During the 1980s, Latin America was at the forefront of U.S. foreign and security policy. But as the Cold War ended and local conflicts subsided, the region slipped onto a strategic back burner. Washington's interest in it was sparked chiefly by financial opportunities or crises. Now Latin American battles are once again in the news as civil strife in Colombia becomes a serious security threat not only to the Andean region but to the broader hemisphere as well.

The Colombian conflict is deep-rooted and complex, involving two basic issues (drugs and control of the country) and three warring factions (the government, left-wing guerrillas, and right-wing paramilitaries). What is more, it is now boiling over: in addition to battling the government, the guerrillas kidnap neighboring Venezuelans and Ecuadorians; the paramilitaries smuggle weapons from bases along the Panamanian border; and hundreds of citizens from dozens of foreign countries are taken hostage annually. Despite years of antidrug efforts and the destruction of the powerful Medellín and Cali cartels, Colombia remains the world's largest producer and exporter of cocaine and the second-largest supplier of heroin to the United States.

These problems cannot be solved by Colombians alone. The country needs international help, particularly American engagement. But foreign involvement will make a difference only if it comes in the proper form.

The Clinton administration has recently proposed a $1.7 billion aid package, the largest in Colombian history. Of this, $1 billion would go toward improving the Colombian military's capacity to suppress coca planting -- buying helicopters, spare parts, training, and intelligence equipment to help the army destroy coca crops and retake guerrilla-held areas. The other $700 million would finance coca substitution programs, public works in sensitive regions, and improvements in Colombia's judicial system and human rights protections. The U.S. aid would be part of a broader three-year, $7 billion "Plan Colombia" that includes multilateral loans and contributions from Europe. The plan is designed to strengthen Colombian institutions, sponsor regional development of the coca areas, and help reduce drug production.

Plan Colombia is an important step in the right direction, and most ordinary citizens have welcomed it. We Colombians understand that the drug issue is critical, not least because the guerrillas and paramilitary forces rely on the financial backing of drug traffickers to keep fighting. But we also know that the conflict involves more than drugs and that, by itself, Plan Colombia will not answer all our problems.

Those problems are not to be taken lightly. The cost of the drug war has been staggering. In the last 15 years, 200 bombs (half of them as large as the one used in Oklahoma City) have blown up in Colombia's cities; an entire democratic leftist political party was eliminated by right-wing paramilitaries; 4 presidential candidates, 200 judges and investigators, half the Supreme Court's justices, 1,200 police officers, 151 journalists, and more than 300,000 ordinary Colombians have been murdered.

Despite this toll, the international community in general and the United States in particular must understand that the Colombian government's conflict with the guerrillas can be solved only through negotiations. If the current peace talks fail, the country will plunge into all-out war and Colombians will lose their democracy. Early in the negotiations, the United States met privately with the main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but American participation was suspended last year after FARC killed three human rights activists. The guerrillas have shown little remorse and exonerated the commanders who the American and Colombian police believe ordered the killings. But making sure the peace process moves forward is so important that the United States should get substantively involved once again and make a negotiated end to the war in Colombia a central goal of American foreign policy.


The roots of Colombia's current drug problems lie in the decision by local smugglers and traffickers to turn the traditional Andean coca crop into a thriving international business. In 1975, these entrepreneurs were already producing 70 percent of the world's supply of marijuana. Looking ahead, they saw better prospects in cocaine. (Two decades later, in much the same way, they would capitalize on growth opportunities in heroin.) In the 1970s, cocaine was available in the United States and Europe, but it was expensive and hard to find. Colombian drug interests financed experiments until they hit on a formula for coca paste: crushed coca leaves mixed with gasoline, cement, and ether. This recipe produced cocaine chlorohydrate, which was then dried in the middle of the jungle in ordinary microwave ovens operated by generators. The resulting cocaine was shipped to U.S. markets in small planes and sold for up to $30,000 per kilogram in New York and Chicago.

The keys to the scheme's success were that the formula was simple and the ingredients were readily available. The new method made the traffickers much richer and gave rise to the drug cartels, which came to specialize in particular niches of the drug economy: transportation, processing, money laundering, and distribution. When the cartels realized that regular, powder cocaine was too expensive to market in poor communities, the drug lords then invented "crack," and another stage in the business -- and the world's addictive nightmare -- was born.

