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The gringos land in Colombia

The Economist [London], September 2, 2000

BOGOTÁ -- The visit was brief, amounting to not much more than an extended photo-opportunity and a pat on the back for Colombia's President Andres Pastrana. Yet the symbolic meaning of Bill Clinton's few hours in the walled colonial city of Cartagena on August 30th was great. It set the seal on a new strategic venture by the United States, the largest such commitment in its backyard since the Central American wars of the 1980s.

This time the aim is to prop up the Colombian state in the face of the steady advance of left-wing guerrillas, the drug trade and general disorder.

Amid heavy security precautions, which included defusing a small bomb not far from the presidential route, Mr Clinton and senior congressmen toured drug-fighting facilities and consoled police widows. His visit came days after he had signed a law approving $1.3 billion in mostly military aid for Colombia. Its purpose is to help Mr Pastrana's government fight drugs: Colombia is the source of 90% of the cocaine reaching the United States, and some of the heroin.

But the war on drugs has become inextricably linked with Colombia's other, older, wars, involving the security forces, left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups.

And it is this intertwined threat which has scared American officials. "Profits from the drug trade fund civil conflict. Powerful forces make their own law, and you face danger every day," said Mr Clinton. The Colombians know it all too well.

Some of the aid is to provide alternatives to coca cultivation; $122m is to strengthen the justice system, including the human-rights division of the attorney-general's office. But most is to train and equip with 60 helicopters a new military brigade whose job is to secure the coca-growing regions of southern Colombia now under the control of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest guerrilla group. An American general will move to Colombia, as head of several hundred military instructors.

The aim is not just to dent the drug trade, but to cut the flow of drug money to the FARC.

In all, officials reckon that the FARC collects some $600m a year, from drugs, kidnapping and extortion. With this income, the guerrilla commanders have been able to expand their army to 17,000 troops, and acquire a steady supply of arms. For example, Peru last month claimed to have broken up a gang that had already air-dropped some 7,500 rifles to the FARC.

Attacking the FARC's finances has now become the centrepiece of the government's military strategy, according to General Fernando Tapias, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Officials hope this will reverse a decade of steady growth for the FARC, and force its leadership to take seriously the peace talks launched two years ago by Mr Pastrana, which have got nowhere.

Yet the obstacles, both military and political, remain formidable. The FARC's strategy has changed, too. In the past few years it had begun to stage attacks on large army units. But better intelligence and co-ordination by the armed forces allowed them to inflict serious losses on the guerrillas last year.

Since then, the FARC has shifted back to isolated attacks on rural police stations, often firing gas cylinders packed with explosives, which indiscriminately kill civilians as well as policemen. It has staged 57 such attacks so far this year. In four cases, they destroyed the police stations, killing or capturing all the policemen.

General Tapias sees this shift as proof that the FARC has been weakened. His beefed-up anti-kidnap teams have had successes too, freeing six hostages from guerrilla hands last month. Yet so far little suggests that the FARC's return to the well-tried techniques of guerrilla warfare amounts to a strategic reverse. Its forces are still growing. It is using a "demilitarised" zone, which Mr Pastrana approved to get the peace talks going, to train and equip recruits. It has expanded its urban "militias": several recent kidnaps have occurred in or near Bogotá, the capital.

The FARC has also expanded its enclave, by attacking police stations in towns around the edge of the "demilitarised" zone. Having eliminated the democratic state, it has introduced its own government. That change may be made official by the municipal elections due in October: in the areas that it influences, the FARC, through death threats, is ensuring that the only candidates standing for mayor will be its friends.

Some analysts believe the FARC's powers of endurance are greater than those of the government: kidnapping and disorder have helped to weaken Colombia's economy, and to prompt an exodus abroad of the middle class. Mr Pastrana, like his predecessor, Ernesto Samper, is now deeply unpopular.

During Mr Clinton's visit, a score of Colombians died in rebel attacks, and several thousand protestors demonstrated. But other Colombians greeted him warmly. Polls suggest that most welcome American aid. Yet turning the Colombian armed forces into the kind of effective modern force required to defeat the FARC would require support on a much greater scale. Mr Clinton seemed to recognise that: "We have no military objective. We support the peace process," he said.

Fear in the neighbourhood

Even so, the aid is controversial. Several of Colombia's neighbours fear that the aid will prompt an escalation in the war, and that fighting, refugees and the drug trade will spill across the country's borders. Brazil has moved 6,000 troops to its Amazon frontier with Colombia; it plans to send 6,000 more and six new helicopters.

Many Americans fear that they are getting dragged into a civil war. Human-rights groups are outraged that Mr Clinton last week signed a waiver allowing the aid to be disbursed, even though the State Department had reported that Colombia's armed forces failed to satisfy most of the human-rights conditions contained in the aid bill. "How can you reasonably expect the armed forces to improve their record if they understand that the conditions will be waived?" asks Jose Miguel Vivanco, of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group.

Those conditions are aimed at breaking links between the armed forces and the right-wing paramilitaries, and at ensuring that those accused of atrocities are tried in civilian, rather than military, courts. Mr Pastrana has taken some steps in that direction: last month, a new military penal code came into force that requires cases of torture and forced disappearance, but not murder, to be tried in civilian courts. And he has sacked, but not punished, half-a-dozen senior officers accused of paramilitary links.

Loosely co-ordinated in the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), the paramilitaries too derive income from the drug trade, and now number some 7,000. Their attacks, and their massacres of civilians alleged to be guerrilla sympthasiers, have all-but defeated the ELN, a smaller guerrilla group which hopes to start peace talks. The AUC has now moved forces to the main cities, and to Putumayo in the south.

Many Colombians see the paramilitaries as the tool with which to defeat the FARC. "Their ties with the military brigades are stronger and closer than ever," says Mr Vivanco. They are another, menacing, symptom of the diminishing authority of the democratic state. Into this complex, vicious and many-sided conflict the United States is now boldly treading.

Copyright 2000 The Economist Newspaper Ltd.

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