The Colombian government's bubble of complacency with the drug cartels has finally broken. It was burst by the bullet that took the life of presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan.
It is not news that there are powerful drug cartels operating out of Colombia, doing billions of dollars worth of business in the international cocaine trade. Nor is it news that the drug lords have used murder and intimidation to work their will on the Colombian legal system; dozens of judges and other officials have been murdered. What is new in Colombia is that the government has finally decided to stand up for Colombian sovereignty. In ways that have not been seen in recent history, the voices of the people and the muscle of the government have been galvanized into a force that has done real damage to the operations of the cocaine cartels.
What is worth remembering is that Colombia has always had the resources to attack the cartel and its assets. It is not a banana republic, nor a small island in the Caribbean. Colombia's 31 million people support a combined military and national police force that totals 141,000. Those forces have a reputation for being modern and professional; they have at their disposal, among other things, more than 250 aircraft and helicopters.
Even with such resources, the Colombians do not face an easy task. The cartels have made their way into the economic life of Colombia and its Andean neighbors. They have exploited an incredibly lucrative weakness in U.S. society which has made them literally billions of dollars. And they have a wanton disregard for the life of anyone who gets in their way.
Now they have responded to the latest government crackdown with a declaration of war. There have been daily bombings in the city of Medellin and in the capital and threats of new assassinations--this time against business and media leaders as well as government and police figures. The people of Colombia have had ample evidence of what they have to fear.
Will they and the government have the perseverance to see the job through? We all know that strength of political convictions can vanish as quickly as it develops, particularly in the face of terrorism.
President Virgilio Barco Vargas has demonstrated his decency and courage in recent days. In his television address last week, which was aimed at the United States, he said, "Colombia's survival as the oldest democracy in Latin America is now at risk." He is not overstating the case. Colombian democracy faces a dangerous and determined enemy at a time when its political system is in tatters. Out of fear, or corruption, the Colombian Congress has not supported the military offensive against the drug lords--in fact, it has never fully supported anti-drug efforts. Barco's own attorney general has not been willing to say that the current presidential decrees against the cartel are legal.
The risk for Colombian democracy, and as Barco said, "for the safety of your (U.S.) streets," is not lost on the Bush Administration. President Bush promptly used two special emergency authorities to order $65 million in aid for the Colombian military and police. The move is likely to receive widespread support, but this military aid alone is not going to solve the problem.
We should remember that the people of Colombia, like most Latin Americans, are extraordinarily sensitive when it comes to the presence of the U.S. military. A perception of a heavy U.S. hand is something that the drug cartel could turn to its advantage with the people of Colombia. We should recall that President Reagan used similar emergency authorities to provide the initial elements of U.S. military aid to the government of El Salvador. El Salvador is a much smaller country, with a population that is about one-fifth that of Colombia's. In the last decade the United States has provided the government of El Salvador with $3 billion in aid, without seeing a military defeat of the guerrillas or a peace settlement.
The real challenge for the United States is to recognize that the change in Colombia could be a historic turning point. Or it could merely be an interruption in the drug cartels' business as usual.
Finding ways to encourage and nourish the newly born political determination in Colombia is essential. Backing the government in its life-or-death struggle will certainly require more of a commitment than we have made to date. And the success or failure of efforts to reduce the American demand for cocaine will have a significant impact upon Colombia. But in the final analysis, it will be the Colombians who must find the strength to face this threat. It is critical for both the United States and Colombia that the bullet that took the life of Luis Galan brings to life a renewed commitment to blunt the power of the cartels that have brought so much misery to North and South America.