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  Four-Way Civil War Makes Colombia A Nightmare
Posted by FoM on February 14, 2001 at 07:44:53 PT
By Arnaud de Borchgrave, The Washington Times  
Source: Washington Times  

justice This is a country slowly watching itself die. Almost 2 million Colombians have fled their homes to escape the violence of civil war. More than half the world's kidnappings occur in Colombia, where Marxist guerrillas ransom some 3,500 people every year for sums averaging $500,000.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 are killed in combat every year. Some 25,000 Colombians died violently last year - the equivalent of 175,000 Americans in terms of the population ratio.

Political executions - mainly by right-wing militias - account for 4,000 of the deaths. People are afraid to talk. Both sides have assassinated 34 town mayors in the past two years and another 50 are trembling over their death notices.

By comparison, the Palestinian intifada is just a rumble between two rival gangs.

The elites have left for other countries in Latin America, Europe and North America or bought homes there. The middle classes are beginning to drift away, too.

Colombians Leave In Droves:

In the past five years, almost 1 million Colombians out of a population of 40 million have emigrated. Lines snake around the block near foreign consulates where people stand in line all night seeking visas. A tourist visa for the United States takes about nine months. Spain has been overrun by Colombian illegals and is now rounding them up for deportation.

The brain drain is being felt at all levels of society.

Businesses are in constant fear of kidnappings and extortion. State authority and the maintenance of public order outside the capital, Bogota, have become meaningless.

Country houses are inaccessible: The roads are peppered with would-be kidnappers waiting in ambush.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have been designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the U.S. government. State Department advisories warn against travel to Colombia:

"Violence by narco-traffickers, guerrillas, paramilitary groups and other criminal elements continues to affect all parts of the country, both urban and rural. U.S. citizens of all age groups and occupations, both tourists and residents, have been victimized.

"Bombings have occurred throughout Colombia, including urban areas. There is a greater danger of being kidnapped in Colombia than in any other country in the world."

The U.S. government does not pay ransom to kidnappers.

Four Wars Are Going On:

Colombia's armed forces are fighting four different wars simultaneously - against the Marxist FARC and ELN, the right-wing United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), and the narco-traffickers.

Plan Colombia, to which the United States is contributing $1.3 billion over two years, including $800 million in military assistance, seems inadequate.

The United States lost 3,800 helicopters in 10 years during the Vietnam War - most of them shot down over South Vietnam by a peasant guerrilla army. Now Washington is supplying Colombia with 60 helicopters - including 18 sophisticated Black Hawks - for an area seven times larger than South Vietnam.

The Clinton administration specified that the helicopters and the three battalions of Colombian army special forces that the United States has trained are to be used for counternarcotics operations, not counterinsurgency against the FARC or ELN.

But everyone in Colombia knows the two are intertwined. The distinction is widely criticized as another case of Congress micro-managing foreign policy into unworkable programs.

FARC guerrillas, flush with narcotics "taxes" imposed at each phase of the process, from harvesting the coca leaf to the takeoffs and landings of small planes that fly the cocaine out of jungle airstrips, maintain secret interests in everything from fried-chicken outlets to Caribbean banks.

An Arms Dealer's Dream:

Estimates of the FARC's annual booty range from $500 million to $1.5 billion. It is the richest insurgency in the history of guerrilla movements.

The FARC is currently the best customer of international arms dealers. Intercepts of its encrypted electronic traffic shows it is now in the market for shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. Plan Colombia's helicopters are the obvious targets.

The FARC's arms are smuggled in along jungle trails from Venezuela and Brazil. The weapons include light and heavy machine guns and 60 mm mortars, mostly from stocks of Soviet-made weaponry in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics.

Peru's former intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, on the run since autumn, was involved in some of the arms traffic via the common border with Brazil, Colombian intelligence officials say.

In 1985, the FARC, with some 3,000 guerrillas, was active on 25 "fronts." Today, with almost 20,000 heavily armed men and women, it is active all over Colombia. It has used the Switzerland-size sanctuary in the south, conceded by President Andres Pastrana as a sweetener for peace negotiations, to recruit and train more fighters.

Government forces stumbled across the FARC's strategic plan in a hastily evacuated jungle headquarters. The group's legendary 70-year-old leader, Manuel Marulanda, ordered a buildup of his guerrilla army to 35,000 guerrillas by 2003. Colombian intelligence estimates that for each guerrilla, there is a logistical tail of 10 people.

Reclusive Leader Is Popular:

In public opinion polls, the FARC has never scored higher than 4 percent. Comandante Marulanda, on the other hand, is affectionately referred to by his nickname - Tirofijo, or Sureshot - even by Mr. Pastrana.

