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 Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC); a 12,000-body paramilitary umbrella group, the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC), also financed by drug money; and a dwindling leftist insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN), that still boasts 3,500-5,000 guerrillas.

All three groups appear on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to regard Colombia's conflict as only a terrorist or drug problem. Nor should it be considered a classic Marxist insurgency or counterinsurgency. It is, rather, a mix of all these elements. The FARC, the AUC, and the ELN fight not just the Colombian state, but also each other and the country's civil society. All three groups are also, in a sense, criminal gangs: the FARC and the AUC support themselves primarily through the coca and poppy industries and ancillary kidnapping, extortion, and assassination rackets; the ELN specializes in kidnapping and also regularly targets Colombia's other major resource, oil.

The basic statistics of the conflict have become sadly familiar. Colombia is now the world's homicide capital. Annual noncombatant deaths from the fighting reached more than 4,000 last year and have exceeded 30,000 in the last ten years. Colombia has the third-highest number of internal refugees in the world (after Angola and Sudan) and bristles with weapons imported from all over the globe. More than 3,000 Colombians and foreigners were kidnapped in the country in 2001. Meanwhile, some 80 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States and Europe comes from Colombia, as does most of the heroin found on the U.S. East Coast.

Between drugs, paramilitaries, guerrillas, and a collapsing state, Colombia's condition is steadily worsening. A purely military approach to the crisis, however, will not resolve the country's deep-seated structural flaws, any more than it has in the past. Nor can more fighting permanently end the violence. Unfortunately, a military approach seems to be just the kind of strategy that Uribe seems intent on pursuing. And Washington, with its new resolve to fight terrorism around the globe, seems fully determined to help him execute it.


Not long ago, counterinsurgency had been practically written out of Washington's political dictionary, thanks in part to the lingering memories of President Ronald Reagan's support for a "contra" war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and a brutal campaign against rebels in El Salvador. Now President George W. Bush seems ready to accompany Uribe as he delivers the drastic crackdown that he promised voters against the FARC, the AUC, and the ELN. In the blink of an eye, the U.S. Andean counterdrug policy has started to morph into a counterterror and counterinsurgency strategy. Why the shift?

For one thing, there is now a widespread consensus that drug eradication in Colombia, long the centerpiece of American narcotics policy, has failed. Since Congress first appropriated $1.3 billion for Plan Colombia in 2000, coca cultivation in Colombia has actually increased. And coca has begun to return to Peru and Bolivia as well, where, in the last decade, successful eradication programs inspired premature confidence that such programs would work in Colombia.

Meanwhile, attempts to give coca farmers another way to earn a living have also failed -- at least in Colombia's southern department of Putumayo, once a stronghold of the FARC, now also of the paramilitaries, and a geographic focus of Plan Colombia. Although thousands of families signed agreements with Bogota to abandon coca cultivation in exchange for government retraining assistance, Washington has decided to redirect funds to building infrastructure instead. This move may create some jobs, but it also limits the potential for long-term employment.

As a result of these failures, many observers have begun objecting to Washington's tendency to view Colombia's crisis through the drug lens alone. In the months prior to September 11, a chorus had begun to clamor for developing a deeper understanding of the country. The whole idea of Colombia as a functioning nation, critics argued, was a fiction. Unless Colombia were reinvented and new institutions were created from scratch, the nation risked collapse.

It is no accident that Colombia lacks a state apparatus or effective institutions outside its principal cities. Neglecting such development was a conscious decision by the country's ruling class, which realized long ago that limiting the reach of the army and the police was the best way to guarantee that the elite could exploit the country's riches. Free of state interference, for example, a handful of families in the nineteenth century were able to "colonize" great swaths of land for coffee cultivation, expelling small farmers and planting coffee for the booming export market.

