A Nation under Siege

Tuesday, October 30, 2001

Colombia today is crippled by its most critical political, economic, social, and moral crisis in a century, a condition that seriously threatens both Latin America and the national interests of the United States in the region. In the United States, Colombia is best known as the primary source of the cocaine on American streets. But, more broadly, it is a major player in the "war on drugs" generally and in U.S. and regional efforts to create and sustain a stable, prosperous, and democratic hemisphere. If Colombia is to be a constructive force in a thriving hemisphere, however, Bogota, Washington, and other governments are going to have to fundamentally shift their policies in the region. The high stakes mean the effort must be made, though vested interests everywhere make the prospects of formulating and implementing a successful, integrated strategy less than encouraging.

Today Colombia is debilitated by the residue of its colonial past and a closely related domestic instability that have prevented its government from creating a peaceful and productive nation responsive to the interests of all its citizens. The country’s crisis is seen most poignantly in the violence and chaos caused by a thriving illegal drug industry that has become closely linked to the hemisphere’s oldest and, not coincidentally, only burgeoning armed insurgencies. A fatal weakness in joint U.S.-Colombian strategy today is that U.S. guidelines preclude working directly to decouple the activities of drug traffickers and armed insurgents. Only by severing the links between organized drug-related crime and organized political violence, however, will the right- and left-wing armed insurgencies have incentives to begin the peace process with the true objective of ending the armed struggle.

During the past 15 years the Colombian government has sought to launch long-overdue, largely positive decentralizing reforms intended to give the Colombian people a more active role in running their lives. These reforms have been unevenly successful, however, owing to the magnitude of the chronic problems, the omnipresent violence and corruption of the country’s guerrilla and paramilitary forces and their allies in the drug industry, and the nationwide challenges that are magnified by the drug industry and the war itself. Together the military groups operate with no significant constraints in more than half of Colombian territory.

Last year Colombian president Andres Pastrana, working closely with the United States, drew up a new and (on paper) all-encompassing response to this crisis: Plan Colombia, aimed at fostering a stable, democratic nation. But so far almost all movement has been dominated by U.S.-financed military aid to fight the drug war. U.S. policy has drawn increasing criticism in Colombia and other parts of Latin America, in Europe, and even in the United States. It is either inexplicably, but honestly, based on misperceptions or patently politically self-serving in the short term, a reality that debilitates much Washington policymaking. Unless Americans become more serious and pragmatic, even a partial solution will elude both countries and the region. In short, all the countries involved must incorporate strategic options that have heretofore been rejected out of hand by most participants and, beginning immediately, must offer realistic and integrated strategies over the long term.

Pastrana is correct in stating that Colombia’s problems are both domestic and international and must be dealt with accordingly. In early September 2001, the frustrated president suddenly remarked that the war on drugs has produced few victories and called upon the United States to host an international drug summit to evaluate the "successes, failures, and errors" of past policies. Underlying any serious study of the past or any significant new policy must be acceptance of a basic truth voiced several years ago by former U.S. secretary of state George Shultz and others that globally the war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself.

Colombia’s crisis, and the crises in varying stages in neighboring countries, cannot be squarely tackled for the long term until the enormous financial incentives of the illegal drug trade are eliminated, beginning with a decriminalization of consumption in the user countries. The discussion of this alternative was advanced in mid-2001 when London’s Economist (July 28, 2001) published a cover story arguing "The Case for Legalizing Drugs." Colombia’s most prestigious weekly, Semana (August 9, 2001), followed up with a lengthy cover story of its own—"Legalization: The Debate Heats Up." Historical precedents show that federal and state regulation of drug production, following the same mainstream punitive legal standards applied to other hazardous substances, accompanied by shifts in major public expenditures for education and preventive health and social policies, would substantially reduce the profits from drug trafficking. This reduction in profits would affect everyone from small coca farmers (encouraging them to grow something else) through drug lords and their goons to the money launderers, guerrillas, paramilitaries, and others who gorge themselves at the drug industry’s trough.

The burden of resolving the drug crisis falls most heavily, but not exclusively, on the United States, the original and still the largest drug market, for without killing the U.S. black market no viable, comprehensive solution is in sight for other nations. The United States and Colombia must turn their focus away from military-style attacks on coca plants and producers in southern Colombia to waging a political and economic war against the strategic alliance between drug traffickers and guerrillas and against the public sector corruption that they create and feed.

A nonmilitary focus that would far better serve current needs requires governments from Bogota and Washington to Madrid and London to emphasize Colombia’s turning itself into a politically and socially viable country. The present Plan Colombia calls for political, legal, and other essential reforms, but most of the nonmilitary change is to be financed by the Colombian government itself. Thus this pledge has little credibility since, as a result of its current economic crisis, the government can’t pay these bills however much it might wish to do so. The only significant and dependable funding for Plan Colombia today, which is mostly for military equipment and operations aimed at eradicating coca plants and factories, is from the United States.

