First the good news: Peace talks between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) began on January 7 in the remote tropical town of San Vicente del Caguán in the presence of hundreds of international observers, including US Ambassador Curtis Kamman and Bogotá's entire diplomatic corps. The talks were jump-started by a secret December meeting in Costa Rica between the State Department, the FARC and the Colombian government. That meeting signaled a crucial shift in Foggy Bottom's Colombia policy. The question now is whether Congress and all departments of the Clinton Administration will follow the State Department's lead and actively support a peace process that ranks as the most significant development since the end of the Central American wars.
Obsessed by their counternarcotics crusade, powerful Republican Congressmen are now driving a new alliance between the Pentagon's Miami-based Southern Command and the failed Colombian Army. This alliance is on a collision course with US human rights law, which restricts the use of military aid in Colombia to counternarcotics, and threatens President Andrés Pastrana's peace policies.
Pastrana has said repeatedly that peace is a prerequisite for success in the drug war, and he is making an unprecedented attempt to end a half-century of political violence while simultaneously ending Colombia's coca and poppy growing. He needs $3.5 billion, to be spent on roads, credits, markets, schools and rural micro-businesses to help Colombian peasants who grow drugs from economic necessity to switch crops. Only the FARC has the credibility, manpower and organizational ability among the peasant coca growers to make crop-substitution programs stick. At the meeting in Costa Rica, the FARC's chief negotiator, Raúl Reyes, reportedly told the State Department's Phillip Chicola that, given the necessary economic investment, the guerrilla organization would help eliminate the drug crops within three to five years. Pastrana is asking the drug-consuming countries to contribute to a "Marshall Plan" to finance his program.
But Congress, the Administration and Colombian generals prefer to fight a drug war against the peasant coca farmers. Arguing that Pastrana's peace overtures to people they call "narcoguerrillas" undermine effective counternarcotics action, Congress, against the wishes of the Colombian government, recently tripled aid to the Colombian Army and police for a militarized crop-fumigation blitz against coca and poppy plantations. A look at how the aid is being used shows that fighting drugs has taken a back seat to plans to fight the FARC, whose 15,000-man peasant army has had a string of military victories and controls 40 percent of the country. Congress and the Pentagon argue that Washington should go the El Salvador route and strengthen the Colombian military to prevent a rebel victory by the FARC. Commander in chief of the US Southern Command Charles Wilhelm has already embarked on a crash program to retrain and re-equip the Colombian Army to combat the "most serious security threat in the hemisphere."
A recently signed US-Colombian military cooperation accord now being implemented has opened the way for setting up a $5 million CIA-sponsored and -equipped intelligence center and listening post inside FARC territory to monitor rebel communications and movements; posting 300 US Special Forces troops to train a new, 1,000-man US-equipped counternarcotics battalion, to be deployed within FARC territory by June; and shipping Gulf War weapons technology--smart bombs, night vision goggles, missile launching helicopters.
Meanwhile, violence by largely narco-funded paramilitaries rages. As the army and police sat in their barracks, the paramilitaries struck undefended villages, murdering 139 people they called "guerrilla-civilians" in four days. Created originally by the Colombian Army to combat insurgency, today's paramilitaries maintain their military links but are out of control. Their leaders demand political recognition and intend to murder their way to the negotiating table. To date, Pastrana's repeated presidential directives to the army and police to arrest and disband the death squads have been ignored by his deeply compromised senior generals and regional commanders.
The paramilitaries and their military backers represent the most dangerous internal threat to Pastrana's policies. If he cannot get them under control, he risks losing the FARC in the talks. If he pushes the generals too hard, he risks a split in the army. How delicate the situation is can be gauged by the fact that several senior generals, currently under investigation by the attorney general for complicity in paramilitary massacres, were recently promoted to the High Command. Among the top brass only the chairman of the joint chiefs, Gen. Fernando Tapias, has spoken out against them.
Recently, Pastrana tried something new. He placed a new multiagency intelligence unit and a special joint task force under the authority and direction of the attorney general, whose office is the sole Colombian institution with the guts and political will to investigate and prosecute paramilitaries and their financial and military supporters. It remains to be seen whether his investigators and prosecutors will receive support from this new task force when they try to execute several hundred arrest warrants currently gathering dust in army and police barracks.
The stakes in Colombia are high. Pastrana and the legendary 68-year-old leader of the FARC, Manuel Marulanda, have embarked on an exciting, dangerous, difficult journey. If they win a new country--democratic, sovereign and drug free--they can start rebuilding from the embers of the civil war. If the Pentagon succeeds in Salvadorizing the conflict, they will fail. Then we will see the end of electoral politics in Colombia, a military junta in the presidential palace and a country in flames. But with unequivocal support from Washington and the international community this scenario need not happen. In San Vicente, when the speechmaking ended, negotiators for both sides rapidly went to work in circumstances of such mutual cordiality it seemed impossible to imagine that, left to themselves, the Colombians could fail to end a half-century of internecine warfare, which an overwhelming majority now judge to be absurd and useless.