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.