The paid vigilantes who provided muscle to the coffee industry in this period were the ancestors of today's paramilitaries. Their brutal, take-no-prisoners methods are now employed to protect large rural business and agrarian interests, to keep the Colombian drug industry prosperous, and to fight the rebels. Anyone alleged to be a sympathizer of the FARC or the ELN is killed, and thousands of others have been deliberately displaced. Yet because the FARC and the ELN also treat innocents brutally, and because the paramilitaries get support from the army, the AUC has grown in strength. Due to the protection it provides to drug lords, landowners, terrorized peasants, and poor people, the AUC is increasingly viewed as a political force in Colombia, dispensing its own rough vigilante justice and, like the FARC, providing a modicum of social order in the areas it controls.

The fact remains, however, that paramilitaries are responsible for the majority of human rights violations in Colombia. Last year alone, according to Human Rights Watch, the paramilitaries were linked to the deaths of 3 journalists and 11 human rights monitors. In addition, the AUC was responsible for the majority of the 201 assassinations of trade unionists last year -- the highest death toll among labor organizers in the world.

Whereas the paramilitaries target the individuals and institutions that make democratic civil society functional and vibrant, the FARC tends to attack representatives of the state itself -- mayors, senators, presidential candidates, cops, soldiers, police stations, municipal buildings, electrical grids, dams, oil pipelines, and more recently, commercial buildings and patrons of upscale restaurants in Bogota. This strategy is part of the FARC's total war approach, meant to cripple the state and force a settlement on the FARC's terms. In the long term, however, it is the paramilitaries, who aim to take over key territories and sectors of the police, military, and Congress, that pose the greatest threat to Colombian democracy and U.S. interests. If the AUC succeeds in its drive for control, the United States and Colombia's neighbors could soon face a country ruled by right-wing, drug-financed, extreme nationalists.

Remarkably, for all its troubles, Colombia remains a democracy for the time being -- at least if judged by standards such as freedom of the press and regular open elections. The country has a market economy and is adopting the kind of tough fiscal reforms many other Latin American countries resist, and until the late 1990s it consistently posted one of the highest growth rates in the region. Colombia boasts cosmopolitan, urban middle and upper classes, a vibrant intellectual community, talented businesspeople, world-class artists, and spectacular natural resources. It exports not only drugs, but Latin America's top-selling soap opera.

But Colombia is a place where democratic practices coexist with the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of citizens, especially outspoken activists and thinkers, and this schizophrenic national life is becoming more and more difficult to sustain. Six years ago the country went into a recession. The middle and upper classes have begun an exodus out of Colombia, kids and capital in tow. To make matters worse, the FARC is now preparing for urban warfare. Colombian intelligence recently reported that the FARC has inserted 10,000-15,000 agents into and around Colombia's cities. Since the collapse of the peace process, Bogota's electrical grid has become a routine target. The capital's bomb squad defuses explosives on a regular basis; recent near misses included the city's main commercial district, the street across from the presidential palace, and the offices of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

It is probably only a matter of time before a U.S. target is hit. Already, the September 11 terrorist attacks have greatly influenced the American debate on Colombia. As Washington has resolved to fight terror around the globe, Bogota has started pushing hard to have Colombia's conflict viewed as part of the antiterror campaign. Meanwhile, Colombia's strategy may also come to be influenced by the U.S. experience in Afghanistan, which demonstrated the potential for American airpower when combined with local proxies and limited U.S. ground forces. With U.S. special forces having already been deployed to Georgia and the Philippines, moreover, the next 12 to 24 months could well see the start of a debate on whether to provide such aid and more air support to the Colombian military. Washington may be tempted by Bogota's entreaties and by its own new counterterror focus to view Colombia's conflict primarily through that lens. Doing so, however, would be a costly military, political, financial, and diplomatic mistake -- just as it was a mistake to regard all social conflict in Latin America during the Cold War through anticommunist lenses.