The growth of the cartels turned Colombia upside down. In 1978, Colombia's drug revenue was $2 billion. By 1985, that flow had increased to $3 billion -- an astronomical figure, given that Colombia's GNP was then only $40 billion. The wealth was grabbed by a few hands and invested in such safe sectors as urban real estate and huge rural haciendas. (This helped create the coalition between landowners and drug traffickers that now finances the paramilitaries.) Drug prices shot up, and the flow of dollars multiplied, throwing off the exchange rate. Traffickers used their dollars to buy luxury items and other merchandise abroad and sell them for less than their value at the duty-free zones that sprang up around Colombia. Today, for example, one can buy a Japanese stereo in Colombia for less than in Tokyo. Such unfair competition almost destroyed the legitimate local Colombian economy.

The booming cocaine industry also deformed Colombia's morals. Riches, no matter how ill-gotten, became the goal of many Colombians, and respect for civic rights, education, and honest work declined. The judicial system and other government institutions crumbled before narcotraffickers determined to carve out a sphere for their illicit businesses through violence and corruption.

The Colombian state tried to deal with these problems but was simply too weak. In 1979, for example, Colombia and the United States signed an extradition treaty that would permit Colombian nationals to be tried in the United States. Such treaties are hardly unusual, but in Colombia the deal elicited a declaration of war from its likely targets. With their fortunes, the drug traffickers organized an armed gang called the Extraditables and launched a terrorist campaign with the motto, "We prefer a tomb in Colombia to a jail cell in the United States." To show it meant business, the group assassinated a Colombian Supreme Court justice. The war then moved on to journalists, politicians, and police officers. Hit men received $2,000 for each cop they killed. Eventually the drug lords went after Colombia's civil society as well. They blew up a plane with 109 passengers on board, set off car bombs in shopping malls, and dynamited the headquarters of the federal investigative agency. They even financed the passage of a constitutional amendment by the Colombian Congress prohibiting extradition.

Lawlessness spread uncontrollably not because of a lack of controls or laws but because the combination of drugs, corruption, and insurgency makes any type of control ludicrous. Colombia has one of the most sophisticated legal systems in the hemisphere and every conceivable law in the book, but 70 percent of all crimes remain unsolved, and it ranks among the top three most corrupt countries in the world according to Transparency International.

In September 1989, the Bush administration declared a new war on drugs, granting more aid and coordinating a multilateral approach with other Andean countries. But Colombia was tired of the fight, beaten down by violence. Within a year, a constituent assembly elected by popular vote prohibited extradition, taking the heat off the drug kingpins. The government introduced a plea-bargaining policy that led to the partial dismantling of the cartels and the arrest of some key drug figures. But thanks to the weakness of the prison system, the cartel leaders continued to operate from behind bars. In 1992, the leader of the Medellín cartel, Pablo Escobar, escaped, and terrorism was unleashed again. But the government's military and judicial capacity had improved over the years, and Colombian police were able to gun down Escobar and finish off the Medell'n cartel by the end of 1993.

Although the government has been doing somewhat better recently, even if it conquers its present troubles Colombia will always have a big problem in its midst. The country has eliminated the drug cartels, but it has never understood that the drug trade from the 1970s and 1980s created a new social class -- an elite that grew rich through drug trafficking, that will fight to keep its business alive and thriving, and that is quite willing to use violence, terrorism, and corruption. Such people financed the guerrillas and paramilitaries. The drug class has spread corruption money around Congress and other Colombian institutions and financed the campaign of a former president. Traffickers know their market, and they knew that they should not work in big cartels. That business acumen has paid off, and more cocaine than ever is now being imported to the United States, according to recent reports. The violence produced by traffickers in Colombia is closely linked to the appetite of consumers in the United States and Europe -- another good reason why attention must be paid.


In a parallel set of developments, Colombia became embroiled in a local variant of the Cold War during the 1960s. Rural guerrillas gained influence in the country's jungles and mountains. The armed bands were made up of the remnants of peasant groups that had rebelled against the government in the previous decade (later gathered into FARC) and newer groups promoted by Cuba (including the National Liberation Army, or ELN). These guerrillas caused some harm but never threatened the country's stability.

