For Rebels, It's Not a Drug War 

For Rebels, It's Not a Drug War 
Posted by FoM on April 10, 2000 at 07:47:55 PT
By Karen DeYoung, Washington Post Staff Writer
Source: Washington Post 
For nearly 40 years, Colombians rarely saw the faces of the men who run the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country's most powerful guerrilla group. Today, they are hard to avoid.
Manuel Marulanda, the rumpled, 69-year-old founder of the FARC, as it is known by its initials in Spanish, appears regularly in the Colombian media, meeting with government officials and business leaders here in the Switzerland-size demilitarized zone the government has turned over to the rebels as a venue for peace talks.Bearded, bespectacled Raul Reyes, another member of the seven-man FARC leadership, began a recent interview by inviting e-mail messages to his Hotmail account. Commander Joaquin Gomez promised to introduce foreign visitors to local peasants growing coca, the raw material of cocaine. Reyes, Gomez and other rebel leaders calmly discussed the finer points of peace and their objections to a proposed $1.6 billion emergency U.S. aid package that could bring Washington deeper into Colombia's civil war.But there is a through-the-looking-glass quality to life inside the demilitarized zone. Outside, in the rest of Colombia, the guerrillas have stepped up a campaign of killing, kidnapping and extortion. According to the government, they "assassinated" 42 police officers and 39 soldiers in the first three months of this year. The FARC continues to reject a cease-fire. And it is making more money than ever from cocaine smuggled to the United States.It is concern over the drug connection that the Clinton administration says motivates its aid proposal, approved largely intact last month by the House of Representatives but now having a rough ride in the Senate. Most of the aid, which represents a major escalation of U.S. involvement in Colombia, is intended to train and equip special military and police forces to move into remote, coca-growing areas in the southern part of the country, fumigate the drug crops and establish a permanent government presence.Although the United States has no declared quarrel with the guerrillas, as long as they don't interfere with the anti-drug campaign, most of the areas targeted for U.S. aid are under FARC control. And officials such as White House drug policy director Barry R. McCaffrey, the administration's chief salesman for the Colombia aid package, routinely describe the rebels as indistinguishable from drug traffickers. McCaffrey calls the FARC "the narco-insurgents, narco-guerrillas, narco-terrorists.""There's no question about what's happening down there," McCaffrey said at a congressional hearing last month. The war in Colombia is simply "struggling over money out of drug production."The administration's allies in Colombia wince at such language. While lobbying desperately for the U.S. aid, they say the violence tearing apart the country has deeper roots than the drug trade that fuels it. The drug war and the civil war in Colombia may have common fronts, Colombians say, but they have different long-term solutions, especially as related to the guerrillas.In peace talks started last year, President Andres Pastrana has attempted to make the FARC part of the solution, offering it a voice in formulating wide-ranging reforms and an opportunity to participate in the political process--a strategy for which there is historical precedent. At least once a week, senior Colombian officials fly from Bogota to the town of San Vicente del Caguan, and drive into the hills to this government-built village they have christened New Colombia. If all goes as scheduled, the reform plan will be completed and put to a vote nationwide 18 months from now.The negotiations imply that the government has decided to take the FARC at its word when it promises to help eliminate coca production as long as the peasants it claims to represent are protected, given money and trained to develop an alternative crop. But the Colombian government says it recognizes that its approach reflects a broader agenda than that of its American backers, and envisions a role for the FARC that few in Washington seem prepared to acknowledge."In American terms," said Jaime Ruiz, in charge of overall implementation of Plan Colombia, the government reform program that includes U.S. military aid, "they want to see the problems of Colombia through the prism of El Salvador, or human rights, or guerrillas, or left versus right. Or through the prism of drugs--that the guerrillas are narco-traffickers and the problem is drugs."European Tour: Earlier this year, several FARC commanders embarked on an unprecedented tour of European capitals accompanied by their negotiating counterparts in the government. After