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Snaring Colombian Thugs

November 18, 2002

Jerel Shaffer and Earl Goen, two American citizens working at an oil rig in Venezuela, were kidnapped for ransom in 1997 by the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Shaffer was brutally tortured and freed only after paying his captors a million dollars. Goen was released shortly after the kidnapping. The following year, four American bird-watchers were kidnapped and killed by the same guerrilla group. And while these despicable acts were taking place, Jorge Briceno, the top military commander of the FARC, was allegedly conspiring to export cocaine to the United States.

U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has issued three separate indictments against people accused of crimes against Americans, just the latest in a series of U.S. indictments of Colombians. Carlos Castano, the head of the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, was indicted in September.

It would have been better if the Colombian justice system had made arrests in these extremist crimes. After all, the FARC has been inflicting mayhem for nearly 40 years. Drug trafficking, and all the violence it entails, has bled Colombia for decades. And only last year more than 3,000 people were taken hostage. Most of the criminals remain at large due to inefficient law enforcement and corrupt or intimidated judges.

In the last four years, the U.S. government has shown strong interest in helping Colombia to break free from the drug cartels and end the scourge of lawlessness. A new chapter of U.S. aid to Colombia in prosecuting those who attack American citizens is now being written, and so far Washington's tactics seem to have produced positive results.

In the case of Castano, the paramilitary commander, the U.S. indictment has deepened divisions within the paramilitary groups, mainly between those who want to profit from the drug trade and those who might severe their ties to drug dealers because of fear of extradition to the United States.

Some in Colombia have criticized the American indictments, arguing that they effectively close the door to future peace negotiations between the government and the FARC. We beg to differ.

For almost four decades, many Colombians have naively lived under the illusion that the FARC will eventually find a reason to sit down and discuss peace. History has proved them wrong. The only way to make the FARC negotiate a lasting peace is by making the cost of war too high. Reminding extremists that a possible trial and prison time awaits them in the U.S. may be the only way to make them cry uncle.

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