enable Colombian forces to strike deep into now inaccessible areas, there are guerrilla fronts operating within sight of Bogot‡'s skyscrapers. One thus needs to be extremely cautious in applying traditional counterinsurgency doctrines to present-day Colombia.

The Down Side

As we have seen in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, the endgame of any conflict is complicated and can be bloody. Colombia's guerrillas have not fought for forty years for the mere privilege of quitting. Recognizing that it cannot impose a military solution, the government sees negotiations as an alternate way to end the fighting. Peace is its goal.

Not so for men who have devoted their entire lives to fighting, who believe in the efficacy of violence, have built an alternate society and economy based upon continued struggle, and who know that the government -- by virtue of its offers to negotiate -- cannot hope to triumph militarily. Such men see negotiations as a continuation of their struggle by other means. Colombia's guerrillas would welcome political concessions that make them popular and increase their strength -- concessions that President Pastrana, even if he wanted, probably could not deliver. They are willing, too, to field a political party. But their ultimate goal remains the seizure of power, not reconciliation. Demobilizing or disarming would deprive their leadership of authority and expose them to retaliation. They recall that many of those who accepted previous amnesties and entered the political process as candidates were gunned down. Demobilization would also expose peasant coca growers to government attacks and exploitation by the drug traffickers. And it would end what has become a profitable enterprise for the guerrillas.

On the other hand, negotiations provide the guerrillas with a temporary respite in the fighting, geographic sanctuary in the demilitarized territory granted to them by the government, a chance to recuperate, rearm and plan new offensives. The government, too, may welcome a respite in the fighting, which would allow it to address urgent economic issues. It might even content itself with a de facto partition and political accommodation that left the guerrillas armed but relatively inactive in the areas where they now encamp.

Colombian and U.S. officials hope that weakening the guerrillas' financial base by more effective attacks on the drug trade will force them to negotiate. The fundamental logic of this seems sound, but its application will take time. Colombia will not begin to receive the Black Hawk helicopters until 2002. In the meantime, we are uncertain as to the resources in the guerrillas' war chest -- the figures vary wildly. To the extent that destruction of coca crops with herbicide and heliborne assaults on drug refineries succeed, peasants and workers will be unemployed and angry, expanding the pool of potential recruits for the guerrilla forces.

The hope is that the highly visible entry of the United States into the conflict -- an American general is being sent to Colombia to command several hundred U.S. military instructors -- might also impress the guerrillas with the message that the might of the United States is against them. This is doubtful, however, and could very well backfire.

In recent years, the guerrilla leadership has portrayed its campaign as a struggle against Yankee imperialism. This is standard Latin American Marxist propaganda, but it resonates with highly nationalistic Colombians. The Pastrana administration is politically vulnerable on this issue, especially in the Andes, where Presidents Fujimori of Peru and Ch‡vez of Venezuela have made political capital by thumbing their noses at Washington. Utterly ignoring the realities of their own history and the currently dim prospects for peace, it will be easy for Colombians to blame the United States for undermining the negotiations and perpetuating the violence. The Colombian government will be seen to be fighting America's drug war even more than it is now.

Will U.S. assistance attract additional international support for Colombia? On the contrary, increasing U.S. military assistance to Colombia may discourage additional needed aid from other countries. Although Europe consumes a growing volume of cocaine from Colombia, European governments have already criticized what they regard as a U.S. military approach to the problem. They are especially critical of Colombia's poor human rights record. Despite the whiff of hypocrisy in these condemnations, the Colombian government has counted heavily on European contributions.

U.S. military assistance may also impede a regional approach. The countries that border Colombia have much to lose if its conflicts spill over into their territories. Conceivably, we might have hoped for a reprise of something like the Contadora Group, set up to help mediate an end to Central American conflicts, most notably El Salvador's civil war. Brazil has expressed ambitions to take the diplomatic lead in sorting out some of the continent's problems, although thus far it has done little to realize this, while Peru has been preoccupied with its own political problems. The role of the Venezuelan government is unclear. Colombia's guerrillas have crossed into Venezuelan territory to kidnap ranchers, but there are rumors that President Ch‡vez, ideologically sympathetic to the guerrillas, is secretly providing them with support.

Further U.S. military assistance to Colombia will increase the risk of terrorist attacks on American targets, such as U.S. corporations in Colombia. Colombia's guerrillas and drug traffickers have all effectively utilized terrorist tactics -- assassinations, kidnappings, car bombs, hijackings and sabotage of aircraft -- to eliminate their opponents, intimidate the government, and achieve various other political ends. We also could see attempts to capture or abduct U.S. military personnel or civilians providing technical support to the Colombian armed forces, thus creating hostage crises to which we as a nation are extremely sensitive. During the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s, abducted U.S. Marines were held hostage by Castro's guerrillas to discourage the bombing of guerrilla bases by the Cuban air force. One could envisage similar scenarios in Colombia. Similarly, it is not far-fetched to contemplate the hijacking or sabotage of a U.S. airliner.

Conceivably, the violence might even be carried to American soil. Fear of terrorism ought not to dictate U.S. foreign policy, but it must be counted as a risk. A spectacular terrorist attack could provoke escalation or a prompt departure of U.S. forces, as in Lebanon and Somalia. Human rights will also figure heavily in any national debate, more so than in Vietnam. We should identify human rights as an ongoing concern, set realistic goals, and monitor progress, but it will not be easy to tie military assistance directly to progress in human rights, as some have suggested.

Finally, increased U.S. involvement in Colombia's civil wars will provoke intense debate in the United States, especially if it leads to an escalation in the fighting, association with human rights violations, terrorist attacks, American casualties, and domestic division. The broader debate about America's role in the world -- our ability to take on long-term tasks, our willingness to accept the consequent risks -- has yet to be resolved.

It is a sobering picture. U.S. assistance to Colombia probably will not significantly diminish the flow of drugs and will not reduce the level of violence there. It will not enable Colombia's armed forces to defeat the guerrillas, while a negotiated end to the insurgency seems as unlikely today as in decades past. U.S. assistance may provide President Pastrana with a political victory, but it may also increase local resentment of his government and discourage other foreign support. It also involves risks to us.

These are not arguments against the principle of American assistance to Colombia. They are arguments for lowering our expectations and rethinking our approach, beginning with de-emphasizing the drug war as the pillar of U.S. involvement. Assisting the Colombian army by improving its mobility through training and tactical intelligence are sensible steps, although we may want to consider trading off the costly high-tech aircraft for more immediately deployable resources. Persuading the European nations and Japan to join in a major effort to improve Colombia's economy would also be a useful step. The United States itself can do more to facilitate trade and encourage development. Above all, we must be prepared for a long haul. Colombia's guerrillas think in decades. We should do the same.

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