years of isolation, members of the FARC delegation resembled Rip Van Winkle when they described their encounter with modern social democracy."The most important thing that we saw . . . is that there is a really good relationship among the state, the private sector and the workers," Raul Reyes recalled. "Because there is tolerance. There is income distribution. There is money to spend on the unemployed, on the illiterate, the homeless. There is medical attention, and enough hospitals. There are subsidies for those who work the land. In Colombia, it's just the opposite."Like most of its contemporaries among 20th century Latin American guerrilla groups, the FARC was born in the convergence of domestic politics and the Cold War. According to revolutionary lore, Marulanda took to the hills of southern Colombia with 48 fellow peasants in 1964, after their demands for local autonomy and development aid were met with repression. The repression was funded in part under a U.S. program.Unlike its contemporaries, the FARC neither sought nor received much ideological or financial input from the Soviet Union or Cuba. Instead, it owed its survival to the fact that Colombian governments, and their military forces, were largely bound to the cities and the more wealthy agricultural areas and rarely came after them. For sustenance, the rebels extorted money from the wealthy and threatened isolated large landowners.In exchange for fealty and recruits, they offered peasants the promise of eventual political power and, more immediately, protection from the government and from the growing "self-defense" paramilitary organizations that today are the guerrillas' most brutal and, in some cases, effective adversaries.The FARC's political agenda, a 10-point plan that talks about land distribution, social benefits and political access for the rural poor, has changed little in nearly four decades. "It's very clear in its fundamental principles--the rich are too rich and the poor are too poor--and very ambiguous in its details," said Daniel Garcia-Pena, who served as peace commissioner under the government that preceded Pastrana's.Despite an early alliance with the Colombian Communist Party, the FARC has always been an essentially rural movement that attracted few of the university intellectuals and liberal theologians who flocked to more doctrinaire guerrilla groups."They still say they're Marxist-Leninist," said Garcia-Pena. "But it's like religion. It's like saying you're a Catholic, but you get an abortion and don't go to church."According to Reyes, "Marxism is a guide, not a dogma," along with the liberation philosophy of Colombia's first president, Simon Bolivar.As the FARC grew in strength over the decades, there were periodic cease-fires and peace negotiations, most of which fell apart due to guerrilla intransigence or, more often, government betrayal. During the 1980s, the FARC attempted to enter the political process as part of a leftist coalition, but thousands of its candidates and adherents were killed. While others point out that the FARC continued armed combat throughout this period, few dispute its basic analysis of what happened.The years of isolation have created a sort of time warp for rebel leaders. During one meeting not too long ago, a Western diplomat said, "they started the discussion talking about United Fruit," the Boston-based company that during the 1950s and 1960s was the symbol of controlling U.S. economic interests in Central America. The company has gone out of business, its influence replaced by cooperative local ownership and international trade agreements."They have a lack of understanding of the 21st century world, and where Colombia fits in," the diplomat said."We're looking for a model," Reyes said of the European tour. "Something we can apply here in Colombia. . . . We also want to find out more about Latin America, and we'd like to go to the United States, and to Canada."Although the FARC is on the U.S. government's list of terrorist organizations, a Clinton administration official met with the guerrillas in late 1998, at the Pastrana government's request. Reyes and fellow guerrilla Olga Marin, traveled to Costa Rica for sessions with Phillip T. Chicola, the State Department's director of Andean affairs."They wanted to tell us they are not narco-guerrillas, and that they want peace," said an administration official familiar with the talks. The Americans, the official said, responded that they supported Pastrana's peace process, and that Colombian democracy and an end to terrorism were not negotiable. Reyes told Chicola the FARC wanted to set up back-channel communications with the Americans. Telephone numbers and e-mail addresses were exchanged.The first chance to use them came in March last year, when three American humanitarian workers disappeared