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Latin America's Longest War | The Nation

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Latin America's Longest War

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One of the reasons there has been so little outcry is that many of the fields being sprayed belong to Colombia's poorest peasantry and, not coincidentally, are effectively controlled by FARC. In the midst of the post-9/11 hysteria, the Bush Administration requested and received authorization from Congress to declare FARC a terrorist threat. It was thus able to extend the mandate of Plan Colombia to allow the United States to use its drug funds and helicopters in anti-FARC operations. Under Plan Colombia, moreover, the United States has set up an intensive intelligence-gathering operation on FARC and sought to both professionalize Colombia's army and get it out of the barracks, where it had traditionally spent most of its time. There's little question that FARC has taken a knock with all this. Some of its coca-growing territory has been wrested away by paramilitaries, and the paramilitaries have used some of this land to move in a significant way into growing coca. FARC's income base has clearly been affected. In January, moreover--with the help of American intelligence--its financial chief, a former banker from an aristocratic family named Ricardo Palmera, was captured in Ecuador, where he had gone to obtain medical treatment. There are reports that American intelligence has also succeeded in disrupting FARC's supply lines. Despite these setbacks, FARC is far from being defeated, and many people argue that, if anything, it has simply retreated into the rain forests to wait out the end of Uribe's term. The Colombian congress is currently considering a constitutional amendment that would allow a second Uribe term, but, barring this, the expectation is that his successor will follow the usual Colombian model and, as Robin Kirk puts it, "prove easier to intimidate."

About the Author

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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Amid the same post-9/11 hysteria that allowed the Bush Administration to declare FARC a terrorist threat, however, human rights groups achieved a significant victory by having Colombia's paramilitaries similarly tagged. Since many of the paramilitary leaders are known cocaine traffickers--Castaño himself is under indictment and the United States is actively seeking his extradition--this was not a stretch legally. But what has been surprising is the degree to which Uribe has proven more complex than his pre-election characterization and has demonstrated a willingness to move against not just the guerrillas but also the paramilitaries. His approach to the paramilitaries, however, has been cautious. Uribe has offered an amnesty for those willing to serve a brief period of confinement, turn in their arms and pay cash fines. He has also, however, at the insistence of the United States, trained a special antiparamilitary brigade with the express mission of hunting down paramilitaries who persist in egregious human rights violations. To a certain degree this has resulted in kinder, gentler paramilitaries. There has been a discernible decline in paramilitary murders in Colombia--although this may be only the result of their having prevailed in many contested areas.

In the meantime, however, the paramilitaries have become deeply entrenched in the country's power structure. By some arguments they control 30 percent or more of the seats in Congress as well as a number of governorships. Some observers have even argued that Castaño could have been elected president had he not gone into hiding after being indicted by the United States. Given this kind of power, Uribe's amnesty offer has produced violent conflicts between those who effectively want to go straight and those who are reluctant to give up what Colombians call la vida facil--"the high life." In April, Castaño himself was ambushed by a group of his own lieutenants who apparently feared he was going to rat them out to the Americans. According to various reports, Castaño was either killed or somehow managed to flee into a US witness-protection program (which US authorities deny). In either case, he has disappeared, leaving the field free to his rival, Diego Fernando Murillo, known as Don Berna, a man who once took a giant step up the slippery cocaine slope by betraying his boss, Pablo Escobar. Don Berna (who was recently indicted by the United States for drug trafficking) has raised strong objections to Uribe's amnesty terms, insisting he will not accept extradition or spend a day in jail--a move that could sink Uribe's plans. Not long after Castaño's disappearance, Carlos Mauricio García, an AUC leader openly critical of Don Berna, posed a question to a New York Times journalist: "What could happen to me, that they kill me with a bigger bullet...or that they kill me several times?" Shortly afterward he was fatally shot while strolling on the beachfront in Santa Marta.

If cocaine has such a hold on Colombia, it is in large part because of what Grace Livingstone politely calls the "exclusionary character of the state," which has long been administered, both politically and financially, for the benefit of a wealthy minority. Colombian income inequality has only worsened over the past decade as Colombia, along with much of the rest of Latin America, has fallen for the folly of neoliberal economics. Today, almost 80 percent of Colombia's rural population fall beneath the poverty line, and 46 percent fall beneath what Livingstone refers to as the "indigence line," a line of extreme poverty beneath which "basic subsistence needs are not met." For a peasant living in such conditions, coca farming has a natural appeal. As Robin Kirk points out, cocaine in Colombia has been a "small entrepreneur's dream" and a great boon to peasants who have grown it, despite the havoc it has unleashed. Kirk argues that unlike gold, oil, rubber and other raw commodities that have historically been extracted from the region--the profits from which were often entirely retained by the wholesalers--cocaine has allowed peasants to hold on to some of the wealth they have created, just as tobacco has done for so many small farmers in the American South.

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