Especiales Semana

One year after Sept. 11, U.S. and Colombia face parallel challenges. Por: Maria Cristina Caballero*

9 de septiembre de 2002

When the planes hit the World Trade Center, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was on his way to Colombia. Why? Powell planned to personally announce that Colombia's illegal paramilitary army would join the United States' official list of terrorist organizations, along with the Colombian guerrilla groups that were already considered by the U.S. to be among the world's most dangerous terrorists.

The events of Sept. 11 quickly overshadowed Powell's Colombian announcement, yet Colombia's terrorist problem has grown worse. While U.S. forces quickly and forcefully took control in Afghanistan, Colombia has been unable to do much of anything to stop terrorism within its own borders.

In August, Colombia's main guerrilla group, known by its Spanish acronym FARC, shot rockets at the Presidential Palace in Colombia's capital city of Bogota during the inauguration of Colombia's new president. The FARC, according to Colombian intelligence agencies, was applying lessons learned from members of another terrorist group, the Irish Republican Army. For such reasons, as the U.S. considers the lessons of Sept. 11, Washington increasingly is paying more attention to Colombia's war on terror.

The Bush administration describes the FARC as the most dangerous international terrorist group based in this hemisphere. Otto Reich, U.S. undersecretary of state for Latin America, recently said, "Our values, our security, and the future of our hemisphere are tied to Colombia's victory in its war on terror."

As analyst Michael Hirsh wrote for the current edition of Foreign Affairs, September 11 and its aftermath had the paradoxical effect of demonstrating both the unprecedented vulnerability of the United States and its unprecedented power. Indeed, the Sept. 11 attacks redefined U.S. relations around the world, and has reinvigorated American dominance mainly based upon what political scientists call "hard power."

One of the lessons from Sept. 11 might be how much harm can emanate from failed states dominated by warlords, as was seen in Afghanistan. Colombia is Latin America's oldest democracy, but today it is considered a collapsing state. In Colombia, the rate of homicide is the world's highest (73.3 per 1,000 people killed annually compared with 8.2 in the United States), while the poverty rate is growing: 64 percent of the Colombian population lives under the poverty line. About 3,500 Colombians died last year in the conflict that has pitted guerrillas against the government and the paramilitaries against the guerrillas, but without official government backing.

At least 1.2 million Colombians have permanently left the country in the past five years. Colombia also lacks effective institutions outside its main cities; and lately the return of urban terrorism (seen dramatically during the narco-terrorism day of drug lord Pablo Escobar) has generated shock. Furthermore, of all the vulnerable countries of Latin America, only Colombia has lost control of more than half its territory.

Phillip McLean wrote for the summer edition of The Washington Quarterly that if failed states on the other side of the globe, such as Afghanistan, can threaten U.S. interests, then Colombia, a country just three hours by air from Miami, merits priority attention as well. "A failed Colombia is truly a scary prospect," he wrote. McLean asks: How does one assist a country destabilized more by crime than insurgency, which at times apparently is losing the ability to govern itself?

After Sept. 11, the United States has been less tolerant of chaos in its own backyard. President Bush recently authorized the use of U.S. military aid against Colombian groups engaging in terrorist activities, including the guerrillas. Before, the funds had been strictly limited to counter-drug programs. When asked about the shift in the U.S. policy toward Colombia, Otto Reich said that "the US is not going to engage in counterinsurgency in Colombia because ... these are no insurgents ... These are terrorists."

According to Colombian intelligence agencies, Jorge Briceno, military leader of the FARC, recently said in an intercepted radio communication: "We must find where the gringos are, because they have all declared war on us."

New Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, in a letter sent to the Constitutional Court justifying his decree establishing a state of emergency, warned that Colombia's largest rebel group is gearing up for a major offensive with advanced weapons. A few hours earlier the FARC had rejected his offer of United Nations-led mediation to end the country's civil war.

The president's letter stated that there are intelligence reports pointing out the sophistication of the weapons that are being readied to attack the government, to destroy entire populations and ruin the country once and for all. The FARC - in a letter posted on its Website - asked that the government stop using the words terrorist and narco-terrorist to refer to the FARC in an official lexicon; the FARC would instead prefer to be called political-military opposition. The FARC also asked for the state's withdrawal from the southern states of Caquetá and Putumayo, a move that would give them de facto control of an 117,000-square-kilometer swath of territory.

Uribe asked for a guerrilla cease-fire before sitting down to the peace table with UN mediators. Both the government and the guerrillas are demanding things they know they won't get.

In the meantime, although the paramilitaries claim to be looking for political recognition, they have not stopped killing people. They are focusing on selective murders and smaller-scale massacres with the goal of keeping their bloody tactics off the international organizations' radar.

As in the U.S., Colombian hardliners are winning the policy battles. Colombian Defense Minister Marta Lucía Ramírez announced that Colombia plans to arm 15,000 peasants as part of a shock plan to hire an additional 40,000 police and soldiers by March. The peasant recruits will receive a small salary paid for by a new 1.2 percent war tax being imposed on higher-income Colombians. The government is planning to buy assault rifles, machine guns, mortars and grenade launchers from U.S. and European manufacturers.

The new soldiers, mainly poor farmers, will live in their homes. In theory, government forces will back these peasant soldiers. But there are no government forces in more than 170 counties. How will these peasants defend themselves, and their families, from trained guerrilla members? Is this a desperate recipe for disaster?