in northeastern Colombia. Chicola sent an e-mail message to Marin, who called him at home to say she knew nothing of the disappearances. Several days later, according to the administration official, the FARC acknowledged they had the Americans; a week later, Marin told Chicola the Americans would be released.The next day, the three bodies were found just inside Venezuela.When the FARC official called back, Chicola said that unless those responsible for the deaths were brought to justice, there was nothing more to discuss. Later, the FARC announced it had detained several low-level guerrillas. The FARC has sent further e-mail messages, but administration officials say they have gone unanswered.Army Outmaneuvered: What it may lack in political sophistication, the FARC makes up for in its ability to surprise and outmaneuver the conscript-heavy and poorly trained and motivated Colombian Army.Last month's FARC attack on the small town of Vigia del Fuerte, 230 miles north of Bogota, was a classic rebel operation--a surprise assault on a lightly defended, isolated garrison with few, if any, guerrilla casualties. The army said 21 police officers and nine civilians died. The civilians, including the mayor and two young children, apparently were victims of the "gas bombs" favored by the guerrillas--homemade mortars that fire a propane tank through a length of pipe stolen from an oil pipeline. Many of the police officers were reportedly killed with a single bullet to the head.Holding the FARC leadership directly responsible for the deaths, army commander Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora lashed out in a press statement that reflected the military's ambivalence about the government's negotiating strategy. "These are the same people that the most important leaders of the country are seen embracing on television," Mora said.The FARC has grown to an estimated 15,000 armed combatants. Although government officials acknowledge their own tactics have driven peasants willingly into the arms of the guerrillas, and the rebels' pay is reportedly attractive, the FARC's ranks also include some who are teenagers, and there are increasingly widespread reports of forced recruitment.Unquestioned political leadership comes directly from the organization's secretariat, and the FARC has long been known for its hierarchical discipline. But with evermore far-flung units--there are now at least 60 combat "fronts," each with at least 150 guerrillas, organized under eight regional blocs--outsiders see local commanders as increasingly and alarmingly autonomous.Each front is assessed a regular monetary contribution by the central office, but it is largely up to local commanders to determine where the money comes from. Although some outsiders who deal regularly with the guerrillas say the leadership frowns on indiscriminate kidnapping for ransom, there has been no public criticism from on high.The leadership denies any loss of control over its troops. "We are a revolutionary organization that has control over all its units," said Reyes. Those who imply otherwise, "are trying to justify more U.S. aid."But the FARC acknowledges that the killing of the American civilians last year was "a mistake . . . one of the things that happens in war, like the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy" last year in Belgrade, said Gomez. "One of our commandos killed them. We've acknowledged this to the world, and we've apologized to the American people."Although much of the FARC's weaponry is seized from government forces, the central leadership handles bulk weapons purchases, usually from Central American black markets. To the ongoing puzzlement of U.S. intelligence, which prepares twice-yearly assessments of FARC strength, the guerrillas have remained low-tech."They tend to be dressed better, trained better, paid better and armed better than the Colombian army," a senior U.S. official closely involved with the proposed aid package said. Guerrilla troops on guard duty around this village on a recent visit were in crisp camouflage uniforms, armed with knives and machetes and a variety of automatic rifles--U.S.