Colombia is a profoundly troubled country at a critical juncture. The armed conflict has resulted in more than 35,000 deaths in the past decade and the forced displacement of over 1.4 million Colombians. An estimated 25,000 Colombians die annually as a result of political or other types of violence. Non-political conflict related deaths are higher in cities and regions where violent actors (guerrillas, paramilitary and drug traffickers) are present, therefore, violent deaths directly attributed to the armed conflict underestimate the conflict's effects on violence (Rubio, 1999).
Criminal impunity combined with rampant violence has created an environment in which vigilante justice and retribution has replaced legal recourse. Human rights abuses are pervasive in Colombia. Violent deaths are only one indicator of this problem. Colombia today accounts for about one half of all kidnappings reported in the world and extortion from businesses and "vaccines" paid to prevent kidnappings are rampant. The beneficiaries of these schemes are the country's "ambiguous war" actors as well as common criminals. Kidnapping is frequently a private business in which a "secondary" market of humans has developed as common criminals kidnap people who they sell to guerrilla fronts. A kidnapping negotiation industry has also sprouted to serve the families of kidnap victims.
During the last three decades the illegal drug industry became entrenched in Colombia. During the 1970s and 1980s cocaine manufacturing and drug trafficking were the prevailing activities. During the 1990s illegal plantings exploded and today Colombia is the largest coca grower in the world, a main heroin supplier to the American market and a producer of marijuana. Indeed, Colombia is the only country in the world where the three main plant based illegal drugs (cocaine, heroin and marijuana) are produced in significant amounts.
Colombia has had a continuous political and armed conflict since the late 1950s that has simmered and exploded at times. The "Violencia" of the 1940s and 1950s ended with a peculiar political agreement (the National Front) between the two traditional parties to share power and the spoils of the government. The National Front's focused politics on distributing government spoils, de-politicized the parties and generated a feeling of political exclusion for those who wanted to promote political and social reforms outside the two traditional parties that monopolized power (Leal, 1989, Leal and Dávila, 1990, Martz, 1997). The National Front eliminated the overt conflict between Liberals and Conservatives but failed to address the most important grievances of many Colombians, particularly those relating to rural land tenancy, high levels of inequality of income, wealth and opportunities, and a feeling of political exclusion. After the "Violencia" ended, most insurgent actors relinquished their weapons but a few of the most distrustful of the State and the most committed to social reforms kept their weapons, hided and settled in isolated jungle areas where the State had at best very marginal presence, if any. Those groups provided the roots for FARC, the largest current guerrilla organization formed in 1964 (Pizarro, 1991). Other frustrated groups formed other guerrilla organizations. A group influenced by liberation theology of the 1960s that included some prominent Catholic priest formed the ELN, the second largest current guerrilla (Medina-Gallego, 2001). Some urban intellectuals and university students formed the M-19 after the 1970 election in which Misael Pastrana, the current president's father was elected in a highly questionable election (Lara, 1986). Smaller guerrilla organizations like the Native American based Quintín Lame where also formed. The activities of these guerrilla groups have varied through time. Beginning with the Belisario Betancur administration (1982-1986) all Colombian governments have attempted to negotiate with the armed insurgency. These negotiations have achieved some successes and some guerilla groups have disarmed and integrated themselves into the mainstream society. However, FARC, ELN and EPL (a marginal group of Maoist tendencies) have persisted in their activities. Current guerilla groups are very reluctant to give up their arms because the M-19 experience was disastrous. After M-19 guerillas reinserted themselves into society they were systematically decimated by right wing groups. Indeed, a very large number (over 2,000) were assassinated. Furthermore, M-19 did not succeed in politics and did not become a political party
During the last decade the production of illegal crops has grown exponentially changing the role of the illegal drug economy in Colombian society. A combination of factors has promoted this growth:
a. The shooting down of drug planes in Peru since the early 1990s made it difficult and costly to obtain Peruvian coca paste and cocaine base to be refined in Colombia.
b. The successful break-up of the Medellin and Cali cartels disrupted coca markets in Bolivia and Peru and led to a dispersion of the illegal industry into many small groups for whom it was difficult to go abroad to buy supplies.
c. The agricultural sector recession and peasant migration encouraged settlements in vacant areas of Colombia where the State had no real control.
d. The collapse of Communism encouraged guerrilla organizations to find new sources of income and promote coca and poppy plantings.
e. Since 1998, the successful coca eradication program in Bolivia encouraged a "balloon effect" (displacement) in Colombia.
