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The Colombia Quagmire, Part 1


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“THIS IS NOT VIETNAM,” declared Vietnam-era draft evader Bill Clinton on his arrival in Colombia last year. Alas, while the continents may be different, the conflicts offer eerily similar potential as quagmires for the United States. “This is always how it starts,” warns writer Patrick Symmes. But there’s still time to stop. As Symmes rightly observes, “Colombia isn’t Vietnam in 1965. It is closer to Vietnam in 1955.”

Colombia has been in crisis for nearly four decades, besieged by left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and well-funded drug producers. Like so many Latin American governments, that in Bogotá has majored in financial corruption, economic collectivism, and human-rights abuse.

The ugly result is poverty, death, fear, cynicism, and despair. Colombia is one of seven nations expected to suffer severe food shortages this year. Those with money wall themselves into guarded compounds or flee the country — nearly 1 million out of a population of 40 million have emigrated over the last five years alone. Those without wealth suffer in silence or surrender their homes. An incredible 2 million have fled the fighting — 90,000 in the last half of 2000, after Congress approved the latest aid program. Others, an estimated 300 a week, join fighters of one stripe or another.

Last year, however, President Clinton visited, bearing gifts. Or more accurately, one big gift, the $1.3 billion recently approved by Congress. On arriving in the resort city of Cartagena, the president explained, “We are proud to stand with our friend and neighbor” in its efforts.

Alas, “standing with” the administration of President Andrés Pastrana is unlikely to achieve very much. The Bogotá authorities have already lost control of half their country to leftist insurgents and drug traffickers. Indeed, President Pastrana voluntarily yielded territory as large as Switzerland to the guerrillas as part of his attempt to negotiate a settlement. In December, though, he announced that if evidence indicated that the insurgents were smuggling drugs, he would terminate talks: “The government of Andrés Pastrana does not negotiate with drug traffickers.” Then in February he extended the zone’s “demilitarized” status to promote negotiation.

Drug traffickers are the least dangerous of the government’s opponents. They are primarily interested in making money — simple entrepreneurs in an industry disfavored by Washington. Left alone by Bogotá , they would probably leave Bogotá alone.

The guerrillas are far worse and, consequently, have generated little love even among the poor: they execute opponents, confiscate city revenues, levy taxes, and cooperate with drug traffickers. They conscript children and manipulate elections. They also kidnap — often after checking the victim’s wealth status — to raise money and enforce their other dictates. Reports Rob Hotakainen of the MinneapolisStar-Tribune: “Colombia now leads the world in kidnappings,” an estimated 3,000 last year. In one poll 43 percent of Colombians said they feared being grabbed.

Locked in ferocious combat with the rebels are a score of paramilitary forces; in cities such as Barrancabermeja, as well as many rural areas, the fighting is open and widespread. The paramilitaries act simultaneously like local governments and entrepreneurs, ruling rural areas and profiting from the drug trade.

Moreover, they routinely kill civilians suspected of rebel involvement. The Washington-based Human Rights Watch points to 23 massacres involving 162 people, most allegedly committed by the leading paramilitary group, United Self-Defense Force of Colombia, in the first 17 days of January alone. The paramilitaries are a natural and understandable response to the communist insurgency but are little better than the forces they are fighting.

The military is ill-trained, poorly paid, and outgunned. It is an inadequate match for its authoritarian competitors. Its commitment to human rights is little better. A veterinarian in Barrancabermeja, termed “Colombia’s most dangerous city” by Hotakainen, complained to visiting Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Wis.):

In my region, anyone who defends life or defends freedom is killed, many by the military. We’re deeply concerned about the fact that your government — the U.S. government — is supporting a government to strengthen the power of groups that kill our people, that kill our peasants.

From all sources, the number of massacres (killings of four or more people) has quadrupled since 1996. One person is murdered every 20 minutes, yielding a murder rate ten times that in America. In 2000 the death toll ran an astounding 30,000.

Reports the consulting firm Stratfor:

On any given day, guerrilla and paramilitary attacks displace about 240 families, swelling the number of refugees that already exceeds 2 million. As many as 70 people are murdered daily. Another eight or nine are kidnapped.

This year is unlikely to offer an improvement. Opines Javier Cifuentes, the foreign relations secretary for FARC, the Colombian insurgent group established in 1964, 2001

will certainly be a very difficult year. The military is out of control and will try, with crime and terror, to drown the peace process in blood, to shock Colombia and the world. That is the plan of the United States.

Of course, FARC knows something about crime and terror.

“Democracy itself is at stake. Previous presidential candidates accepted drug money. President Andrés Pastrana is widely viewed as an indecisive appeaser. The latest conflict has generated support for tougher candidates promising a crackdown.”

The drug war and production

Attempts to eradicate Colombian drug production resemble the labors of the mythical Sisyphus. Widely touted “success” numbers on spraying herbicides to eradicate coca production, supposedly wiping out 16 percent of the country’s 334,000 acres of coca fields in just two months, ignore the fact that the most accessible fields — out of guerrilla control — have already been hit. Moreover, one unnamed U.S. official told the Miami Herald, “It is important that the government leave behind a presence to deter replanting.”

