Colombia Drifts Towards War (8/99)

When Colombian President Andres Pastrana Arango took office in August 1998, many  Colombians thought that their country might be headed for better times. Gone was Ernesto Samper Pizano, whose four-year presidential tenure was marred by charges of drug money corruption and the worst diplomatic relations with the US in Colombia’s history. During this period, Colombia’s guerrillas had become a formidable military force, taking control of about fifty percent of the country and making it almost ungovernable.

Aware that his own military intelligence had warned that the country’s guerrillas could overrun Colombia in five years, Pastrana staked his reputation — and his legacy — on ending the civil war that had plagued Colombia for decades. Early in his administration, he managed to persuade the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest guerrilla group with about 15,000 soldiers, to come to the bargaining table and participate in peace talks. The chances for peace looked good.

But times have changed quickly, and after Pastrana’s first year in office, it doesn’t look as if the country is headed toward a happy heading. The peace talks are in danger of collapsing, and Pastrana confronts what’s turning out to be the worst crisis any Colombian president has faced in more than 50 years.

Pastrana’s woes are both economic and political. Economically, he must deal with a restless work force that finds 18 percent unemployment and the country’s worse recession in a century unacceptable. So far, there have been two widespread strikes, including one last Fall involving a coalition of doctors, nurses, teachers, court personnel, and civil aviation and telecommunication workers.

Then there are the country’s right-wing para-militaries, a formidable obstacle to Pastrana’s peace initiative. In May, twenty hooded men working for powerful paramilitary leader Carlos Castano kidnapped Senator Piedad Cordoba, a prominent human rights worker. Ostensibly, Castano wanted to deliver a message to the Pastrana administration: stop picking on my group, and give it the same political status as the leftist guerrillas.

Pastrana also has to watch his backside, as ministers and military leaders grumble about the way he’s handled the peace talks with the rebels. Many in the security forces adamantly oppose Pastrana’s decision to move all of the government’s troops out of a 16,000 square mile area the size of Switzerland and cede it to FARC. They see the move as a dangerous threat to the government’s stability and authority.

On May 28, El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest newspaper, even reported that some disgruntled generals planned a coup attempt after Pastrana’s defense minister resigned in protest. The military denied the plot, but the rumor highlighted the fragility of Colombian democracy.

Moreover, ceding control of a huge territory hasn’t placated all the guerrilla groups. While FARC agreed to come to the bargaining table after a ten-month hiatus, but ELN (the National Liberation Army), the second largest group, feels left out in the cold. Last June, Pastrana had to cut short a visit to Canada in order to seek the release of 60 hostages whom the ELN snatched from the city of Cali. The previous month, the ELN abducted an Avianca airliner with 41 passengers and forced it to land in rebel territory.

ELN’s objective is to get Pastrana to take them more seriously in the peace talks. Hijacking people from an affluent Colombia community, the ELN said, was an attempt to make the rich feel "the fury" of war.

Confused Priorities

The US jumped into Colombia’s civil war in May, publicly backing Pastrana’s peace initiative and urging Colombia’s generals to follow suit. Uncle Sam had remained silent on the issue since early March, when FARC guerrillas admitted killing three Americans on Colombia’s border with Venezuela (TF, May 1999). "Successful peace negotiations are the best way to advance our shared goals — economic advancement for all Colombian people, greater regional security, respect for human rights and justice, and effective curbs on drug trafficking," President Bill Clinton said in a prepared statement.

But talk is often cheap for Uncle Sam. While it preaches the virtue of a viable peace agreement, the reality is that its much-hyped "war on drugs" — the top priority in US-Colombia relations — has hampered Pastrana’s quest for peace.

Last October, the US House of Representatives passed a measure that made Colombia ineligible for US narcotics aide if anti-drug efforts, particularly  coca eradication, was hurt by Pastrana’s plan to order the troop pullout from Colombia’s "Little Switzerland." Pastrana accused the US of politicizing the drug issue, and charged that it’s "the worse thing that has happened to us in four years."

With no viable alternative development programs in place, Colombian officials have complained that the herbicide spraying of coca crops is damaging the environment and driving displaced coca farmers deeper into jungle areas controlled by the guerrillas. The policy is also increasing the number of  illicit growing areas in other areas.

A good case could be made that US anti-drug program in Colombia has focused on areas controlled by the leftist rebels while ignoring those controlled by the right-wing paramilitaries, through which much of the drugs move. The Cold War may be officially dead, but the logic — support right-wing groups despite the consequences – remains in place.

Making the "war on drugs" central to US policy has empowered the Colombia’s military, since Uncle Sam provides it with intensive tactical training and millions of dollars in weapons and equipment. Last October, Clinton and Pastrana signed a joint agreement including $280 million in new US assistance to fight the drug war. With this incentive, why should the Colombian military come to the bargaining table with the guerrillas?

Intensive US training is part of a little known program that allows the Colombian armed forces to avoid restrictions on military aide imposed by the US Congress as a response to Colombia’s horrendous record on drug corruption and human rights abuses. Signed into law in 1991, the program allows the Special Forces to train on foreign soil if it primarily benefits US soldiers. During the last eight years, hundreds of US soldiers have participated. According to the Miami Herald newspaper, "While not secret, the training is sensitive enough that few in Congress are aware of it."

Removing Obstacles

According to US officials, the aim of such policies is to stem the flow of drugs out of Colombia and target the guerrillas only when they’re involved in heroin and cocaine production and trafficking. The Colombian military is supposed to be using the foreign aid to combat drug trafficking, not fight rebels. But the line between the drug war and the civil war has been blurred.

Last October, Human Rights Watch, in its 225-page report, "Without Quarter, Colombia And International Humanitarian Law," charged that "the (Colombian) army confuses civilians as guerrilla supporters and gives logical support to rightist paramilitary militias responsible for a majority of the 185 massacres in 1997." The human rights violations committed by the guerrillas and paramilitaries are well-known, but the abuses committed by the military, largely the result of US anti-drug policy, should also be acknowledged.

Also not well known are the key points of the rebel and government agendas in the peace negotiations, which reveal how difficult it will be to reach an accord. Among other demands, FARC wants the government to revise all of its military treaties, reduce the size of the armed forces, and show more respect for human rights. The ELN wants all natural resources nationalized and a "new army based on the insurgent forces." Both groups want the wealth redistributed and agrarian reform implemented, which takes land away from the drug traffickers and big estates and gives it to the poor.

The government promises land reform, together with programs that help farmers find substitutes for illegal crops. It also calls for unconditional protection of human rights, emphasizing that hostage taking must cease.

The Colombians I’ve talked with on my visits remain skeptical about the prospects. Similarly, a January poll published in El Espectador, the country’s second largest newspaper, found that half of those questioned believe the peace talks could drag on indefinitely, another 27 percent believe they will flounder, and only 23 percent believe they will lead to peace.

On the other hand, there’s a distinct sense that the guerrilla threat is bound to spur economic and political reform. Too few Colombians simply own too much of the land. The growing power of the guerrillas is making the government face up to the problem. Still, whether all the parties can agree on a solution remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the US can help by making Colombia’s peace process, not the drug war, the top priority in its relations. 

— Ron Chepesiuk is a South Carolina freelance journalist and author of Hard Target; The US’S War With International Drug Trafficking, 1982-1997.