When a civil war has gone on for 35 or 40 years, as all the experts and news
accounts remind us is the case in Colombia, you have to wonder whether it
really should be viewed as an event or as a lasting condition, unlikely to
disappear anytime soon.
If civil conflict in Colombia approaches being chronic, then it’s hardly out
of line to question whether the United States government can fix it with the
injection of a few hundred million more dollars, a few more helicopters, a
few more military and civilian police training missions, a few more lectures
on human rights and just possibly a few or a even a lot of U.S. military
To be sure, Colombia’s civil war has not been waged at a consistently high
level of intensity for the last 40 years. But if anything, the ebbs and
flows in the conflict’s history should give confident policy-makers
ensconced in their secure offices and marble hallways in Washington, D.C. a
few moments of caution.
But getting involved more heavily in Colombia’s ongoing civil conflicts,
mainly because U.S. policy makers see them as tied more closely than ever to
our generally ineffectual international War on Drugs, is precisely what
Clinton administration honchos seem to have in mind. Late in August,
President Bill Clinton himself said vital American interests are at stake in
Colombia and that it is “very much in our national security interests to do
what we can.”
In mid-October we Americans got a taste of what he had in mind. Exultant
press conferences were held in Washington and Bogota to announce the arrest
of 30 drug trafficking suspects, including two described as “kingpins,”
Alejandro Bernal Madrigal and Fabio Ochoa, who had previously served a jail
term as a leader of the old Medellin cocaine cartel. “Operation Millennium”
was described as the culmination of a year of undercover work featuring
unprecedented cooperation between U.S. investigators and the Colombian
police. Advanced cell phone tapping methods and interception of Internet
communications were touted.
U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno was especially pleased at the ability of
the two governments to minimize national boundaries. “The threat of the
illegal drug trade is pervasive; it knows no boundaries,” she said. “That it
why it is so critical that our response was equally transnational.”
U.S. officials have been whooping it up for increased transnational
responses for several months. U.S. “drug czar” Gen. Barry McCaffrey visited
Colombia and neighboring countries this summer, stressing that the guerrilla
groups and narco-traffickers have essentially become one and the same.
Provided Colombian President Andres Pastrana doesn’t make concessions to the
insurgents or restart peace negotiations (which could result in losing U.S.
support) the United States wants to increase aid to Colombia sharply.
U.S. security assistance (essentially military aid) to Colombia is at $289
million this year, making Colombia the third largest recipient of U.S.
military aid, behind only Israel and Egypt. Colombian officials in August
requested an additional $500 million in military aid over two years.
McCaffrey wants to increase spending on the drug war in the region over the
next couple of years until it reaches $1 billion a year. If anything, the
most influential congressional Republicans would like to spend even more.
The argument for stepped-up military and anti-drug-trafficking aid is that
it would improve regional stability, give the United States more leverage to
reduce human rights violations, cut down on drug trafficking, and stabilize
an essentially friendly democracy. But Adam Isaacson the Colombian expert at
the liberal Center for International Policy in
Washington, argues that it would make
every aspect of these problems worse. Winifred Tate of the Washington
Office on Latin America agrees.
The drug trade won’t be reduced until demand in the United States is
reduced, they say. Stepping up U.S. aid to the government will increase the
resistance (and probably the popular support) of the major leftist guerrilla
group, FARC, which is awash in drug money these days. While stepped-up aid
might include programs designed to reduce human-rights abuses by government
forces, it could also send a tacit message of toleration of existing abuses.
And an unsuccessful or escalating U.S. involvement in Colombia is more
likely to destabilize the region than to stabilize it.
The persistence of the drug trade is one of Colombia’s more enduring
stories. When the Medellin cocaine cartel was dismantled in 1991, the Cali
cartel took over the bulk of the business. When leaders of the Cali cartel
were arrested in 1995, Alan Weisman was in Calamar, in the eastern Guaviare
region, where much coca is grown, researching an article for the Los Angeles
Times Magazine. The townspeople in Calamar, who depended on the cocaine
trade, celebrated noisily.
