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.


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.

Many observers hoped that the end of the Cold War, together with Latin America's impressive turn to democratic politics, would help move Colombia away from the brink. Yet while Central America's guerrillas have demobilized and Peru's rebels have been crippled, in Colombia, two of the hemisphere's oldest insurgencies are militarily and financially stronger than ever.

Colombia's principal guerrilla organizations -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) -- date back to the 1960s. The FARC emerged from the period of uncommonly fierce, sustained land battles known as La Violencia (1948-1965), which claimed some 200,000 lives.

During the Cold War, both guerrilla groups steeped themselves in Marxist doctrine. The rural-based fArc was the larger of the two and remains so today, with approximately 15,000 combatants. The ELN began as a student movement with links to the liberation theology strand of the Catholic Church. Today, its 5,000 troops are concentrated in the northeast, where Colombia's oil industry (the ELN's principal prey and source of revenue) is located. Both groups once had ties to Cuba, though today neither takes instructions from Fidel Castro.

The mid-1980s proved to be a critical turning point in the dynamics of political violence in Colombia. It was then that the FARC sought to enter mainstream politics by setting up the Patriotic Union (up) party. The country's large landowners, threatened by the UP's electoral advances in the 1986 local elections, contracted paramilitary units -- often with the tacit or open support of Colombia's armed forces -- to wage a systematic campaign of extermination against up officials. Several thousand were killed in just a few years. A good deal of the mistrust that today blocks any peace effort between the FARC and the Colombian government can be traced to this traumatic period.

As for their objectives, it is unclear whether the FARC and the ELN want to shape national policies or are bent on maintaining outright control over the territory they have taken. Some experts maintain that the rebels still cling to their old dream of toppling the government and seizing state power. Yet the agendas of both guerrilla groups, though they point to broad ideals of social justice, are in fact exceedingly vague and fluid.

More clear is the fact that both the FARC and the ELN are well financed. The two groups have combined revenues of about $900 million a year, some $500 million of which is derived from taxes on coca producers and the rest of which comes from kidnapping and extortion. It would be a mistake, however, to see the guerrilla groups as common criminals or drug mafias (although some of the FARc's fronts seem to closely fit that mold). Their criminal activities help sustain a political agenda. Nor are they rigid ideologues, resistant to reason. The rebels should instead be viewed as fundamentally pragmatic actors, out to advance political, economic, and strategic interests.

This cannot be said for Colombia's many criminal gangs. Colombia has a long history of illegal economic activities; emeralds, for example, were once the subject of a huge illegal traffic. And for at least two decades now Colombia has been one of the main engines driving the international drug trade (an engine fueled largely by U.S. demand). Though reliable data are hard to come by, drug proceeds amount to an estimated 25 to 35 percent of the country's total exports. Meanwhile, with the effective elimination of the Medell'n and Cali cartels over the past several years, the drug industry has become more fractured, making it harder to control. Today narcotics have penetrated nearly all spheres of Colombian society, politics, and economics. The cumulative effects of drug trafficking and the spreading insurgencies -- coupled with a rampantly corrupt political system that has long excluded large sectors of the citizenry -- have exacerbated the country's immense institutional problems.


Colombians have long been aware of their many problems and have sought to address them in various ways. Meanwhile, Colombia has somehow managed to hold election after election despite its many crises. The region's oldest insurgencies coexist with South America's longest stretch of civilian, constitutional rule.

Reform efforts have included a new constitution adopted in 1991, which was designed to modernize the political system and enhance the rule of law. Some of the mechanisms introduced have been effective, others less so. Reforms of the country's political parties, aimed at enhancing accountability, have been tried but yielded little. Although Colombia's judicial system has received considerable assistance from the United States, it too continues to function poorly, with high levels of impunity.

Periodically, Colombian administrations have launched a variety of peace efforts, also with mixed results. Colombians have paid a tremendous price -- in financial, institutional, and most tragically, human terms -- to fight drugs and curb their consequences.

But the most disturbing symptom of the failure of Colombia's institutions has been the exponential growth of the paramilitary forces, now estimated to number 4,000 to 5,000 combatants. These militias, frustrated by the country's demoralized and debilitated security forces, seek to counter insurgent advances. They have grown more sophisticated over the years since the army and landowners first organized them as self-defense units in the 1980s. Like the insurgents, the paramilitaries are now spread out and are often fueled by the drug economy. In some cases they have developed right-wing political identities and agendas and have shown a keen interest in Colombia's political game.