Tirofijo has never set foot in Bogota or any other major city in his entire life. He has never seen a shopping mall or a movie theater, but his movement has a Web site, serviced by satellite from the jungle. He has outlasted nine Colombian presidents, including Mr. Pastrana's father.

The FARC's Marxist-Leninist leadership has not only survived the collapse of the Soviet empire, but it communicates by e-mail from its jungle hideouts with friends and sympathizers in Europe's leftist parties. It also enjoys cheering sections in such journals as the Nation. The FARC advocates drug legalization, and its members find succor in the anti-globalist demonstrations they hear about on their shortwave radios.

ELN guerrillas sit astride the oil pipeline in the northeast. The border crossing between San Cristobal in Venezuela and Cucuta in Colombia is controlled by the ELN by night and the government by day. The pipeline has been dynamited more than 1,000 times in recent years. It is currently out of commission.

Barrancabermeja, a northern industrial center of 300,000 residents on the Magdalena River, is "Showdown at the OK Corral" several times a day. It is the country's most violent city. AUC death squads have been retaking the city house-by-suspected-guerrillahouse. The army is battling both sides.

At nightfall, army Humvees and armored vehicles move slowly along dusty streets, followed by automatic-rifle-toting soldiers in flak jackets. They occasionally dart from behind the vehicles and burst into a cantina or a private home looking for weapons.

Massacres, now perpetrated for the most part by right-wing paramilitary units, involve savagery that defies description. Hacking the victims limb by limb with machetes is not an unknown method of execution.

These militias systematically kill those they suspect of helping the Marxist guerrillas with supplies - anything from medical treatment to boot repairs. Both the guerrillas and the paramilitaries understand that the purpose of terror is to terrorize. Government statistics credit the militia with 70 percent of the massacres and ascribe 28 percent to the guerrillas, blaming 2 percent on the narco-traffickers.

Originally encouraged by the Colombian military and security services, the paramilitaries are now outside any legal framework, a power unto themselves, with the occasional collusion of local police or military officers.

Bogota Tourists Cautioned:

On the surface, all seems normal in Bogota, a city of 6 million at an elevation of 8,600 feet. With almost as many buses and rickety minibuses belching smoke as there are cars, the capital rivals Bangkok for traffic jams.

Foreigners are warned to stay off the streets and out of the Zona Rosa, the nightclub district, where kidnappers prowl for wealthy-looking targets. Dressing down is de rigeur.

Criminals use scopolamine, an incapacitating drug that is slipped into drinks and cigarettes at bars, or in powder form as tourists are asked for directions. They also use police uniforms and say they want to check a foreigner's money for counterfeit dollars.

Cartagena on the Atlantic coast appears to be the only safe city in Colombia, as all sides vacation there. Baranquilla is a port under the control of narco-trafficking pros.

When the Medellin and Cali cartels were broken up in the early 1990s, major victories were claimed in the war against drugs. Since then, the traffickers have agreed among themselves to avoid the cartel route.

Now some 300 loosely connected families control the trade. Colombia accounts for some 80 percent of all the cocaine produced in the world and two-thirds of the heroin consumed in the United States.

Victories Against Drugs:

The past month has produced dramatic victories in the "war against drugs." Some 71,660 acres of coca-leaf plantations - of a nationwide total of some 370,650 acres - have been sprayed from the air and taken out of production in Putumayo province adjacent to the border with Ecuador.

U.S. surveillance aircraft fly out of Ecuador and provide the Colombian military with precise coca growing locations. Helicopters then fly in U.S.-trained Special Forces troops to run perimeter security against the guerrillas while the fields are fumigated.

If government claims are correct, more than 100 tons of pure cocaine will not find its way to the streets of America and Europe. Colombia produces about 800 tons of pure cocaine a year worth about $13 billion, and drug users in the United States consume about 300 tons - worth $4.5 billion before the white powder gets "stepped on," or diluted, and sold for twice that amount.

In the 24,000-square-mile "zone of exclusion" turned over to FARC guerrillas, some 34,600 acres of coca is under cultivation.

This translates into about 60 tons of cocaine worth about $1.5 billion. The FARC's take in taxes levied at each step of production is anyone's guess. At a minimum, this is estimated by Colombian intelligence reports at $300 million.

Political Deal Is Dangerous:

But the FARC's forcible levies and kidnap ransoms are imposed countrywide.