“Thank the blessed Virgin,” shouted one grandmother. “Finally, something to
pop the lid off prices!” “Amen,” shouted the bartender, who proceeded to
open bottles of Chivas Regal and announce drinks on the house.
Somewhere in the Colombian jungles, competing traffickers were no doubt also
celebrating the arrest of a few “kingpins” this month.
The economics of the cocaine trade, as outlined by former Colombian law
enforcement official Gustavo de Greiff, explain why eradication is so
difficult. A kilo of processed cocaine fetches about $2,000 in Colombia, but
can be sold for $60,000 on the streets in the United States. U.S. domestic
traffickers pay about $20,000 per kilo to foreign smugglers (whose costs are
about $5,500), then work through a chain of intermediaries so that by the
time it reaches users, it brings in about $60,000 per kilo.
That’s a lot of profit for everybody involved. Plenty of people will take
risks (or pay others to take them) for such profits. Others are more than
happy to step forward when the government removes some of the competition.
Even taking at face value the claims of the drug warriors suggests that this
month’s busts will have little influence on the trade. The arrests were
accompanied by seizures of 13 to 15 tons of cocaine (11 tons of which were
seized two months previously). But the government claims that Bernal alone
boasted of shipping 30 tons a month to the United States. That’s 360 tons a
year, meaning 13 to 15 tons seized is simply a cost of doing business. And
Bernal is just one trafficker.
Then there’s the inconvenient fact that the growth in coca and opium poppy
cultivation in Colombia (some claim at least 200,000 acres are under
cultivation) is largely the result of “success” in harassing growers in
neighboring Bolivia and Peru. Colombia used to specialize in processing raw
coca into cocaine powder in jungle labs. Now it has something of a
vertically integrated industry. But if eradication actually worked, there
are numerous other places coca can be grown.
If the drug trade is unlikely to be eradicated, what are the chances the
United States can have a positive impact on the survival of democracy and
the promotion of stability in Colombia? The issue is complicated by a long
and often troubled history.
Colombia, colonized by Spain in the 1500s, gained independence with the
victory of Simon Bolivar’s army in 1819. Since becoming a separate state
from Venezuela and Ecuador in 1831, it has seen political struggle, often
violent, between liberal and conservative elements for control of government
policy. Civil war in 1861 led to liberal victory, but conservatives ruled
from 1880 to 1930.
In 1903, the Colombian Senate declined to ratify the Hay-Herran Treaty,
which allowed for the lease of territory for the Panama Canal (Panama was
then part of Colombia). A revolt broke out in Panama; U.S. troops intervened
to prevent Colombian troops from suppressing the uprising and the U.S.
recognized Panama as a separate, independent state. U.S.-Colombian relations
were strained-to-hostile until 1921. Liberals regained power in Colombia in
1930, leading to constitutional revisions that gave the government more
control over private property. The first leftist-to-Marxist guerrilla groups
were formed in the 1930s, but their power was marginal for years.
Colombia sided with the Allies in World War II and was an original member of
the United Nations. Beginning in 1948, antagonism between liberals and
conservatives led to widespread violence (called, la violencia) that
persisted through a coup in 1954 and hundreds of thousands of deaths. In
1957, the liberals and conservatives agreed to share power and offices
equally, and ruled (with some interruptions punctuated by violence) as a
National Front until 1974. Meanwhile, armed guerrilla bands, some with roots
stretching back to the 1950s and even the 1930s, controlled much of the
The insurgents gained strength in the late 1970s, and in 1980 a guerrilla
band occupied the Dominican embassy in Bogota for two months. After a
short-lived truce in 1984, the guerrillas (often allied with the
increasingly powerful narcotraffickers) seized the Palace of Justice in
1985. During the 1990 presidential campaign three presidential candidates
As Ethan Nadelmann, the former Princeton political science professor who now
heads the Lindesmith Center of George Soros’ Open Society
Institute, points out, however, through most of
this turmoil Colombians have been remarkably entrepreneurial. Colombia has
oil, precious metals and other minerals, and is the world’s principal
supplier of emeralds. Coffee is the principal crop, accounting for 80
percent of export earnings in the mid-1970s down to 25 percent in 1995 due
to low international prices, pests, and agricultural diversification. Other
cash crops include rice, potatoes, cacao, sugar cane, bananas, tobacco and
Until very recently, then, Colombia’s economy flourished despite political
upheaval. For better or worse, however, smuggling has long been a part of
the economy. During the colonial period, when Spain permitted trade only
with the Spanish crown, smuggling was considered honorable, and many of
today’s elite families made their initial fortunes that way. Lower-class
entrepreneurs trafficked in black market emeralds during this century, and
the skills involved were easily transferred to the drug trade.