The existence and nature of the militias' links to the army are hotly contested. Direct connections between the two have been established in some cases. More often, state agents have merely looked the other way when paramilitary units have committed atrocities. Chiefly as a result of growing international pressure, there have been a number of recent attempts to break such ties. In April, Pastrana dismissed two generals with reported paramilitary connections. But direct confrontations between the security forces and paramilitary units have been rare.

Political violence, the drug economy, and an acute institutional crisis have contributed to the most dire human rights situation in the hemisphere. Roughly ten Colombians are killed every day in political violence. All the country's armed factions commit gross abuses. But both credible human rights groups and the State Department blame the paramilitaries for the lion's share -- three-quarters of all of Colombia's political killings in 1998.

Most victims have tended to be poor noncombatants. They figure disproportionately among the more than one million Colombians forced from their homes since the mid-1980s. According to Human Rights Watch, Colombia has the fourth-largest internally displaced population in the world. The poor are also the principal victims of Colombia's pervasive social and criminal violence, which accounts for some 85 percent of the country's 30,000 annual homicides.


Colombia's deteriorating conditions are not only wreaking havoc at home but have begun spilling over into neighboring countries, arousing substantial concern in an already troubled region.

Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori has taken the toughest public stance in response. In a February speech to the Inter-American Defense College in Washington, D.C., Fujimori dispensed with diplomatic niceties and openly criticized President Pastrana's attempt to negotiate with the insurgents -- a tactic Fujimori sees as inferior to the hard-line formula he used to defeat Peru's own Shining Path and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. Fujimori made his displeasure all the more clear when he subsequently ordered troops to the Colombian border.

Relations with Venezuela are also on edge. Hugo Chavez Frias, the former lieutenant colonel and failed coup leader who was elected Venezuela's president in December 1998, has declared his government's neutrality in the Colombian conflict. What looked like an innocuous gesture has actually amounted to an implicit recognition of the insurgents' belligerent status, something the Colombian government has consistently and pointedly opposed. Chavez has authorized talks in Venezuela with ELN representatives and has offered to play a mediating role in the Colombian dispute. Complicating matters, there have been reported incursions of ELN forces across the Venezuelan border, creating security problems between the two countries. And Colombian paramilitary leaders have threatened to pursue insurgents wherever they surface -- including at peace talks in Venezuela.

The violence has also spilled over into Ecuador. Last February, an Ecuadorian congressman accused by paramilitary forces of being a major arms supplier to the FARC was assassinated on the streets of Quito, Ecuador's capital city, and Colombia's insurgents have kidnapped several Ecuadorian businessmen.

Both the paramilitaries and the FARC also operate in Panama. With the Panamanian army having disbanded in the wake of the December 1989 U.S. intervention -- and with U.S. troops scheduled to pull out entirely by December 1999 -- these incursions have become more unsettling.


The FARC's murder of three American human rights workers in Venezuelan territory in March underlined the brutality of Colombia's civil war and its mounting regional repercussions. It also called attention to the role of the United States in the unfolding drama.

For most of this century, the two countries have enjoyed close and friendly relations. This is due in some measure to Colombia's exemplary economic management and its adherence to civilian, constitutional government since the early 1960s. For many years, Washington held up Latin America's third-largest country as a model of good governance and a close partner in President John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress aid program.

Colombia's entanglement with the drug trade in the mid-1980s changed all of that. Since then, U.S. Colombia policy has been nearly indistinguishable from U.S. antinarcotics policy. The reasons are hardly mysterious: some 80 percent of the world's cocaine is produced in Colombia, along with roughly three-quarters of the heroin seized by authorities on the east coast of the United States.

The problem, however, is that U.S. Colombia policy tends to be single-minded, inflexible, and driven by the desire to look tough on drugs. As a result, it is often counterproductive. Any option that might conceivably soften antidrug efforts is deemed unacceptable by Washington. But while also committed to fighting drugs, Colombians give higher priority to regaining control over their territory and to improving security. To be sure, these objectives often coincide. But they can also clash, and when they do, tensions between the countries have risen.

The bilateral relationship reached a low point during the 1994-98 presidency of Ernesto Samper Pizano, who was credibly accused of having accepted some $6 million from the Cali drug cartel in his 1994 campaign. Samper's U.S. visa was revoked and, in 1996 and 1997, the United States fully decertified Colombia for failing to cooperate in the fight against drugs. Decertification demoralized and alienated Colombians and undermined their government's credibility.

Fortunately, the election of Pastrana last June has substantially improved the relationship. This was reflected by the recertification of Colombia in March 1999 and Congress' approval in October 1998 of some $289 million in counternarcotics assistance (tripling the amount previously provided). This new package makes Colombia by far the leading recipient of U.S. security aid in the western hemisphere -- and the third in the world, behind Israel and Egypt.

