Colombia on the Brink: There Goes the Neighborhood

In May 1988, following the abduction of a prominent politician, former Colombian President Misael Pastrana Borrero remarked, "Last year I said we were on the verge of the abyss. Today, I think we are in it."

These days, Pastrana's son Andres -- who has himself led Colombia since August 1998 -- has reason to be even more pessimistic. Colombia is worse off in many ways than it was a decade ago. The country's violent forces -- left-wing insurgents and right-wing militias -- have never been better armed and financed or held more territory. Colombia's drug economy, with its pernicious effects, is as pervasive as ever. And the government is running out of options.

Until recently, widespread violence and crime somehow coexisted in Colombia with sound -- by regional standards, exceptional -- economic performance. Today, however, Colombia has sunk into a deep, unrelieved recession, exacerbated by the earthquake that devastated its coffee-growing region in January. The only major Latin American country that did not have to renegotiate its foreign debt in the 1980s is reeling.

What distinguishes the current crises from the many Colombia has weathered in the past is the inability of the country's leaders to respond effectively. Despite the new peace talks announced on May 3 of this year, the guerrillas' willingness to engage in serious negotiations remains in doubt. And ordinary Colombians -- the vast majority of whom are committed to peace -- have grown more divided than ever. Mistrust lies at every turn.

Colombia's deterioration has made its neighbors apprehensive and spread serious concern as far as the United States. As the deterioration deepens, it becomes ever more obvious that any solution will require the sustained support of these other nations. Americans may be skeptical of greater involvement in a country that, when they think of it at all, they tend to consider corrupt and drug-ridden. But they will suffer the consequences if they remain indifferent.

A VOLATILE MIX

As Colombia's crises grow more virulent, its citizens wonder in desperation what it will take to emerge from the abyss. To answer that question requires understanding how Colombia got there in the first place.

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