Colombia Conundrum


Colombia is one of the most violent places in the world. Kidnappings, political murders, pervasive drug trafficking, corruption, and a deepening economic recession wrack the country. Many fear that the nation, torn between leftist guerillas, right-wing private armies, and a military with a history of brutality, is on the verge of collapse. Hope resides in a growing peace movement that has mobilized millions of ordinary Colombians and helped elect a president, Andres Pastrana, who has pursued a negotiated peace among the factions.

Next month the U.S. Senate is likely to approve a $1.6-billion aid package for Colombia, four-fifths of which is designated as military assistance. The Clinton administration sees the aid, which Pastrana has requested, as crucial to the "drug war." In Peru and Bolivia, the interdiction of drug smugglers and the destruction of coca fields (cocaine is made from the coca leaf), combined with UN-sponsored efforts encouraging farmers to plant alternative crops, have significantly reduced the amount of coca grown there. As a consequence, Colombia has become the source for 80 percent of the world's cocaine. The Clinton administration thinks that the Colombian armed forces, given the resources and training needed, can get to the coca fields and destroy them. If the United States does nothing, advocates of aid say, not only will the flood of cocaine increase, but the chance for survival of Colombia's democracy, the oldest in Latin America, will become even more perilous.

There are good reasons to be skeptical about how the aid package is designed and what its prospects for success may be. Critics argue that the $1-billion increase in aid is not aimed primarily at drug interdiction, but is a recipe for U.S. entanglement in the thirty-five-year civil war between Marxist guerillas in the south and the corrupt oligarchy that controls the government in Bogota. Many worry that U.S. complicity in the atrocious human-rights record of the Colombian military is sure to be one result of greater involvement. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has warned that "What we are seeing is a dramatic ratcheting up of a counterinsurgency policy in the name of counterdrug policy."

It is impossible, however, to completely separate counterdrug from counterinsurgency efforts in Colombia. The large coca-growing areas of southern Colombia are controlled by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who extract $500 million annually in "protection" fees from coca growers. Few observers take the FARC's political agenda seriously (it executed three American human-rights workers last year), but its fifteen-thousand-person army cannot be ignored. President Pastrana has already made significant concessions to the FARC, and the United States supports a negotiated settlement to the conflict. But the guerrillas' recent military successes and fat bank account have given them little incentive to come to an agreement with the government. The military-aid package, which includes thirty Blackhawk helicopters and the creation of three specially trained battalions (5,000 troops) of the Colombian army, will pay for a campaign against FARC-controlled coca fields. …

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