The development of illegal plantings enhanced the capacity of guerrilla and paramilitary groups to exploit the industry to fund their activities. Today illegal drugs are a main source of funds for the "ambiguous war" that the country is experiencing. Indeed, the role of illegal drugs in Colombia evolved from fueling an illegal economic boom that was tolerated and implicitly welcomed by most Colombians in the 1970s and 1980s to fueling the war and becoming a main obstacle to peace. Unfortunately, today illegal drugs and internal war have become intertwined into one complex phenomenon that requires a concurrent solution of both the illicit crop, guerilla and paramilitary problems. Not surprisingly, Colombians' attitudes toward the illegal drugs industry have changed and today most reject it as a cause of the deep Colombian crisis.
Illegal drugs have also changed the nature of Colombia's internal conflict. 1. They have allowed right and left wing warring guerrilla factions to improve their military capabilities. 2. They created new reasons to fight since both right and left wing guerrillas now contend for control of coca and poppy growing areas and export routes. 3. They weakened centralized control within guerrilla and paramilitary organizations as individual armed fronts have become increasingly financially independent from their head organizations. 4. Coca and poppy growing peasants have become actors of the armed conflict. 5. Illegal drugs have been a main reason for the internationalization of Colombia's internal conflict.
Illegal drugs have also weakened an already weak Colombian state. 1. The Colombian state has never controlled the country's territory. Illegal drugs have heightened the need for control and made it more difficult to achieve. 2. Illegal drugs have corrupted a weak political system. Drug traffickers have funded political campaigns and influenced politicians since at least the late 1970s. The scandal over the 1994 Samper campaign only highlighted this phenomenon. The 1991 Constitution in an attempt to improve democratic processes made electoral changes that increased elections costs and made the political system more dependent on those with deep pockets: drug traffickers and large financial conglomerates. 3. The illegal drug industry promoted a culture that values wealth over anything else and a get rich quick mentality. The point is to have wealth independent of its origin. Not surprisingly, during the last few years the number and magnitude of scandals about fraud, bribery and misuse of public funds have increased dramatically. 4. The illegal industry has forced the state to divert very scarce resources from infrastructure, social sector and other development projects to law enforcement and unproductive investment in coca and poppy growing areas. 5. The violent tactics of drug traffickers, drug funded guerrillas and paramilitaries against public officials have been a substantial obstacle to honest public service. Indeed, public servants who engage in anti-drug activities know quite well that they are risking their lives and those of their relatives.
President Pastrana has made peace negotiations the cornerstone of his administration policies. A few months after taking office he granted FARC control of a demilitarized "distension zone" comprising five municipalities including some important coca growing areas as a precondition to start peace negotiations. This grant had virtually no conditions but it had a deadline to be extended conditioned to undefined advances in the peace process. This controversial decision granted FARC control of municipal seats in a large, sparsely populated region in which they already had de-facto control of the rural areas. Indeed, FARC had been operating and exercising control of that zone for several decades. Unfortunately, since then there have been frequent official dialogues but almost no meaningful peace negotiations. Realistically, any peace negotiation of the Colombian conflict is extremely complex, mired by lack of trust and likely to be slow, long and tortuous. The internationalization of the Colombian peace process has been one important by-product of the significant financial contribution of the illegal drug industry to the conflict.
In late 2001 the GOC opened negotiations with ELN, the second largest subversive group, in Havana. This development took place after failed attempts to grant ELN a similar demilitarized zone in southern Bolivar Department that were strongly opposed by the communities involved. Both FARC and ELN oppose possible GOC negotiations with paramilitary organizations on the ground that these groups are proxies of the Colombian army.
In January 2002 talks between FARC and GOC broke down and a crisis developed as the "distension zone" time deadline expired. At the eleventh hour a group of foreign ambassadors and dignitaries led by Mr. James LeMoyne, the UN Peace Representative, saved the day and succeeded in reviving the dialogues. It is not clear what the continuation of the dialogues mean. Immediately after the deadline extension FARC initiated a strong military campaign against the country's infrastructure and detonated several terrorist bombs in urban areas. The possible advances in this process remain a key policy issue during the coming months. The oncoming presidential election and the frustration of most Colombians with the lack of progress in the peace negotiations raise many questions about the process' future and will be an important determinant factor in this year's election.
The developments of the last twenty years show that it is impossible to understand Colombia's social, economic and political development without figuring out the role that the illegal industry has played in the country. For this reason it is imperative to understand why the international illegal drug industry developed in the country and why the country became a mayor actor in it.
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