Since the first Bush administration, American officials have wrestled with balancing the overriding U.S. interest in drug eradication against local efforts to combat domestic insurgencies in Latin America. Washington believed that Andean governments could not be expected to expend resources stamping out narcotics unless they received technical, financial, military, and intelligence assistance to bring their domestic rebellions under control. This thinking seemed to be borne out in the early 1990s, when Peru, for example, wiped out its drug trade and eliminated the Shining Path insurgency -- albeit at great cost to democracy and its civilian population. Bolivia also virtually eliminated coca cultivation, although it is now experiencing a politically destabilizing backlash from unemployed, impoverished peasant coca farmers.

By the mid-1990s, as coca production and cultivation migrated to Colombia, Congress began to increase its scrutiny of the Colombian military's human rights abuses and of the explosion of drug revenues into the coffers of Colombia's armed groups. During this same period, Colombia's principal drug cartels were broken up, and "boutique," or baby, cartels emerged to run the business. Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, drug lords purchased vast tracts of fertile agricultural and cattle ranches from Colombia's traditional landed elite, in what is now known as the "counter land reform."

Into this climate stepped President Andres Pastrana and his extraordinarily able diplomatic representation in Washington. Voted into office in 1998 on a "peace ticket" with broad support from Colombian civil society, which had mobilized against the kidnappings, assassinations, and human rights violations of the past few years, Pastrana called on Colombia, the United States, Europe, and the international community to contribute a total of $7.5 billion to a new "Plan Colombia" for development, rebuilding the judiciary, crop substitution, coca eradication, and assistance to the internally displaced -- much as the CIA team had recommended 40 years earlier.

Pastrana also announced his intention to engage in a peace process with the FARC and the ELN and to fight the growing paramilitary threat. In a dramatic and controversial sign of good faith, the president granted the FARC de facto control of a demilitarized area in southeastern Colombia the size of Switzerland, known as the despeje. He also promised the FARC that he would make it "state policy" to combat the AUC. The initial U.S. response to Pastrana's proposal was positive. In fact, the United States offered to play a supportive low-profile role in the peace process, even sending State Department officials to Costa Rica to meet with FARC commanders. But the FARC's deliberate execution of three American indigenous-rights activists in 1999 effectively ended Washington's support for talks with the FARC and strengthened those in the U.S. Congress and military who wanted a more aggressive policy against the rebels.

Under pressure from these critics, the Clinton administration shifted its emphasis from a comprehensive counterdrug program involving social, economic, and democratic development, to a policy that focused on the provision of military assistance and helicopters to eradicate coca production in FARC territory. The resulting stripped-down version of Plan Colombia was a $1.3 billion program that was hastily drawn up in English, as one former U.S. official noted, "on the back of a napkin on an airplane."

Part of the credit for the passage of this U.S. aid package belongs to Bogota's diplomats in Washington, who mounted one of the most sophisticated and effective lobbying campaigns of any foreign country in years. Colombia's ambassador, Luis Alberto Moreno (who will stay on under Uribe), met with literally hundreds of members of Congress to persuade them of the depth of Colombia's crisis and the good intentions of its rulers. Bogota also brought dozens of U.S. legislators and their staffs to Colombia for carefully packaged tours. Embassy officials worked the halls of the U.S. executive branch, toured the salons of Washington think tanks, and crisscrossed party lines.

In addition to providing helicopters, intelligence, and other military assistance, Plan Colombia also included training by U.S. special forces of three new counternarcotics battalions -- a pilot project for the building of a new, professional Colombian army. All security-related components of the package were restricted by Congress to antidrug activities, however. Mindful of the Colombian military's poor record on human rights and its ties with the paramilitaries, Congress insisted that all Colombians trained for U.S.-backed battalions be vetted on human rights standards. Under the legislation, the U.S. president is also required to certify that Colombia's military is severing its ties with the paramilitaries. The United States, through electronic surveillance, can effectively monitor paramilitary movements and track the close working relationship between the AUC and the Colombian military. Yet despite evidence of only limited progress, the White House has repeatedly issued the required certification and released Plan Colombia funds.


