Colombia's Threats to Regional Security

By Mendel, William W. | Military Review, May/June 2001 | Go to article overview

Colombia's Threats to Regional Security

Mendel, William W., Military Review

Colombia's complicated internal conflict is causing problems across international borders. Long-term government failures to provide a lawful environment have invited criminal activity that does not respect boundaries. How countries in the region respond to Colombia's plan to deal with the outlaws is an important factor. More important still is how Colombia addresses the conflict's center of gravity-the FARC.

COLOMBIA'S ANDEAN neighbors voice concern about the spillover of Colombia's conflict into their sovereign territories. What's more, ever since the United States announced its support to Plan Colombia, they cite the United States as progenitor of more problems to come. Colombia's troubles are having an impact on its neighbors, but the spillover from the US contribution to Plan Colombia is overstated.' The problems in the region are longstanding and are best understood today in terms of the growing power of the narcoguerrillas. Seeing that, Colombia's weaker neighbors would be understandably cautious in their statements regarding powerful outlaw organizations whose fortunes are on the rise.

Colombia has immense geostrategic importance to the United States and the rest of the world community. Uniquely located astride two oceans, its commerce continues to grow along north-south trade routes. It is three times the size of Montana and has various climates and growing zones that support a bountiful agricultural industry. The Andes Mountains are a compartmentalizing feature of Colombian life that have given rise to multiple urban centers, a historical federalist/anti-federalist argument and a corresponding lack of central government presence and influence in some outlying areas.

Historically, many of Colombia's remote regions have interacted more easily with trade centers outside Colombia, finding the lines of drift into other countries more useful than the cross-compartment routes within their own.' Reduced dependence on and allegiance to Bogota contribute to the overall lack of enthusiasm for central government programs in these areas, especially when they contain a punitive dimension. The US initiative under Plan Colombia centers on eradicating coca crops in the remote border department of Putamayo, across from Ecuador's Sucumbio province. This plan is under way, and large plantings of coca are being destroyed.

Backing up Colombia

Colombia has been a Cold War target for international communist expansion for obvious strategic reasons. Both the Soviet Union and Cuba supported insurgencies intended to spread communist influence throughout the region. One of the two main armed leftist guerrilla groups of the National Liberation Party (Ejercito de Liberation NacionalELN) was a direct product of Cuban socialist internationalism. The danger of global communism may have passed, but Colombia still faces the ELN and the much more powerful Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-FARC), which the Soviet Union formerly supported. Both groups have devolved into big guerrilla business, chasing US narcotics dollars along with, or in competition against, other outlaw gangs. Together they spread narcotrafficking, gunrunning, kidnapping, extortion and other forms of pseudoinsurgent terrorism throughout the region.

With those threats in mind, the United States pursues important interests in northern South America, including eradicating illicit drugs, strengthening democracy, and promoting political and economic progress and stability. The US government underscored these interests with a July 2000 supplemental aid package to assist Colombia. It added $729.3 million for military and police assistance to existing programs for 2000 and 2001, plus $311 million for economic and social assistance. The military aid portion will train three 900-man battalions to establish secure environments in which counterdrug police can operate. Other funding supports aircraft for the Colombian National Police, a joint intelligence center at Tres Esquinas military base on the Caqueta River and air-ground-river interdiction operations. …

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