As Mr. Pastrana conceded in an interview last week, a four-front war is "Mission: Impossible" for the government. During his remaining 18 months in office, his strategy appears to be to seek a political solution with the two Marxist guerrilla movements before tackling the AUC militias, which he calls "a cancer in the body politic" and which are growing more powerful by the day.

The president's detractors do not believe he has a strategy. They call it ad hoc appeasement.

Mr. Pastrana himself thinks a political settlement with the FARC and ELN is now a distinct possibility, and after that, government forces can regroup to tackle the paramilitaries.

If this is indeed Mr. Pastrana's strategy, it overlooks strong feelings in the armed forces against the FARC's privileged sanctuary. These are bound to run even higher in the event of a political settlement that would bring the FARC closer to a power-sharing arrangement at the national level.

An armored column of government forces was on full alert 24 miles from San Vicente, a FARC-ruled town in the zone of exclusion where Mr. Pastrana spent the night before a second round of negotiations with Comandante Marulanda last week. The mission of the armored column was to liberate San Vicente if the talks broke down and Mr. Pastrana decided not to renew the FARC's privileged sanctuary.

Landowners Back Militias:

Despite government denials, the AUC paramilitaries enjoy widespread support from property owners - even small landowners - who fear the emergence on the national scene of Marxist hard-liners who will continue to make their mark with class warfare, backed by powerful guerrilla forces. The FARC may agree to a cease-fire in the coming months, but it certainly will not lay down its arms.

Paramilitaries were protected by law from 1965 to 1989, when they were declared unconstitutional. A deal viewed by the military as dangerously one-sided runs the risk of reviving the old alliance between the armed forces and the AUC.

In two days of talks between Comandante Marulanda and Mr. Pastrana last Thursday and Friday, the FARC leader pressed the president to form an alliance against the AUC. If you are really serious about fighting the AUC, the guerrilla chief said, then let's join forces.

Such an alliance would be political suicide for Mr. Pastrana.

In the 1990 presidential campaign, four presidential candidates were assassinated by Pablo Escobar's hit men. The late Medellin cocaine cartel kingpin, who was gunned down by security forces, used to say: Choose your metal - silver or lead. People at all levels - the military, judiciary, Congress, the media - preferred to take the bribe. A minority demurred and got bullets.

Possible Outcomes Examined:

A rerun of this scenario - with the AUC picking off those perceived as guerrilla appeasers - is all too possible.

The Colombian people are so war-weary they are ready for peace at almost any price, one senior minister said.

He was not being facetious when he said that if a sellout deal offering FARC and ELN 40 out of 100 Senate seats in return for peace were submitted to a referendum, the people would vote overwhelmingly in favor. Congress is seen as corrupt anyway, said the minister, so no one really cares.

The man most likely to succeed Mr. Pastrana next year is Horatio Serpa. He is seen by many observers as the populist - he was in Havana with Cuban President Fidel Castro last week - who will make the final deal with Mr. Pastrana.

No one knows how the younger cadres of the FARC would react if Comandante Marulanda decided to quit short of total victory. He might then find himself in the unenviable position of Yasser Arafat defending concessions against the combined opposition of Hamas and Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, Plan Colombia is producing the first tangible results in Washington's "war against drugs." Since 1981, the United States has spent $25 billion on international drug-interdiction efforts, mostly in Latin America.

So successful was the interdiction campaign in Bolivia and Peru that the industry moved lock, stock and barrel of precursor chemicals to Colombia. Cocaine production continued to grow, even after the cartels were dismantled.

Now, drastic eradication appears to be making a real difference in the supply chain. From Mr. Pastrana on down, every senior official and journalist echoed the same theme: The rest is up to the U.S. to rein in demand.

Less than one quarter of the annual $19 billion federal drug-control budget goes to treating drug abusers.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor-at-large for The Washington Times and United Press International.

Source: Washington Times (DC)
Author: Arnaud de Borchgrave, The Washington Times
Published: February 13, 2001
Copyright: 2001 News World Communications, Inc.
Fax: 202-832-8285
Contact: letters@washtimes.com
Website: http://www.washtimes.com/

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Comment #1 posted by Ethan Russo, MD on February 14, 2001 at 08:50:43 PT:

Tell Me Now
Does this sound like a place where we can help? I doubt it.

de Borchgrave is one of the most experienced journalists on the international scene, and does an excellent job describing the morass of modern Colombia. What I cannot believe is that he buys the fiction that coca eradication is working. Remember, the territory in question is 7 times the size of South Vietnam. There are always new place to hide.

60 well-placed Stinger missiles can totally neutralize the helicopter force that USA tax dollars have provided. We should help with the negotiations for peace, and otherwise stay out of this hell-hole of a situation.

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