During the Plan Colombia debate, skeptics had warned that once American money, equipment, and advisers headed to Colombia, it would be only a matter of time before the United States began supporting the counterinsurgency campaign against the FARC and the ELN. If the United States really wanted to reduce the massive quantities of drugs coming from Colombia and the Andes, critics argued, a combination of demand reduction and decriminalization at home with sustainable, alternative development in Colombia would be a far safer and more effective way to spend U.S. tax dollars.

But this was a far less politically appealing approach. And a new consensus has emerged in Washington that neither alternative development nor political, economic, or judicial reform is possible in Colombia until the state first starts providing permanent security throughout the country, which is three times the size of California. Doing so, however, will require a massive counterinsurgency campaign, even if it is portrayed as counterterrorism.

This shift in thinking in Washington can be explained by more than just the events of September 11 or the reaction to the film Traffic. Pastrana's peace process has been revealed as an ineffectual mechanism that allowed both the FARC and the government to gird up for war. Pastrana used the peace process to win international backing for his government, strengthen the army, and convince the United States to back Plan Colombia. The FARC used the despeje to prepare for urban warfare while gaining legitimacy and diplomatic recognition as an insurgent force. Meanwhile, having been excluded from negotiations, the paramilitaries -- facing no serious threat from the army, enjoying the support of the business community, and feeding on drug money and popular hatred for the rebels -- tripled in size and influence during this period.

Despite Pastrana's demonstrable commitment to peace, Bogota never mounted a sustained offensive against the paramilitaries or developed a negotiating strategy with the rebels. Nor did the FARC ever start talking in earnest. Pastrana's greatest success was in conditioning the United States to see Colombia's peril as its own, and thus to make an open-ended commitment to build the institutions that Colombia's own elites had long neglected. The Colombian government never carried out serious internal reforms and resisted international mediation, refusing to ask the un to open a mission there and allowing the secretary-general's special adviser and other foreign diplomats to serve as intermediaries only once it was too late, during the last gasps of the peace process. Nor did Colombia actively seek to involve its neighbors in any sort of regional diplomatic or security initiative.

Such an approach is no longer sustainable. Nor is it tenable to fund a frontal attack against the rebels (as Washington seems inclined to do) without also insisting that the military cut its ties with the paramilitaries and pursue their leaders, financial backers, and gunmen with equal vigor. Unfortunately, many in Colombia and the U.S. military's Southern Command remain skeptical of the insistence by human rights groups and the U.S. Congress that Bogota take such steps. Advocates of U.S. support for counterinsurgency efforts denounce as lamentable the brutality of the AUC but argue that Colombia should fight the FARC first. They also fear that pushing the issue too hard could debilitate the Colombian army and government. Many Americans and Colombians, civilians and military officers alike, have come to regard pesky nongovernmental organizations and the media as "the opposition," an annoying obstacle to be surmounted in bringing peace and democracy to the region. This sort of talk, however, only fuels suspicions that the AUC and its dirty-war tactics enjoy the tacit support of certain sectors of the American and Colombian armed forces. And it serves as an impediment to building a solid bipartisan consensus for reaching a long-term solution to Colombia's crisis.

Whatever human rights restrictions Congress places on U.S. military assistance to Colombia, the fact remains that the war there will escalate in the coming years. Human rights groups and legislators should therefore now turn their focus to how the war will be fought, fixing their attention on civilian protection, the weapons used, and targets chosen by the Colombian military, the paramilitaries, and the rebels.


Uribe is now planning to wage war in Colombia. His strategy may be politically appealing, and he may even succeed in weakening the FARC somewhat, but his plan fails to address the deeper, crippling social and political causes of Colombia's 55-year-old civil conflict. Saving Colombia from collapse will require Uribe to embark on a radical reconstruction of his country's political culture. Whether he can succeed in such an ambitious project is far from certain, however, for the obstacles he faces are significant. Already there have been troubling signs. While governor of Antioquia, Uribe helped create civil defense units that became murderous paramilitaries. During his presidential campaign, he proposed creating a million-strong "civilian force" to assist the army and police against the rebels. And one of his closest campaign advisers was General Rito Alejo del R'o, who commanded the army in Antioquia when Uribe was governor there and who was fired by Pastrana for his alleged paramilitary ties.