That began to change in the 1970s, when new urban terrorist groups started to appear. The best known of these, the m-19, burst onto the scene in 1982 when it took over the Dominican Republic's embassy in Bogotá. The group held 14 senior diplomats hostage, including the papal nuncio and the U.S. ambassador; after negotiations, they left for Cuba with some of the hostages and $5 million. The m-19 followed up this coup with other spectacular stunts, including a dramatic 1985 takeover of the Palace of Justice, during which they kidnapped the entire Colombian Supreme Court and exchanged heavy fire with the Colombian army. In the end, more than 100 people were left dead, including most of the justices.

In 1989, the government began serious peace talks with the M-19 that culminated in a peace accord the following year. Several smaller guerrilla groups also took part, and some 5,000 rebels wound up turning in their weapons. As part of the deal, the government designated temporary demilitarized zones in the countryside where the demobilized rebel troops would be safe from outside harassment to give them a measure of security during the negotiations. The settlement worked, and today many of these former guerrillas are prominent politicians and public officials.

But the two largest guerrilla forces -- FARC, which has 12,000-15,000 troops, and the ELN, which has 3,000-5,000 -- refused to demobilize. Both groups had found independent financing that let them remain in the field and even grow stronger over time. The ELN, a Marxist/Christian group led until 1998 by a Spanish Catholic priest, discovered a profitable niche extorting money from oil companies. Since 1985, the group has bombed Colombia's main pipeline about 700 times -- every week or so, that is -- wasting 1.7 million barrels of oil and causing serious environmental damage.

Meanwhile, FARC built up a presence in coca-growing areas, where it charged fees to plantations for "protection." In the mid-1990s, a disease destroyed almost 30 percent of the coca plantations in Peru's upper Huallaga Valley. Drug traffickers shifted their crops to Colombia's jungles, experimenting with the plants and producing a stronger coca leaf with a higher cocaine yield. As a result, the area of Colombia used for coca cultivation jumped from 20,000 to 120,000 hectares in five years. FARC took control of the crops and boosted its income to more than $600 million a year, making it possibly the richest insurgent group in history.

The coca plantations also provided the guerrillas with a social base for the first time in their 30 years of existence. This became visible in 1996, when coca growers held mass protests against a crop eradication push by the army. (In Colombia, most growers are not peasants -- as they are in Peru and Bolivia -- but hired hands recruited by traffickers from elsewhere in the country.) Egged on by FARC, more than 100,000 of these workers marched for several weeks. To end the uprising, the government agreed to limit its fumigation program to coca plantations smaller than three hectares.

Weak government institutions and guerrilla abuses opened a space for the emergence of various paramilitary forces. These groups are not formally linked with the Colombian army but often maintain some ties with it at the field level. Over the last five years, the paramilitaries have developed a common antiguerrilla political rhetoric and a centralized operational command. They are responsible for most of the country's human rights violations, including the assassinations of thousands of peasants. Given the paramilitaries' depredations, it is crucial for the long-term health of Colombian democracy that the army cut even its indirect ties to them. U.S. aid should also come with human rights considerations and strong monitoring mechanisms attached.

When President Andres Pastrana was elected in 1998, he quickly launched peace talks with both FARC and the ELN for the first time in eight years. Following the same script as in 1990, he offered safe havens to the guerrillas to make them feel secure enough to start negotiations. The first block of territory was given to FARC, which received 42,000 square kilometers -- the size of Switzerland or Kentucky. But the territory was ceded without many controls, and the move has sparked criticism: this time around, the guerrillas have used their newfound freedom to arrange kidnappings, carry out summary executions, and sponsor coca plantations.

Another block of territory was recently granted to the ELN, and this time, the government tried to correct some of the mistakes it made in dealing with FARC. The ELN's safe haven takes up only 5,000 square kilometers, a bit larger than Long Island, and the zone was offered together with national and international verification mechanisms to prevent any transgressions. Nevertheless, the agreement with the ELN may still produce trouble, since the safe haven lies near areas controlled by the paramilitaries and near important oil pipelines, once the ELN's favorite target.


Any discussion of Colombia's current plight has to start with the fact that the war against drugs and the war against the guerrillas run parallel. Outright victory in either is impossible over the near term. So the most sensible course for the government and its foreign partners is a three-track strategy that strives to tamp down the violence of the civil war, limit the role and power of drug interests in Colombia's politics and economics, and lower the demand for drugs abroad.

