Courtesy Reuters

What Kind of War for Colombia?


In 1958, the United States sent a CIA team to assess conditions in Colombia, where, over ten years, a low-grade civil war known as La Violencia had brought more than 200,000 deaths. The CIA's agents concluded that the country, due to its predilection for violence, the absence of state authority in rural areas, inequitable land distribution, and widespread lawlessness and poverty, risked "genocide or chaos." Although it doubted that the local elite would agree to major reforms, the CIA team recommended a comprehensive nation-building package to U.S. Secretary of State Christian Herter and the new Colombian president, Alberto Lleras: Washington would help Bogota strengthen its judiciary, implement significant land reform, and eliminate the rural guerrilla insurgency, which at the time numbered between 1,200 and 2,000 members.

Only the security-related recommendations were adopted, however. The conflict never really ended, and thanks to the same gross inequality and culture of violence that existed 50 years ago, a large-scale war over drugs and oil is moving from simmer to boil. Washington and Bogota now face a fateful choice: dirty war, or less dirty war. But the United States must not repeat the mistakes of the past by once more limiting its role to the military sphere. The direction chosen by these two countries will have far-reaching consequences, for Colombia, the Andean region, and the United States.

In August of this year, Colombia inaugurated a new president: Alvaro Uribe, an independent, Oxford- and Harvard-trained former mayor and governor whose father was killed by the rebels and who has himself survived four assassination attempts. Uribe was elected with an unprecedented first-round majority after Colombia's four-year-old peace process collapsed earlier this year. Sweeping into office on a hard-line platform, the president-elect promised to provide Colombians with "democratic security" -- meaning a frontal assault on the country's two leftist guerrilla groups and, perhaps, its right-wing paramilitaries as well.

Stopping these rebels will not be easy. Colombia's new president faces three main opponents: an 18,000-strong drug-financed insurgent group, the Revolutionary

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