With the collapse of the coffee market and a decline in Colombia’s oil
industry (exacerbated by the actions of ELN, the other guerrilla group) and
increases in political and drug-trafficking violence, Colombia’s economy has
tanked. Gross Domestic Product, which grew by 5.7 percent in 1995, grew by
only 0.6 percent in 1998 and fell by 4.8 percent in the first quarter and
6.5 percent in the second quarter of 1999. Industrial production declined by
16.2 percent in 1998 and another 20.7 percent through May of 1999. That
deterioration in general economic well-being makes the political situation
all the more perilous.
With the ELN controlling much of the oil-rich northeast and the FARC
controlling much of the eastern lowlands, guerrillas now effectively control
about 40 percent of the country, “taxing” ranchers, oil producers and drug
traffickers. In the late 1980s a third force, the paramilitaries, originally
hired to protect ranchers from guerrillas, came into being. The
paramilitaries now seem to have ties with certain elements in the Colombian
army (which tends to look the other way as they slaughter enemies) and are
blamed by human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights
Watch for about
70 percent of the fatalities in the last several years. Amnesty
International’s 1999 report estimates that security forces and
paramilitaries killed about 1,000 civilians in 1998, while guerrillas killed
about 400. Killing by all sides is expected to be higher in 1999. Some 1.5
million people are “internally displaced” and record numbers of Colombians
are leaving the country.
The ability of the United States to understand, let alone control, these
volatile elements is further limited by history. Worried about communist
insurgencies from the 1950s until recently, the United States established
close ties with the Colombian military. Many Colombians believe the United
States is deeply implicated in human rights violations by the Colombian
military. The Colombian newspaper Cambio 16 is especially interested in
uncovering alleged plots by the CIA and more recently the DEA to meddle in
and control Colombia. Many Colombians of all social classes have a
deep-seated suspicion of U.S. motives.
Add the terrain, “so tangled,” as Alan Weisman put it, “that El Salvador or
Vietnam seem comparatively featureless.” The country has three Andean ridges
(cordilleras) with valleys between, covered with jungle. Much of the eastern
part of the country is virtually without roads and infrastructure, which is
one reason alternatives to coca have seldom proven profitable for peasant
farmers; transportation costs were too high, but the drug traffickers
The guerrillas have operated in this terrain for 40 years. And as Mauricio
Reina of Fedesarrollo, a Bogota think-tank, told NBC’s Jennifer Rich
recently, “Full generations have grown up in this activity and with this
outlook on life. They are in no hurry.”
What would be the objectives of a major intervention in Colombia? There’s no
tyrant to demonize, though the government, the guerrillas and the
paramilitaries have all done plenty to criticize. Would military activity
get to the drug traffickers and guerrillas, or hit mainly peasant coca
growers? Given the history, the recession, and the tangled webs of
loyalties, how would intervention promote stability? Indeed, how would you
The notion that the United States can provide a quick fix in Colombia short
of calling off the drug war, which complicates every problem and intensifies
every conflict, seems naive at best. If there’s no quick fix, how long will
Americans (not to mention Colombians) tolerate active intervention?