FARC is both a narcotrafficking operation and an insurgent group seeking political power. Its strongholds are also the areas that grow 90 percent of the country's cocaine. Colombians have slowly realized that since drug money can finance a perpetual insurgency, there will be no peace without dealing with the drug plantations. Nor can the current drug-supply networks be dismantled if the guerrillas continue to operate unchallenged and control 120,000 hectares of coca, 12,000 hectares of poppies, and 5,000 hectares of marijuana. Since all groups in the Colombian conflict have independent financing, they can shrug off pressure from outsiders if they wish. Moreover, neither the government nor the rebels have any hope of total victory on the battlefield. For these reasons if no others, the peace process must be nurtured until some mutually acceptable outcome can be reached. Colombians know this, but the country needs the support of the international community as well, which should play the same sort of role in Colombia that it has in such places as the Middle East and Northern Ireland.

Foreigners should be ready to step in to pressure and cajole all sides when the peace process becomes stalemated. Outsiders can assure the rebels, for example, that nothing will happen to them if they lay down their arms. Most members of armed groups fear that once they sign a peace accord and give up their weapons, they will be killed or thrown in jail. These concerns are entirely legitimate, given that during an earlier attempt at peace talks with FARC in the late 1980s, an entire FARC-backed political party was annihilated. More than 3,500 members of that group, the Unión Patriótica, either were murdered or disappeared -- a crime that not only increased rebel suspicions but lowered the prospects for the eventual creation of a democratic leftist political party.

Colombia's military also has worries -- chiefly that a settlement will be bought with concessions at its expense -- that need to be taken into account. Balancing the need to grant amnesties with the need to prosecute war crimes will be difficult, but a start would be the formation of a truth commission like the ones created in South Africa and El Salvador.

The United States could play a more active role in fostering the peace process through the efforts of a special envoy or presidential representative, a Richard Holbrooke or Dennis Ross for Colombia. More American involvement would help bring representatives from the armed groups, the government, and civil society together for serious talks, in the manner of the Dayton and Wye accords, on a negotiated end to the conflict. In the meantime, the international community should use diplomatic pressure and observer missions to help ensure that all sides respect international humanitarian law.


Ideally, at the same time the United States stepped up its diplomacy, it would also change its approach to the other half of the Colombian dilemma, the war on drugs. Current American drug policy emphasizes a unilateral or bilateral approach; what is really needed is a long-term multilateral approach that stresses shared goals, increased cooperation, and sensible compromises.

Between 1989 and 1992, the Colombian government persuaded the United States to meet with Colombia and other drug-producing nations to develop new policies to combat drug trafficking. That effort to forge a multilateral approach died in 1993 when Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori staged an autógolpe, or self-coup, and Colombians elected President Ernesto Samper after a campaign dominated by drug money. The Clinton administration then retreated to the same tired, ineffectual, unilateral certification process -- whereby drug-producing nations must demonstrate that they are making major progress in the fight against drugs or face sanctions -- that has justly created so much ill will for America in the region. The time has come to revive the multilateral efforts, and include the European Union to boot. Few in Colombia believe that outright legalization would end the problem; just as there is no supply-side panacea, we know that there is no demand-side one, either. Still, Americans' and Europeans' appetite for cocaine helps fuel Colombia's misery, and anything that reduces that appetite helps. The parties on both ends of the equation need to share the blame and work out common goals on how to tackle consumption, production, and distribution.

Finally, there is the economy. The Colombian private sector has become less competitive because of the pressures of the insurgency and the drug war. Fair treatment for Colombians would include a trade initiative to let Colombian products enter the U.S. market without tariffs or barriers. This would not be a handout, just a bit of help that will create a demand for Colombia's legal exports as great as that for its drugs. Colombian flowers, shoes, coal, coffee, clothes, and textiles have been slapped with tariffs and trade barriers because they were often used by drug traffickers to smuggle drugs. Today Colombia's industries need fairer treatment. The Central American wars ended with access to the U.S. market for their products. Colombia deserves no less.

None of these policies will bring a swift end to the problems that bedevil Colombia and the region. But together, they might reduce the level of violence, reestablish public order, and lay the groundwork for a negotiated settlement down the road. Without them, even billions of dollars in aid will not be enough.

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  • Rafael Pardo is President of the Milenio Foundation, based in Bogotá. He was a special adviser for peace negotiations to Colombian President Virgilio Barco from 1986 to 1990 and Colombia's first civilian Minister of Defense from 1991 to 1994.
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