To conduct basic, nonmilitary reforms will, of course, require a stability that does not presently exist. A step toward such stability would be a frank admission that, in much Colombian territory, the state and the services it should provide are ineffectual or nonexistent. The Colombian state is delegitimized by its historical absence from or exploitation of outlying regions (notwithstanding the very recent reforms) and its inability to provide most (or in some places any) of the services smaller communities need, beginning with law enforcement. In practical terms, post-1991 constitution-driven decentralization has been implemented unevenly, often clumsily, sometimes fostering even greater government ineffectiveness and higher levels of clientelism and corruption at the local levels.

All parties must acknowledge that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest guerrilla group, and the United Self-Defense Forces (AUC), the "paramilitaries," in addition to some drug cartels, are the only real "growth" organizations in the country. The U.S. State Department has long included the FARC and the second largest Colombian guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), in its list of terrorist organizations; in September it added the AUC to the list. A revised Plan Colombia must be directed toward substantive, flexible, and pragmatic peace negotiations with the insurgent groups. The Bogota government should strive to entice each organization to turn toward legitimate political participation (and thus power) through local, municipal, and other elections. Bogota’s role is decreasing in much of the country, even as it needs to increase the effectiveness of local government and grassroots involvement. Meanwhile, the guerrillas and, in some cases, the paramilitaries have established institutions and social networks in the regions they control. In increasing numbers of rural areas only the insurgents have been able to combine a relatively effective tax system (founded on coca operations, extortion, kidnapping, mining, and agriculture) with the imposition of some degree of primitive order by applying their own violent "revolutionary justice." These networks include primitive rural infrastructure, ranging from roads, bridges, and primary preventive health services to informal alternative dispute resolution mechanisms (i.e., complaint panels and claims offices within the clearance zone).

Surveys conducted by one of the authors in several rural insurgent regions show substantial use of these institutions. (For example, some 68 percent of the sampled population within the conflict and clearance areas, the latter given to the FARC by the government as a negotiation ploy, stated that they have used the health services offered by insurgent groups.) In short, in political as well as military terms the FARC is on its way to establishing a "state" within the Colombian state. In this program, the guerrillas and, in some cases, the paramilitaries should be allowed to use their social networks when competing in elections. The newly incorporated guerrillas and the communities under their sway must build on that existing infrastructure but shift from drug dealing to serving the needs of the people, which is what the insurgents have said for decades is their goal.

To many this will seem to be a capitulation or a dream. But it is less of a dream than the war on drugs, and despite many uncertainties and potential dangers, it is not a capitulation either, though there is no guarantee of success. Rather, it is building on realities and offering insurgency commanders the opportunity to use legal democratic channels to gain access to legitimate, state-recognized political power. Former guerrillas have done this in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and even Colombia itself in the past. Variations of these negotiations are being undertaken in countries from Northern Ireland to Sierra Leone. Such a program in Colombia would give the supreme commanders of each insurgent group incentives to clean their own ranks of uncooperative elements who stand in the way of seeking political office at the ballot box.

Of course some guerrilla leaders, some of whom are only marginally under central control, may not be inclined to seek this legitimacy at the expense of the profits from drug deals and ransoms. And all will have to consider that, since these are far from ideal conditions for electoral reform, legality may make them targets of terrorists, as was tragically the case in Colombia in the past. (Indeed, assassinations of former FARC and other guerrillas-turned-politicians have been frequent enough to make the insurgents’ reluctance to cooperate understandable.) But because the conversion is essential, this process should be backed up by a military threat ideally with U.S./European Union/U.N. support directed against guerrilla, paramilitary, or government elements that insist on continuing assassination, terrorism, kidnapping, and/or links to drug traffickers. A critical question is whether the international community is interested enough to back up its tough words about peace with a commitment to supporting last-resort military action.

Another critical question is whether Colombians themselves will ever trust or wish to trust those guerrillas and paramilitaries who have perpetrated so many terrorist attacks around the country. Increasing numbers of Colombians are now tilting toward a completely military "solution," presuming one to be possible, in some scenarios consisting largely of direct U.S. military intervention.

In conclusion, there are no guarantees that this approach will work, but the chances of making a significant, positive difference are far better than they would be by simply continuing or expanding the current "war on drugs." Early policy statements by President George W. Bush and some of his appointed officials reflect a better grasp than that of their predecessors of the need to devote more attention to political, social, economic, and institutional conditions in Colombia. There seems to be greater recognition of the fact that the Colombian problem must be seen in a broader regional context and that Americans must try much harder to reduce drug consumption in the United States. However, Bush’s pointed rejection of any form of "legalization," his supplementing of Clinton administration policies, and some of his proposed individual appointments, in particular that of John Walters as chief of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, seem far too closely linked to past failed policies. Increasing numbers of Americans are far ahead of their leaders in agreeing with London’s Economist (May 3, 2001) that "by any reasonable measure, America’s ‘war on drugs’ is a disaster." In California alone, voters have supported the use of marijuana for medical purposes and rehabilitation of drug offenders instead of jail. Our best hope now is that America’s leaders will catch up with the people and implement a more constructive policy before it is too late.