Colombia conundrum

Colombia is one of the most violent places in the world. Kidnappings, political murders, pervasive drug trafficking, corruption, and a deepening economic recession wrack the country. Many fear that the nation, torn between leftist guerillas, right-wing private armies, and a military with a history of brutality, is on the verge of collapse. Hope resides in a growing peace movement that has mobilized millions of ordinary Colombians and helped elect a president, Andrés Pastrana, who has pursued a negotiated peace among the factions.

Next month the U.S. Senate is likely to approve a $1.6-billion aid package for Colombia, four-fifths of which is designated as military assistance. The Clinton administration sees the aid, which Pastrana has requested, as crucial to the "drug war." In Peru and Bolivia, the interdiction of drug smugglers and the destruction of coca fields (cocaine is made from the coca leaf), combined with UN-sponsored efforts encouraging farmers to plant alternative crops, have significantly reduced the amount of coca grown there. As a consequence, Colombia has become the source for 80 percent of the world’s cocaine. The Clinton administration thinks that the Colombian armed forces, given the resources and training needed, can get to the coca fields and destroy them. If the United States does nothing, advocates of aid say, not only will the flood of cocaine increase, but the chance for survival of Colombia’s democracy, the oldest in Latin America, will become even more perilous.

There are good reasons to be skeptical about how the aid package is designed and what its prospects for success may be. Critics argue that the $1-billion increase in aid is not aimed primarily at drug interdiction, but is a recipe for U.S. entanglement in the thirty-five-year civil war between Marxist guerillas in the south and the corrupt oligarchy that controls the government in Bogota. Many worry that U.S. complicity in the atrocious human-rights record of the Colombian military is sure to be one result of greater involvement. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has warned that "What we are seeing is a dramatic ratcheting up of a counterinsurgency policy in the name of counterdrug policy.’’

It is impossible, however, to completely separate counterdrug from counterinsurgency efforts in Colombia. The large coca-growing areas of southern Colombia are controlled by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who extract $500 million annually in "protection" fees from coca growers. Few observers take the FARC’s political agenda seriously (it executed three American human-rights workers last year), but its fifteen-thousand-person army cannot be ignored. President Pastrana has already made significant concessions to the FARC, and the United States supports a negotiated settlement to the conflict. But the guerrillas’ recent military successes and fat bank account have given them little incentive to come to an agreement with the government. The military-aid package, which includes thirty Blackhawk helicopters and the creation of three specially trained battalions (5,000 troops) of the Colombian army, will pay for a campaign against FARC-controlled coca fields. Knowledgeable observers, and many of the Colombians who favor a negotiated peace, think that military pressure is needed to bring the FARC to the bargaining table.

U.S. law stipulates that aid cannot go to military forces involved in human-rights violations. The U.S.-trained antidrug battalions are supposed to exclude Colombian military units suspected of such abuses. Whether or not these safeguards will prevent future atrocities is the crucial question. Historically, the Colombian military has been largely outside the control of elected officials, and the army’s ties to right-wing paramilitary groups, many of which are also involved in drug smuggling, complicates the picture further. The government has indicted some paramilitary leaders, but Colombia’s judicial system remains corrupt and unaccountable. Reform of the judiciary is essential if there is to be any hope of long-term stability. It must be made clear to Colombia’s military that if it is unwilling to forsake the use of terror, further U.S. aid is out of the question.

There are no easy answers to Colombia’s problems or to the question of how the United States can best assist the forces of democracy in the region. At times corruption appears so ubiquitous that any greater U.S. involvement seems futile. (Even the wife of a former commander of the U.S. Army’s military activities in Colombia has pled guilty to drug-smuggling charges!) Yet Colombia’s proximity to the Panama Canal, and its civil war’s displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians, make Colombia’s stability of vital national interest to the United States. Pastrana rejects direct U.S. military involvement, but argues that, because the United States is the principal market for Colombia’s cocaine, the United States has a moral responsibility to help Colombians wrest control of their country from the drug cartels. Moreover, the bravery of ordinary Colombians in the face of terror calls out for a generous response. In that light, the U.S. Catholic bishops have issued a statement that deserves attention. Ultimately, the bishops note, Colombia’s fate depends on how well the United States comes to terms with its own drug problem. In the short term, however, Colombia needs our assistance. U.S. military aid, the bishops write, must be carefully monitored and conditioned on respect for human rights. Moreover, military assistance must be coupled with support for the peace process and democratic reforms, substantial humanitarian assistance, and "vigorous efforts" to help farmers with alternatives to the cultivation of coca and poppies.

Will increased U.S. aid work? No one really knows. With the proper safeguards, greater U.S. involvement can be a force for peace and stability. Without those safeguards, nothing of lasting value will be achieved.

Published in the 2000-05-05 issue: 

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