Previous Colombian governments and the country's political and entrepreneurial classes have never made the kinds of sacrifices, financial and otherwise, required to effectively combat the insurgencies and drugs and to reform the country. Colombia's elite has raised the flag of national sovereignty whenever outside actors have tried to address the conflict but also has used the promise of foreign military assistance as an excuse to avoid spending Colombia's resources. It is no accident that of all the vulnerable countries of the Andean region, only Colombia has completely lost control of more than half of its territory and permitted three virulent rebellions to flourish. Incompetence, corruption, and accommodation have kept Colombia's masters from accepting the reality of the disaster they helped create.

Although American addicts have certainly provided an endless supply of revenue to the drug lords, the fact that 40,000 illegal armed combatants have flourished also necessarily implies a degree of complicity, direct and indirect, by Colombians themselves. The judiciary is so weak and corrupt, for example, that upward of 95 percent of crimes are never prosecuted. Tax collection in this relatively wealthy but highly unequal country hovers at approximately 10 percent of GDP, half the U.S. rate. Despite promises over the years, no president has been able to change the conscription laws to oblige children of the elite to fight in the army; only poor kids without high school diplomas shoulder that patriotic duty. And the defense budget, which averaged a mere 1.35 percent of GDP in the 1990s, remains significantly lower than in other countries in conflict and other Latin American countries at peace. With the AUC commanding the support of 20 to 30 percent of the new Colombian Congress elected last spring, it is hard to imagine how the new government will be able to increase the funds used for fighting the paramilitary forces or to push for political and rural reforms.

Uribe has at least one arrow in his quiver, however. Asset-forfeiture laws passed by the government of former President Ernesto Samper (which, ironically, turned out to have its own ties to the narcotics trade), could allow the government to seize millions of acres in fertile agricultural lands from drug lords who purchased them in recent years. This would allow Uribe to implement a significant and desperately needed land reform package, either as an independent initiative or to give himself leverage and popular support during future negotiations.

It is uncertain, however, whether Uribe's hard-line credentials will be sufficient for him to sustain the political backlash that would follow such a step. His incoming government has already announced it will seek tough antiterrorist legislation from the Colombian Congress. A new "cooperation" law is intended to strictly limit and monitor international assistance to civil society. But it remains unclear whether the military, police, and intelligence forces will be able to pursue their enemies while leaving innocents unscathed. Here the Colombian government would do well to learn from Peru, a country that is just now straining to rebuild its democratic institutions, which were practically destroyed in the civil war against the Shining Path rebels and coca growers.

Making matters worse, Colombia lacks the capacity to make effective use of foreign development assistance. And on the eradication side, the fumigation policies pushed by the United States have been too politically and ecologically controversial for most Colombians to stomach. Nor have they reduced cultivation. Targeted farmers just move and plant again. Senior Colombian police, once known as less corrupt than the military, have recently been accused of pocketing more than $2 million in American aid. And now that all of the helicopters granted under Plan Colombia have arrived, the pilots Colombia committed to train for drug eradication have failed to materialize. What will the United States gain by putting more resources into this mix, other than becoming a party to endless war?