The increased aid includes some $40 million for an air-mobile army battalion to help in the antidrug effort. This marks a significant development, since U.S. aid to the Colombian army had been suspended in 1996 due to its troubling human rights record (the money went to the national police instead). Today, support is still restricted and should be carefully monitored in accordance with U.S. law. Human rights remain a key concern.

Despite the promising changes, the relationship between the two countries remains uneasy and ambivalent. Multiple U.S. actors -- the Defense, State, and Justice Departments, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, and key congressional representatives -- compete to shape policy. Skeptics in the U.S. Congress have taken sharp public aim at the meetings between State Department officials and farc representatives, especially in light of what they regard as the insurgents' stubborn behavior and unreasonable demands (and the FARC's designation as a "terrorist" group). And members of Congress have been critical of Pastrana's meetings with Fidel Castro to explore a Cuban role in brokering a settlement with the rebels.


Pastrana's attempt to pursue peace has encountered inevitable setbacks and countless frustrations. The high expectations that accompanied his election, buoyed by public meetings with the rebels, have since largely dissipated. Tragically, what little American support remained for the peace effort was further undercut in March by the FARC's brutal assassination of three Americans, and by the ELN's hijacking of a Colombian airplane the following month.

Deep-seated mistrust on all sides and excessive political fragmentation remain core obstacles. Good-faith gestures by Pastrana, such as the demilitarization of five zones in the southern part of the country, have only been met by additional demands. The FARC has pressed for a hostage swap and the eln has insisted on the demilitarization of territory where it has a substantial presence. But the frustrated Pastrana administration has refused to yield on either score.

The brutality of the expanding paramilitary forces remains a thorny problem. The much anticipated peace talks with the rebels in early 1999 failed to get off the ground for just this reason: the FARC demanded that the government rein in these militias. But it is unclear whether the government is willing or able to do so. Thus despite the recent announcement of new negotiations, peace remains on hold. The FARC leadership is deeply suspicious of any effort that does not first deal with the paramilitaries -- for its memories of the brutal campaign against the FARC's political wing are still fresh.

To be fair to Pastrana, it is hard to know what else, exactly, the insurgents want. The rebels constantly move the goal posts. But equally uncertain is whether Colombia's president has the leadership skills necessary to marshal and sustain the backing of key sectors of society for a complicated, long-term peace effort that will involve further sacrifices.


Few countries have exhibited as much resilience as has Colombia. It has defied apocalyptic forecasts before and may do so again. Even with unprecedented economic and institutional problems exacerbating political and drug-related violence, Colombia could continue to muddle along for some time. But its survival depends on the ability to keep some sort of peace talks -- however halting and sporadic -- alive. Partial solutions will result in intense fighting and continued bloodletting.

A slight variant on this scenario could make things worse still. Should the talks completely break down and the Colombian government collapse, the country could slip into a full-scale conflict with terrible consequences. This could mean an open campaign against the insurgents or an intensified dirty war by the paramilitary forces. The humanitarian consequences would be devastating.

Such scenarios make finding an alternative course all the more necessary; a solution that encompasses some form of political reconciliation is essential. For reconciliation to occur, the United States and the international community must support the process in a number of ways: helping to mediate a settlement, economically assisting social reform projects linked to negotiations, publicly pressuring the government to check the paramilitaries, and cooperating with the Pastrana administration.

Of course, external actors can only do so much good. But the last several years have shown that they can easily make things worse by unnecessarily undermining the Pastrana administration in the name of some narrow political interest or by diverting it from its overriding objective.

Colombians have to assume the main role for defining, addressing, and overcoming their core problems. Comprehensive institutional renewal -- military, political, and judicial reform -- should dominate the agenda. The nongovernmental groups that were energized by the peace effort in mid-1998 need to maintain their resolve. With new peace talks on the horizon, some sign of good faith by both rebel groups would also help. And Colombia's elites should be prepared to make sacrifices.

Perhaps most critically, the Colombian government needs to strengthen its coherence and legitimacy. It can do so by pursuing a clear strategy of political reconciliation -- one that sets firm objectives, spells out what it is prepared and not prepared to accept, and organizes available resources accordingly.

Effective leadership is central to such a challenge. Most Colombians long for peace but are divided over how to pursue it. Only if he can lead them into a national consensus will Pastrana finally help his country out of the abyss his father anticipated more than a decade ago.

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  • Michael Shifter is Senior Fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue and teaches Latin American politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
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