In any case, the campaign wins no friends on the ground. Despite the government’s claims to the contrary, indiscriminate spraying kills legal crops, such as corn, plantains, and yuccas, leaving peasants ruined. Three-quarters of coca is grown on small plots; their owners are particularly vulnerable to the unintended negative consequences of spraying.

Livestock suffer from reduced forage and people claim ill health effects, ranging from diarrhea to headaches and vomiting. One farmer complained to David Adams of the St. Petersburg Times: “We expect this sort of abuse from our own government. But we thought the Americans were more intelligent.” That would be a dubious proposition even if the Clinton administration had not devised the policy.

Unfortunately, the problem is Americans’ desire for drugs. As President Pastrana and other Colombians rightly point out, voracious U.S. demand creates a huge profit potential — not only for the varying smuggling operations, such as the legendary Medellin cartel, but also for common peasants, who look to left-wing forces for protection.

Indeed, here as elsewhere in Latin America, Washington’s drug war has generated revenue and support for communist insurgents. Bogotá’s task would not be easy without the endless flow of drug money to numerous illicit operators. But attempting to build a more prosperous, liberal order is almost impossible so long as the drug war rages. Even if the United States “wins,” by destroying coca crops, it is likely to lose, by pushing growers into the arms of the communists. Observes Carlos de Roux of the Jesuit-run Fundacion Social:

Until now the farmers have not supported the guerrillas but merely accommodated them. This military push might cement the bond.

Unfortunately, the United States isn’t helping. Oh, it says it is initiating Plan Colombia, which is supposed to eliminate half of the country’s coca production within five years, with $1.3 billion in cash, 60 helicopters, and training for three anti-narcotics battalions of 1,000 soldiers each.

However, Colombia is a narco-nation where drug producers are backed by vigorous communist armies and equally vicious anticommunist paramilitaries. America’s “aid” may help Bogotá win a few additional battles. It won’t win the war; the cartels and insurgencies will survive, as they have in the past.

After all, over the past decade it appeared that Colombia, which collected a billion dollars from the United States, had won. First it smashed the Medellin cartel, even though cartel boss Pablo Escobar had declared “total and absolute war.” Then the Bogotá authorities defeated the Cali cartel. Thousands of people were murdered or executed; thousands more were arrested. Nearly 10,000 innocent bystanders were injured or killed in the gruesome crossfire.

And now? Colombia produces more cocaine than ever. Nor is that all. The drug traffickers grow most of their own coca, rather than import it from Bolivia and Peru. Colombians have also moved into poppy production, supplying much of America’s heroin habit. The total area under drug cultivation has increased almost sixfold over the last 25 years and threefold just since 1995 — periods of the ever-escalating drug war.

As Gustavo de Greiff, the former prosecutor general who led the fight against Escobar, acknowledged in 1993 in the midst of his country’s agony: “There is so much appetite in your country for drugs, the killing of Escobar will not be a solution.”

Unfortunately, an intensified war means more casualties. Consuelo Sanchez, a Colombian judge spirited out of the country in 1988 after signing Escobar’s arrest warrant, recently applied for political asylum, when her appointment as consul at Colombia’s U.S. embassy ended. Warns the consulting firm Stratfor, while Plan Colombia won’t bring stability, “loss of life and civilian displacement, however, will increase significantly.”

Moreover, the Bogotá government is the Bogotá government. In recent years Colombia’s government has been noted for little other than its corruption and incompetence. In fact, the United States suspended its earlier support for Colombia after it learned that Pastrana’s predecessor had collected $6 million in campaign contributions from the Cali cocaine cartel.

Despite promises of reform, the military’s record remains ugly. Winifred Tate of the Washington Office on Latin America complains, “The U.S. is teamed up with the most abusive military force in the hemisphere.” In some cases soldiers kill; at other times they aid paramilitaries that kill. Human Rights Watch warns that there is “abundant, detailed, and continuing evidence of direct collaboration between the military and paramilitary groups.”

Few soldiers would disagree. One told the San Francisco Chronicle: “The paramilitaries are helping us by fighting the same people I’m fighting.” Even the U.S. State Department was forced to admit that “civilian management of the armed forces is limited” and that “the authorities rarely brought officers of the security forces and the police charged with human rights offenses to justice.”

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    Doug Bandow is vice president of policy at Citizen Outreach, the Cobden Fellow in International Economics at the Institute for Policy Innovation, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and serves as adjunct scholar for The Future of Freedom Foundation. He is a former special assistant to President Reagan; he is also a graduate of Stanford Law School and a member of the California and D.C. bars. BOOKS BY DOUG BANDOW: Leviathan Unchained: Washington’s Bipartisan Big Government Consensus (forthcoming) Tripwire : Korea and U.S. Foreign Policy in a Changed World (1996) Perpetuating Poverty : The World Bank, the Imf, and the Developing World (1994) The Politics of Envy : Statism As Theology (1994) The U.S.-South Korean Alliance : Time for a Change (1992) The Politics of Plunder : Misgovernment in Washington (1990) Beyond Good Intentions : A Biblical View of Politics (1988)