After September 11, the Bush administration asked Congress to demolish the firewall erected by Plan Colombia that restricts U.S. intelligence, training, and equipment extended to Colombia from being used for anything except counternarcotics. If Congress complies, Bogota will get a green light to use all current and future U.S. aid for counterinsurgency or counterterror operations. Congress is now considering a new aid package that includes the broad Andean Regional Initiative, which includes $439 million for Colombia, balancing counternarcotics funds with social and development assistance; a $35 million grant to support an antikidnapping police effort; and a $98 million package to train a brigade that would protect the Colombian-Occidental pipeline in the department of ArAUCa, where paramilitaries now openly operate with the army's tacit blessing. This last measure would bring Colombian troops into direct confrontation with both the AUC and the ELN. Thanks to the ELN's nearly daily hits on the pipeline, Colombia currently loses as much as $430 million per year in oil revenues, and the pipeline protection proposal, if approved, would help secure this important source of revenue. It would also represent a significant departure from current U.S. practice, which provides help for counternarcotics operations alone. And whereas Plan Colombia limits American military and civilian personnel on the ground to 800, the cap may not cover the new programs under consideration.

Colombia is already the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, after Israel and Egypt. Even so, establishing a state presence where illegal groups now hold sway will require far more resources than the United States can or should provide. Counterinsurgency specialists contend that to eliminate or significantly weaken rebel groups, the government should be able to field 10 soldiers for each guerrilla. In Colombia, this would mean 350,000 troops. Today, however, although Colombia's armed forces number 117,000, only 52,000 are professional soldiers (the rest are conscripts). And only 35,000 can be deployed in the field for direct combat; most are dedicated to protecting fixed targets or are firmly tied to desks.

What can the United States expect, therefore, if it invests in helping Colombia build a state where one barely exists? There is a widespread sense in the Bush administration that it is far easier to export material assistance than to reinvent an entire country or instill a commitment to the common good. American officials remain hard pressed to articulate U.S. security objectives in Colombia beyond acknowledging that since no morally or politically sustainable military solution is possible, the best the United States can do is help level the military playing field for an eventual return to negotiations. The flaw in this analysis, however, is that it assumes that the FARC, like the leftist rebels of the Farabundo Mart' National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador, will eventually demobilize and participate in democratic politics. The United States spent ten years and several billion dollars in El Salvador and never came close to defeating the FMLN. Colombia is 53 times the size of El Salvador, and the FARC, the ELN, and the paramilitaries are made up of seasoned fighters. Moreover, the FARC has had a very different experience from that of the FMLN: more than 3,000 of the FARC's members were killed by government death squads during one peace effort in the 1980s, and its ideology has been diluted by drug revenues. Of Colombia's three major insurgent groups, therefore, the FARC will probably be the last to lay down its arms -- if it ever does.

Defending and rebuilding the Colombian state and bringing the country back to a viable negotiation process will require at least a decade-long commitment of major diplomatic pressure and weapons, airlift, intelligence, advisers, and large-scale development and humanitarian assistance. Washington, however, must not make such a commitment without satisfying two crucial conditions. First, it must establish benchmarks for granting aid that require Uribe and his successors to sever all their political, economic, and security ties with the paramilitary forces. Bogota must also punish paramilitary members and the politicians, businesspeople, and army officers who collaborate with them. Weakening and eventually demobilizing the AUC will have immediate human rights benefits and help end the threat to the state. It will also greatly enhance the U.S. government's ability to secure the second condition crucial to sustaining any kind of positive, long-term involvement in Colombia: broad regional and international backing.

One of the many weaknesses of the American version of Plan Colombia was the failure to involve European and Latin American governments in its development. As a result, the international community questioned the emphasis on helicopters and drug eradication and gave only minimal development and refugee assistance -- much less money than the billions of dollars Pastrana had hoped to raise. Poor planning let the rest of the world off the hook, and left the United States politically exposed and doing the heavy lifting alone.

Indeed, so far, due to Colombia's concerns about its sovereignty and the United States' habit of unilateral action in Latin America, the U.S. response to Colombia's crisis has developed largely within a bilateral context. And now that the war on terrorism has so clogged the Bush administration's international agenda, Washington is unlikely to look for outside help in Colombia. Although it may be desirable, it is also unrealistic to expect the EU, Canada, Mexico, or even Brazil to step in to build an international consensus or to raise the resources to salvage Colombia. But for this very reason, the United States itself needs to actively promote and participate in international diplomatic efforts to mobilize the UN, the Organization of American States, the Rio Group, the EU, the Andean Community, and international financial institutions.


