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Latin America's Longest War | The Nation

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Latin America's Longest War

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In May, Jan Egeland, the United Nations Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs, called a news conference in New York to declare publicly what he had been warning people about for some time: that the nation of Colombia had become "by far the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the Western Hemisphere."

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Peter Canby
Peter Canby is a senior editor at The New Yorker and the author of The Heart of the Sky: Travels Among the Maya (...

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Chronic and intractable warfare among paramilitaries, the army, cocaine traffickers and leftist guerrillas has so wreaked havoc on the countryside that, Egeland pointed out, 2 million of its 36 million inhabitants had become refugees. This made Colombia the country with the largest number of displaced people after only Congo and Sudan. Many of the displaced, he went on to say, had fled to shantytowns on the outskirts of Colombia's cities, thereby joining a larger Third World flight of the rural dispossessed into poverty and despair on the edges of cities. In Colombia, refugees have settled in shantytowns like one outside Cartagena, where, Egeland noted, 10,000 people are "floating in a sea of sewage and garbage." With few prospects for either jobs or education, the young and the unemployed in these slums had turned to crime or become easy recruits as gunmen for left-wing guerrillas and rightist paramilitaries.

Colombia's problems are of long standing and are deeply tied into the country's tortured and violent history. They do not appear to be amenable to quick fixes--especially military ones. Colombia is already awash in guns. More and bigger guns aren't likely to bring the country's warring parties any closer to a peace accord. But over the past few years, while the world's attention has been transfixed by events in Iraq, the United States has become deeply involved in a military buildup in Colombia and is rapidly becoming more so. At present, the United States has some 400 military personnel in Colombia as well as another 400 of the increasingly ubiquitous civilian contractors. And in March the Bush Administration announced its intention to request authority from Congress to double the number of military personnel to 800 and raise the number of civilian contractors to 600. This is part of the Administration's effort to renew, in 2006, "Plan Colombia," a program under which the United States has already spent some $3 billion (more than 75 percent of it on military aid). On the eve of the Iraq war, Colombia was the third-largest recipient of American aid after only Israel and Egypt.

The goal of Plan Colombia is to stem the nearly $40 billion-a-year flow of cocaine to the United States, 80 percent of which comes from Colombia. In the aftermath of 9/11, glib analogies were made in Washington between cocaine, terrorism and Osama bin Laden. Colin Powell declared Colombian insurgents "terrorists with a global reach" and said they posed a threat to US interests. What had been strictly an antidrug campaign was thus, by a deft use of the terrorism trump card, transformed into a counterinsurgency campaign. But nothing is easy about cocaine in Colombia, and eradicating--even slowing--cocaine growth there is a formidable task. Indeed, if cocaine remains pervasive in Colombia, it's arguably because of the failure of American drug policies elsewhere in Latin America. Until the early 1980s, coca growing was largely confined to the Andean countries of Peru and Bolivia, where it is indigenous (and where its leaves are chewed to ward off hunger and exhaustion). But US-led eradication efforts in those countries led to the spread of coca production in Colombia, where it fuels several insurgencies that have grown to the point where they now control large swaths of Colombian territory.

In her eloquent and insightful book, More Terrible Than Death: Massacres, Drugs, and America's War in Colombia, Robin Kirk, Human Rights Watch's former Colombia researcher, notes that in Colombia, cocaine is a "marvelous, terrible thing. It defeats ideology, the United States, moral concerns, reason. It is a money-making whirlwind that simply anyone can ride." Certainly cocaine has been successfully ridden by FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), a peasant-based and largely peasant-led Marxist insurgency that is the hemisphere's oldest and most powerful revolutionary group. FARC's strength derives not from trafficking cocaine (although there are reports that it traffics to a small degree) but by taking a 10 percent protection fee from peasant supporters who grow coca. This adds up to a not inconsiderable amount of money. No one really knows how much, but there are reports that it approaches $500 million a year. This has allowed FARC to field a well-armed military force of up to 20,000 that, by the 1990s, had grown strong enough to fight pitched battles against, and sometimes defeat, the Colombian Army.

Arrayed against FARC is a loose consortium of paramilitaries known as Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC. The paramilitaries, sometimes referred to as the "armed wing of the middle class," initially arose in response to FARC's other major revenue stream--kidnapping. Before long, however, they developed close, unacknowledged ties to Colombia's military. Kirk quotes a Colombian officer who coyly likens the relationship between the army and the paramilitaries to that between a married man and his mistress: "One has one but doesn't bring her home to meet your family." But there is nothing light-hearted about the AUC, which during the 1990s waged a vicious war against real and imagined FARC sympathizers, often colluding with the army to cordon off towns and then committing gruesome, high-profile massacres of suspected FARC sympathizers using, in addition to the usual arms, chainsaws, axes and hammers. By most reports, the paramilitaries have become so involved in cocaine trafficking that they and the traffickers are essentially one and the same.

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