Colombia's wars

Print edition : September 29, 2001

Violence rages on in Colombia, fuelled by an increasing U.S. military presence and a drug trade that is flourishing despite all efforts to check it.

RECENT weeks have witnessed an upsurge in violence in Colombia. The fighting has spread to hitherto peaceful areas in remote southwestern and eastern parts of the country. There are also worrying signs of an increase in overt American military activity in the country which has seen uninterrupted internecine bloodletting for the past 40 years.

A peasant sprays herbicide on coca crops in rural Puerto Asis, in the heart of the coca-growing region in southern Colombia. Evidence shows that the herbicides used not only affect other crops but also damage the environment.-RICARDO MAZALAN/AP

The Clinton administration, in its last year, had earmarked $1.6 billion for what is grandiosely billed as "Plan Colombia". The aim of the "Plan" is to combat insurgency, narco-terrorism, drug trafficking and coca cultivation for two years. When Colombian President Andres Pastrana originally mooted the idea, he had visualised a grand "Marshall Plan" for his beleaguered country. Instead, the military component of "Plan Colombia" has predominated.

Most of the American money is allotted for the purchase of helicopter gunships and planes for the Colombian Army. American Army officers are in Colombia advising their Columbian counterparts on counter-insurgency. A large number of U.S. pilots and technical helicopter crews on contract are in the country. Colombia is today the world's third largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel and Egypt.

Many Colombians and Latin America watchers allege that now the main aim of "Plan Colombia" is to defeat militarily the two main leftist insurgent groups that have been fighting the Colombian government for decades - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army, known by its acronym, ELN. These two guerilla groupings have been facing the onslaught of the Colombian army and its "de facto" ally - right-wing paramilitary forces called the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC). As usual civilians have been the worst sufferers. Their misery has now been compounded by an economic slowdown that has lead to record levels of unemployment. More than 20 per cent of the workforce is said to be without jobs.

Large-scale aerial spraying by the government is in progress in rural coca growing areas. There is considerable evidence to show that the herbicides being sprayed not only destroy the coca crop but also damage the environment, besides affecting other crops. Andean peasants, who have been cultivating coca for centuries, were dependent on coca cultivation for their livelihood even before the drug trade started booming. Much of the land they cultivate is said to be fit only for coca. Six Provincial Governors have protested to the Central government about the indiscriminate use of herbicides under American supervision. This had led to a temporary halt in the aerial operations.

There is no doubt that the bulk of the money, raised by the guerilla groups and the right-wing militias, has been generated by coca cultivation, which has spread to vast areas in the country. However, the methods adopted by American military advisers and their proteges in the Colombian Army are unlikely to stem the spread of coca cultivation. Many countries in the region fear that if the U.S. military game plan in Colombia succeeds, the coca cultivators and drug lords will shift their activities to other countries like Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. No wonder then that "Plan Colombia" has very little support in the region.

Even the European Parliament, though it was concerned about the human rights situation and the rise of the paramilitary organisations, had overwhelmingly voted against supporting "Plan Colombia". The Clinton administration deliberately chose to ignore the human rights violations, particularly the depredations by the paramilitary death squads, when it decided to help the Colombian military. More than 35,000 Colombians have died in the violence of the last decade. After "Plan Colombia" was implemented, the situation has gone from bad to worse. Owing to the pressure exerted by the U.S.-led anti-drug effort on the traditional coca-growing areas, coca cultivation has spread to other parts of Colombia.

"The coca crops are nothing but a concrete response to the ravages caused by unrestrained free market economic polices" said a Colombian academician, who was a guerilla with the now disbanded M-8 movement. He said that if the government was serious about tackling the issue of drugs, it should forget about the campesinos (peasants) and attack the financial and industrial centres that profit most from trafficking.

Most of the aerial campaign against coca cultivation is done in the south of the country. Meanwhile, an intense struggle is currently on between the FARC and the right-wing paramilitary organisations for control over the new coca-growing areas in the north. Both sides, especially the right-wing militias, have been indulging in random killings and kidnappings. Those kidnapped by the right-wing militias rarely return alive. The paramilitary squads have been responsible for most of the civilian deaths in the last couple of years. Colombia is today known as the "kidnapping capital" of the world.

IT is the huge demand in the U.S. domestic market that has made coca cultivation a lucrative enterprise, most of all for the narco-mafia. Ninety per cent of the cocaine and 60 per cent of the heroin consumed by Americans are said to originate from Colombia. All available evidence shows that drug use is never reduced by attacking the source; it is brought down only by reducing the demand. The stated goal of "Plan Colombia" is to wipe out half of the 300,000 acres (120,000 hectares) under coca cultivation. This military-based programme has already led to a confrontation with FARC and ELN guerillas in their strongholds in the coca-growing areas. "Poverty and social inequality produce not only coca plantations but also dogged guerilla armies. And eventually they all become intertwined," observed an expert on the subject.

One reason why the leftist guerillas are sceptical about the prospects for peace is the patronage extended to right-wing paramilitary groups by the Army and rich coca growers. They are committed to exterminating the left-wing groupings. The FARC had frozen the peace talks with the government in November last year, saying that serious negotiations could resume only after the government started taking action against the right-wing militias. In many parts of Colombia, the Army and the militias seem to be operating in a coordinated fashion.

The Bush administration now plans to train a Colombian military battalion under the umbrella of "Plan Colombia". American critics of the Bush administration allege that this is a subterfuge to get even more involved with the Colombian Army's fight against the leftist rebels. Already, the U.S. military is neck deep in the internal affairs of Colombia. U.S. politicians close to the Bush administration call on the Colombian government to stop talking with the rebels and to close down the peace zones. In August, the Colombian Army went on the offensive against the rebels and claimed that it had scored a decisive victory over FARC guerillas in a battle that lasted two weeks. Around 250 guerillas, including a top FARC leader, were reported killed.

The Bush administration has been sending strong signals to the government of Andres Pastrana to adopt a strong-arm policy against the leftist rebels. Pastrana had staked his reputation on achieving a durable peace with the rebels to bring an end to the mindless violence that had been raging in the last four decades. He had spoken about a grand plan to reform Colombian society and the need to negotiate a settlement with the left-wing guerillas.

The centrepiece of his policy was to allow the rebels to control a vast demilitarised zone in the south of the country. Now the paramilitary, backed by the Colombian armed forces, is fighting the FARC and the ELN in the jungles of the south for control of the area. The 11,000 well-armed troops of the right-wing militias, financed by the coca barons, are waging a bloody struggle to gain access to the Pacific Coast, which is essential to retain control of the drug trade. The arrest of three Irish Republican Army (IRA) functionaries from Bogota on charges of training FARC insurgents in urban guerilla warfare in August this year is an indication that preparations are on for war on a bigger scale.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special adviser on Colombia, Jan Egeland, has expressed his concern over the "deteriorating situation" in the country. He said in early September that the three major armed actors - the Army, the rightist paramilitary squads and the left-wing insurgents - seemed to be headed for an "all-out war". Egeland said that all those in Colombia and outside wishing to end the peace process should "carefully consider the alternative".

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