The United States cannot fumigate its way out of the Andean crisis. Nor can even intense U.S. stage-managing of a regional response to Colombia's troubles succeed if the region's elites continue to factor war, illegal economies, and insurgencies into the price of doing business. Colombia's crisis cannot be solved without participation from its neighbors. But simply strengthening local security forces, which is the emphasis of current U.S. policy, may undermine a regional solution.

Still, finding a local answer is critical. The spillover from Colombia's wars has extended well beyond the drug trade, affecting the entire Andean and Amazonian region. Weapons smuggling, refugees, gruesome violence, kidnapping, assassinations, and lawlessness are pervasive along Colombia's borders with Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru, and endemic corruption is corroding the already weak democratic institutions in most of these countries.

Take Venezuela, for example, which shares a border with Colombia about as long as that between the United States and Mexico. Historically, Venezuela and Colombia have been able to manage the multiple problems that porous borders inevitably pose. But now the two countries are at odds. Venezuela complains of the kidnapping of its citizens by Colombians. Colombia suspects that Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, supports the FARC and the ELN. And like Colombia's other neighbors, the Chavez government complains that it does far more to police the border than does Bogota. Venezuelan paramilitaries, a recent phenomenon, recently announced they would start working with the AUC to fight the FARC. Focused only on their own survival after this past spring's coup attempt, Venezuelans will have little capacity to provide political, material, or diplomatic support to their troubled neighbor.

Peru's border with Colombia is about half the size of Venezuela's and well secured, thanks to the Peruvian military's deployment of security forces to the area. Having exported most of its coca problem to Colombia in the 1990s, however, Peru is now intent on keeping it out and therefore sees eradication of Colombian coca, which could drive cultivation back to Peru, as a threat to its own success. Thanks also to the weakness of President Alejandro Toledo's government, Peru may hesitate to play a helpful role in a regional response to Colombia's crisis.

As for Ecuador, which shares a border with southern Colombia, it is widely regarded as having one of the most corrupt political elites in the region. There has been little evidence of coca production in this country of 12 million people, but it has become a significant transit route for drugs and weapons. And its northern border area, replete with brothels, bars, and even 24-hour banks, has traditionally served as a haven for FARC operatives; this region has recently been the scene of cross-border skirmishes between the FARC and the Colombian and Ecuadorian armies. Dollarization has decreased the competitiveness of Ecuador's exports and expanded the laundering of drug money. An oil pipeline is scheduled to come into use soon, but it remains unclear whether the revenues it produces can be protected from the country's endemic corruption.

One positive aspect of the spillover of Colombia's conflict into Ecuador has been the creation of a seemingly successful development program on Ecuador's northern border to build infrastructure, provide financing to micro-enterprises, and deliver better health care. But the Ecuadorian government still fears that refugees from Colombia could become a significant social and security problem, and Ecuador remains the most vulnerable of Colombia's neighbors.

To Colombia's north, Panama's Darien jungle provides another haven for both the FARC and the AUC, and refugees continually flow in. Without a military of its own, Panama has no capacity to protect its border. And like Ecuador, the dollarization of Panama's economy has exposed the country to massive money laundering by drug traffickers.

Brazil, by contrast, has in recent years put a significant troop presence on its border with Colombia, which has brought an increase in cross-border skirmishes with the FARC. Weapons and drugs continue to flow through the area quite freely, however. And the outgoing government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has failed to use the Colombia conflict as an opportunity to exercise regional leadership.

