Colombia’s Best Hope

Colombia’s Best Hope

Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.


The Clinton Administration has awakened–at last–to the catastrophe brewing in Colombia. That is the meaning of the recent visit to Bogotá by Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering. His message: The United States must support President Andres Pastrana’s stalled peace process and reject calls for new military aid to the Colombian Army to fight drugs and “narcoguerrillas.” Pickering’s mission was reinforced in an unprecedented New York Times editorial by Madeleine Albright. Pastrana “needs–and deserves–international support that focuses on more than drug interdiction and eradication,” wrote Albright. That sentence marks a historic break with the narcotization of US Colombia policy and opens windows onto a world of new possibilities for the Washington-Bogotá relationship. Perhaps President Clinton will now get off the fence and provide urgently needed leadership.

For in Bogotá time is running out. Escalating rural and urban terror by guerrillas and paramilitaries, soaring drug cultivation and the worst economic crisis in seventy years are closing in on the courageous Pastrana. Anticipating an eventual return to war, guerrilla kidnappings for ransom–the next highest source of revenue for the rebels after drugs–have multiplied. Mass abductions and random rebel roadblocks have spread terror, bringing the war home to the urban middle class. One-fifth of the work force is unemployed, the currency has fallen by 42 percent against the dollar and 1.5 million people have been internally displaced by brutal rural killings and land seizures.

The blame for this perilous unraveling of Colombia’s peace process rests principally with the leaders of the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Instead of talking, the FARC has used the demilitarized zone Pastrana ceded to it as a secure environment for peace talks to instead hide kidnap victims, forcibly recruit local schoolchildren, intimidate the local population and create a safe haven from which to launch large-scale offensives. Asked to account for thirty-four people who disappeared within the zone, FARC spokesman Raul Reyes told the press that eleven of them had been executed as army spies. Colombians have been repelled and have lost faith in the FARC’s desire for peace. Support for the insurgents has shrunk to historic lows, and their terror tactics have opened a dangerous political space for ultraright paramilitaries. Pressure is mounting on Pastrana to unleash the army.

In fairness, the government’s weakness, acutely visible in its inability to halt the army’s continued reliance on the paramilitaries, gives the guerrillas good reason to mistrust Pastrana’s ability to implement any peace accords in the face of the fanatical opposition of an entrenched minority that has sabotaged every previous peace effort for twenty years. This past April, with crucial American help, two senior generals were cashiered for paramilitary involvement. But Pastrana’s orders to disband paramilitary chief Carlos Castaño’s forces and put him and his powerful patrons behind bars gather dust, while evidence of army participation in paramilitary atrocities accumulates in the folders of investigators for the Attorney General’s human rights office. Castaño’s recent announcement that he has fielded a new “front,” recruited exclusively from former soldiers, offers clear proof of the ideological kinship with the military that perpetuates this criminal alliance.

Meanwhile, the single policy the United States has pursued with myopic dedication throughout this Administration has failed. Despite two years of extensive drug-crop fumigation, net coca cultivation has increased by 50 percent. And spraying herbicides has strengthened the FARC by driving young peasants out of the fields and into the guerrilla army.

This year Congress tripled US military assistance to Colombia, now the third-largest recipient of military aid after Israel and Egypt. In July drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey recommended $1 billion in supplemental aid to the Andean countries, with more than half going to Colombia. McCaffrey then went to Colombia, where he declared an “emergency” caused by guerrillas “financed by drug money” and promised efforts to find a way to support the army and the police to fight guerrillas and paramilitaries.

But the current mood on the Hill is more frustrated than warlike. The specter of Vietnam haunts any mention of military aid. McCaffrey’s recommendation may have support from the head of Southern Command, Gen. Charles Wilhelm, said to believe that a punch-up with the guerrillas would be good for the army and good for Colombia. But it is not the official US position. Congress is waiting for the Administration to tell it what that is.

The solution to Colombia’s terrible, ancient violence is economic. You don’t need a fleet of Black Hawk helicopter gunships at $16 million each to be rid of Colombian guerrillas and Colombian drugs; you need money. The World Bank and the United Nations International Drug Control Program are each investing several million dollars in two pilot alternative development projects with indigenous campesinos and coca growers inside the DMZ. Even General McCaffrey, longtime supporter of militarized crop eradication, has recommended $60 million for development programs in Colombia, to “provide a rapidly expanding coca labor force with licit income alternatives” and to avoid “violent confrontation with a displaced labor force.”

In the early days of his administration, Pastrana called for a Plan Colombia, a fund of $3.5 billion to finance his strategy of collaboration with the FARC to manually eradicate drug crops in return for structural and alternative development. That plan has sunk in the backwash of the shrinking economy and the falling peso. Yet the analysis behind Pastrana’s peace strategy was soundly rooted in Colombian realities. It links guerrillas and drugs and proposes the same solution for both: profound structural development and alternative crops for the campesino coca growers in return for an end to political violence and elimination of the drug crops.

So if the State Department is to give Pastrana the support he needs to put the peace process back on track, it must forge a bi-partisan strategy with Congress that will permit US officials to meet with the FARC, should the Colombian government request it, without being slammed by House Republicans for consorting with “narcoterrorists.” Tiro Fijo, the 68-year-old FARC leader, is said to aspire to be the Nelson Mandela of Latin America. Myth or reality? Surely it is worth talking with him to find out. After all, in Colombia nothing is quite what it seems.

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