In This Review

Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society
Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society
By Frank Safford and Marco Palacios
Oxford University Press, 2001, 464 pp
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Colombian Labyrinth: The Synergy of Drugs and Insurgency and Its Implications for Regional Stability
Colombian Labyrinth: The Synergy of Drugs and Insurgency and Its Implications for Regional Stability
By Angel Rabasa and Peter Chalk
Rand, 2001, 113 pp
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The Sixth Division: Military-Paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia
The Sixth Division: Military-Paramilitary Ties and U.S. Policy in Colombia
By Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch, 2001, 101 pp
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Once the battle against al Qaeda is won, the conflict in Colombia will likely rise to the top of the U.S. agenda. These three books outline some of the invidious dilemmas that the United States will face. The first is a comprehensive introduction for anyone seeking context for the current turmoil. Safford and Palacios combine geography, history, and politics to dissect Colombia's distinctive regional identities and cultures, including the key role of its two traditional political parties. Colombia's economic troubles, they argue, grew from its difficulties in creating an integrated national economy and its relative lack of success as an exporter. The role of coffee, the consequences of urban growth, and the complex roots of Colombia's violence are also discussed.

Two short reports usefully fill out the picture. Rabasa and Chalk take a hard look at the strengths and weaknesses of Colombia's guerrillas and paramilitaries. They see the weakness of the Colombian state as the core problem and recommend increased support for Colombia's military as well as its state institutions. Human Rights Watch, in contrast, points out some of the risks such a policy would entail. Its analysis provides detailed evidence that the Colombian army and police profit from their connections to the "Sixth Division," the Colombian paramilitary groups. Yet the Colombian government has not effectively broken such links. And U.S. policymakers have failed to enforce U.S. human rights laws, thereby allowing the Colombian military to receive assistance despite its poor record.

Their differing approaches notwithstanding, all these accounts make clear how complex and internationalized the Colombian crisis has become. Colombia's potential disintegration could endanger the very future of Latin American democracy. In response, the international community must confront the conflict on a regional as well as an international level. But in the end, only the Colombians can resolve the deep-seated domestic antagonisms that fuel their war.

In this elegant book, Slater draws on more than 15 years of collecting stories and oral histories in the Amazon. She uses these sources to complement the accounts of remarkable outsiders who have interpreted the Amazon. The voices of contemporary Amazonian residents are mixed with those of writers such as Claude Levi-Strauss, Theodore Roosevelt, and the great nineteenth-century naturalist Henry Walter Bates. Any appreciation of the Amazon's rich ecological heritage, she writes, must be comprehended in terms of its cultural diversity and human settlement. And the way the region is described can affect policies. If the Amazon is seen as a jungle filled with violent indigenous peoples and dread diseases, outsiders are likely to accept deforestation. If it is seen as a preserve where people coexist with plants and animals, conservation will find support. Slater shows convincingly that in the very unequal fight to preserve the rain forest, understanding the ongoing impact of stories and ideas as well as the projection of images is as critical as scientific analysis.