-made AR-15s, Israeli Galils, Soviet-designed AK-47s."If they're making as much money . . . as everyone says they are . . . they're certainly making enough to buy some decent mortars" or surface-to-air missiles, said the U.S. official. But with the limited effectiveness of the Colombian military, he said, the FARC's current arsenal seems to be "good enough for their purposes."Fueled by Drug Money: The FARC predated the cocaine industry in Colombia, and most Colombians believe the rebels are capable of surviving its demise. But the money that flowed from the expansion of the drug business was like jet fuel to virtually all parties fighting on the war's multiple fronts.Since the mid-1970s, frequently shifting alliances, and the rise and fall of the major drug cartels, brought the traffickers together with the FARC and other, smaller, guerrilla organizations as well as with the military and the paramilitary groups fighting the insurgents.A bonanza fell into the FARC's lap in the 1990s, when successful anti-drug programs closed down much of the coca cultivation in nearby Peru and Bolivia. Traffickers moved their crops into the remote, government-free areas of southern Colombia that have long been the FARC's home base.For the guerrillas, whose political identity is tied to representing the peasantry, coca was lucrative for all concerned. But the FARC insists it is a limited business relationship.The FARC's overall interests "are basically incompatible with the narco-traffickers," Reyes said. "They work with the army to kill progressive people. We charge them a tax. We don't do them any favors, and they don't do us any."In Caqueta, Guaviare and Putumayo," three southern Colombia provinces, Reyes said, "the economic base is coca, so that's what we tax--not the traffickers directly, but their intermediaries. In other regions . . . we tax the cattle ranchers, the sugar growers, the businesses."Gomez described what he called the "dialectic" of drug trafficking:"As long as there is someone consuming it, there is going to be someone selling it. And as long as somebody is prepared to sell it, there is going to be someone to grow it," he said. The problem with Americans, he said, is that "they make no distinction between the narco-traffickers, the Colombian peasants who grow coca leaves as their only way of surviving, and the insurgency.""We invite any American to come to the coca-growing sector," Gomez said. "We'll take full responsibility for their security--they can talk to the peasants, ask them why they grow coca, what they make from it, who they sell it to, how it's processed.""When the [fumigation] helicopters come," he said, "we shoot at them. We disagree with the whole idea of fumigation. . . . It's killing not only the coca but everything else." The result, he said, is that a peasant farmer whose five acres of coca are sprayed simply moves on to five more acres, many times destroying virgin jungle.Besides, said Reyes, "they're the same helicopters that come to bomb us."Despite the view of some leading officials in Washington, outsiders who frequent the coca-growing areas say the FARC's role in the cocaine industry, with some exceptions, is largely as its leaders describe it."The guerrillas are something different than the traffickers," said Klaus Nyholm, who runs the U.N. Drug Control Program in Colombia. Representatives of the U.N. agency, along with Colombia's rural development agency, travel into coca-growing regions and the much smaller highland areas where heroin-producing opium poppies are cultivated to persuade small farmers to switch to other crops and give them the money and tools to do so.In some areas, Nyholm said, FARC units are more intimately involved with cocaine processing and export than the leadership admits. "It's far from general, but we've seen it. . . . The local fronts are quite autonomous. But in some areas, they're not involved at all. And in others, they actively tell the farmers not to grow" coca."I wouldn't use the term 'narco-guerrillas,' " he said. "I still consider the . . . guerrillas political. They need the money to finance their war."Ready for Talks: Asked why the FARC, having done so well on the battlefield, would now want to talk peace, Reyes says only that "we have come to the conclusion that we have to solve [Colombia's] problems through negotiations."Other Colombians have a more cynical view--that after nearly 40 years in the jungle, the guerrillas will only give up when they decide they can't win. The guerrillas' primary goal, said political analyst Alfredo Rangel, remains "taking complete power. Second best is peace negotiations" that would provide political and economic reform, and a share of power. The final decision, Rangel said, "will be made the day before they sign a peace agreement."But even Rangel believes a deal eventually will be struck. "Colombians kill each other at the drop of a hat," he said."But they also make agreements," he said, referring to the negotiated end of a 1945-65 period of political violence that resulted in 300,000 deaths."One day, they said, 'Enough. Okay, let's make a deal,' " Rangel said. "The FARC are Colombians, too."By Karen DeYoungVilla Nueva, ColombiaWashington Post Staff WriterMonday , April 10, 2000 ; A01  2000 The Washington Post Company Related Articles: The Real Reason for US Aid to Colombia Suffer with Colombia Antidrug Campaign Plan Sets Off Furor in Colombia Articles On Colombia Over 200 Items: 
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