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Commentary

Bogota Must First Win the Guerrilla War

Colombia: The police and military forces can't both fight the insurgents and beat drug traffickers.

October 23, 1998|MAURICIO VARGAS | Mauricio Vargas is director of CMI, a national television newscast in Colombia

BOGOTA, Colombia — After so many years of enduring a U.S. policy that focused obsessively on drug trafficking to the detriment of the other part of the bilateral agenda, Colombia is beginning to see a timid but welcome change of attitude in political and academic centers in the United States. A much desired and perhaps reachable peace process is beginning to take shape in Colombia, and the accompanying signs coming from the U.S. are encouraging.

To be fair, during the Ernesto Samper administration, 1994-1998, there were signs coming from the north that indicated a disposition to change the tone of the relationship between the two countries. However, the scandal over the disclosure of drug money coming from the Cali cartel to finance Samper's presidential campaign severely damaged his credibility. It also narrowed whatever chance he had to succeed on the international scene.

Domestically, the campaign financing drug scandal made it virtually impossible for Samper to engage the different guerrilla groups that operate in the country in a meaningful dialogue for peace. On the international front, whatever attitudinal change the U.S. had envisioned toward Colombia was forsaken during those four years.

The change in focus we now are sensing in U.S. policymakers is not only a positive sign but a very fundamental one. The approach taken over the past years has been a complete failure. The effects of the crop-eradication programs on the coca and poppy fields have been almost nil. The persecution and death of drug lord Pablo Escobar and the imprisonment of the brothers Rodriguez Orejuela brought about a proliferation of smaller cartels whose capos have turned out to be more efficient than the previous ones, albeit less famous.

Perhaps the main reason why the scope of the combat against drug trafficking has been so limited, in spite of the enormous cost it has had on human lives and economic resources in a country as poor as Colombia, is due to the existence of the guerrillas that reign over one-fifth of the national territory.

In many parts of the southern forests, coca and poppy growers not only enjoy the protection of the guerrillas but are actively encouraged by them to increase their trade. The growers are groups of peasants who rely on the guerrillas as their main supporting force. For the guerrillas, the peasants represent the popular base of support they need to dominate the region. Not to mention the fact that the guerrillas make a lot of money protecting the laboratories where the cartels process the drugs.

Using the army and the police to battle the guerrillas on a daily basis distracts the meager resources of the nation and prevents the state from directing the full strength of those two institutions to combating drug trafficking.

Having a guerrilla war in a territory composed of more than 500 out of 1,000 municipalities destabilizes the state and makes the administration of justice in those territories an unmanageable process. The people who live in the region prefer to call the guerrillas to settle their justice issues rather than relying on members of the judiciary system that operates in the rest of the country.

As long as the guerrillas reign in the countryside, it will be impossible for the state to eradicate illicit crops and to destroy the network of cocaine and heroin processing laboratories. As long as there are guerrillas, the focus of the military and the police will remain primarily in the fight against them, and the combat against drug traffickers will remain in the background.

But that's not all. If in spite of the courageous acts of Colombian President Andres Pastrana, who only a few weeks ago went to the forest to talk to the guerrillas, the peace process fails, then the chances of the war widening increase. That may mean placing in jeopardy the stability of neighboring countries--a real danger.

It is in the best interest of the government and the people of the United States to support the effort to bring peace to Colombia. Only after the laborious disentangling of the guerrilla war can Colombia aspire to win the battle against drug traffickers. Only the pacification of Colombia can guarantee the United States that one of its main allies in the region can free itself of the burden of violence that has so vastly limited its development.

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