Today, although Colombia's armed forces number 117,000, only 35,000 can be deployed in the field for direct combat. Uribe has also announced a plan to recruit one million paid informants, or spies.

The U.S. seems ready to accompany Uribe as he delivers a drastic crackdown. Besides an already approved $1.5 billion U.S. aid package to Colombia, the U.S. Congress is now considering a new package that includes the broad Andean Regional Initiative, which includes $439 million for Colombia, a $35 million grant to support an anti-kidnapping police effort (the guerrillas raise a lot of money through kidnappings) and a $98 million package to train a brigade that would protect a Occidental Co. oil pipeline.

Colombia currently loses about $430 million per year in oil revenues as a result of guerrilla attacks on pipelines. Also announced recently was the resumption of crop-spraying flights as part of the U.S. drug eradication program.

Uribe's government has invited Colombia's neighbors to develop joint military actions to close the path to violent terrorist groups. Colombia's neighbors are scared by the spilling over of violence and terrorist activities. This past week, police destroyed 60 laboratories for processing illegal drugs in the Peruvian jungle. Peru has assigned troops to block the FARC, who protect the coca growers. The United States announced last week it will renew its airborne patrols of Colombia's border with Peru.

Simultaneously, drug traffickers and refugees from the fighting have often crossed the border into Panama, Venezuela and Ecuador. Last month Brazil inaugurated a nationwide satellite and radar security system to find drug traffickers or Colombian irregulars.

Colombia's neighbors are demanding U.S. help. As Michael Hirsh points out, whether the world likes it or not, today America is the linchpin of stability in every region, including Latin America.

Indeed, confronting violence and terrorist threats, the U.S. and Colombia have been addressing parallel crisis, and have even taken similar measures:

-- This past October, Bush signed an anti-terrorism bill giving U.S. agencies the ability to search, seize, detain and eavesdrop in pursuit of possible terrorists. In Colombia, Uribe declared a state of "internal commotion" with similar goals.

-- Amid fingerpointing at where to lay the blame for attacks, the role and capabilities of intelligence agencies (in the U.S. as well as in Colombia) have become a centerpiece of the debate on how best to uncover plots before it is too late.

-- In the U.S. as well as in Colombia, there is increased funding to recruit more spies and to upgrade intelligence technology. In both countries, there have been controversies around how to integrate intelligence information. In Colombia, a close friend of Uribe, who has

been investigated because of alleged links with drug trafficking activities, has been offered the job.

--The Sept. 11 attacks triggered significant national debates on civil rights and civil liberties in the United States. Now, Colombians are also weighing their safety against their civil rights. Fernando Londoño, Colombia's new minister of justice and the interior, stated that from his point of view, there are no absolute rights. He also announced his plans to declare a state of siege. Under previous states of siege, dramatic abuses of human rights, including torture and disappearances, have occurred.

What are the U.S. perspectives on the Colombian war? Some (including U.S. State Department officials) point out the importance of strengthening the Colombian military forces until a new negotiation is viable. Others, such as Jonathan Stevenson, writing in an article for the summer edition of the journal National Interest, are not that optimistic: "With the FARC in Colombia and the PLO in Palestine, protracted but futile efforts at patient negotiation suggest that in these cases they (negotiations) may not be."

According to Julie E. Sewig, deputy director for Latin America at the Council on Foreign Relations, Colombia's strategy could be influenced by the U.S. experience in Afghanistan, which demonstrated the potential for American air power when combined with local proxies and limited U.S. ground forces. She also stated that with U.S. special forces having already been deployed to Georgia and the Philippines, the next 12 to 24 months could well see the start of a debate on whether to provide such aid and more air support to the Colombian military.

If Washington expects to really help Colombia, in a historic and profound way, it would need to start an in-depth discussion about how to decrease demand for drugs in the United States. U.S. drug addicts buy about 300 tons of Colombian cocaine per year. All the warring factions are fueling their terrorist activities with drug money. As John Kenneth Galbraith, well- known economist and Harvard professor, has said, the current U.S. drug policy is not functioning and it would be more effective to focus more attention in prevention and education.

Academics seem to have achieved a consensus: Colombia's problems will not be solved while U.S. consumption continues to fuel a multibillion-dollar narcotics industry.

In the meantime, the U.S. is imposing unilateral conditions to provide help. With no other real option, the Colombian government has indicated that it would agree to an U.S. request to exempt American troops from prosecution by the International Criminal Court. The request is part of a global campaign by the Bush administration to shield U.S. military personnel from the reach of the new international war crimes court.

Unilateral U.S. demands such as this are generating international tides of resentment. El Tiempo, Colombia's main daily newspaper, called this U.S. demand totally unacceptable.

The U.S. needs to make an effort to work with the international community by consensus, using the so-called "soft power," and not merely by force or imposition. It might be worth it to remind current U.S. leaders what Henry Kissinger once wrote: "The dominant trend in American foreign-policy thinking must be to transform power into consensus so that the international order is based on agreement rather than reluctant acquiescence." As the U.S. and Colombia pursue their mutual goals of stopping terrorism, it might also be worth it to remember what President Bush himself said during his campaign: "If we are an arrogant nation, they will view us that way, but if we are a humble nation, they will respect us."

* María Cristina Caballero is a journalist from Colombia. Currently she is in a Center for Public Leadership fellow at Harvard University´s John F. Kennedy School of Government.