Beyond these local problems, the U.S. effort to build regional support for a military campaign in Colombia will be further complicated by skepticism about Washington's motivation for expanding its already significant military presence. Unlike in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military might be regarded as a stabilizing presence and an institution-builder, in Latin America, the U.S. armed forces are widely regarded as having been complicit in years of repression. Given the extreme weakness of democracy in the region, legitimate fear exists across society that if Washington makes stronger ties to local militaries a priority, it will only strengthen the very institutions that are most associated with the authoritarian rule of recent decades.


Despite all of these ill omens, a few hopeful signs have emerged. The climate in Bogota and Washington may now be primed for an escalation of the conflict, but President Uribe has indicated that he is willing to pursue negotiations. In a departure from his predecessors, he has even asked for UN mediation. Senior U.S. officials have endorsed this step. Uribe, however, has substantially narrowed the negotiating agenda to disarmament and re-incorporation of the rebels into Colombian society, terms they will reject. Social and political reforms have been removed from the table for the foreseeable future, and the new government has conditioned talks on a cease-fire. The FARC has indicated that it will return to negotiations, but only after government troops are withdrawn from the departments of Caqueta and Putumayo, an area three times the size of the despeje. Moreover, the FARC insists that negotiations include social and political reforms and objects to any negotiation with the paramilitaries, which would legitimize the AUC. As for the AUC itself, it now demands the release of several hundred of its soldiers from Colombian jails before it will start talking. Finally, although ripe for a settlement, talks with the ELN in Havana broke down in May and real negotiations are unlikely to resume soon. Internally divided, threatened by the FARC and the paramilitaries, the ELN does not look ready to sustain serious discussions with the government.

It remains to be seen which of the three groups -- or the government -- will prevail militarily and therefore frame the terms under which they return to peace talks. For the time being negotiations seem to be but one element of each party's preparation for war, and a period of all-out combat seems to lie ahead. Still, the option to hold talks should be left on the table and an international and un presence in the country should be maintained. And although U.S. support for talks is not sufficient to guarantee their success, remaining aloof from the process would delay progress, and U.S. opposition to a negotiated solution would guarantee its failure.

Long before negotiations resume, there are several gestures that the United States should make. First, as President Bush and senior members of his administration have indicated, Washington needs to conduct a serious debate over how to decrease demand for drugs in the United States. Colombia's problems will not be solved while U.S. consumption continues to fuel a massive narcotics industry. Meanwhile, the Treasury Department should enforce the financial sanctions that apply to the FARC, the AUC, and the ELN as groups on the State Department's terrorist list, seizing their bank accounts and other assets. Likewise, the American private sector should declare a moratorium on paying bribes to grease the wheels of investment in Colombia and throughout the Andes. And the United State should appoint a bipartisan figure as a special envoy to begin the process of knitting together support and participation from Colombia's neighbors, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the International Development Bank, the EU, Canada, and Mexico into a comprehensive regional diplomatic initiative.

The United States should also use its now substantial leverage on Colombia to push it in the right direction. Bogota, for example, should create two new army battalions and special police units with U.S. training and dedicate them to capturing paramilitary leaders. This tactic worked well against the drug cartels; it should therefore be made a condition of further U.S. aid. Washington should also insist that the human rights division of Colombia's attorney general's office be rebuilt (it was destroyed by the Pastrana government after the unit had the temerity to raid paramilitary banks and offices, exposing their deep ties to business and political leaders).

If clear and tough demands are not put on the Colombian military and political elite -- to double tax revenues, double the defense budget, cut ties to the paramilitaries, send their sons to fight, return the internally displaced to their homes, and to enact other reforms -- Colombia's precipitous decline will only continue. It is therefore time to review U.S. policy toward the country -- before unalterable choices are made and events impose conditions Washington will not want to face. Hard questions, long deferred, need to be asked and answered -- for the sake of Colombia, the Andean region, and the long-term interests of the United States.

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  • Julia E. Sweig is Senior Fellow and Deputy Director for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her most recent book is Inside the Cuban Revolution: Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground.
  • More By Julia E. Sweig