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Facing mountain of woes. Ruthless drug traffickers and political violence are tearing apart South America's oldest democracy. A four-part series explores how Colombia, a key US ally, is fighting back.

By Merrill CollettSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 12, 1988

Bogot'a, Colombia

Latin America's oldest democracy is in danger of coming apart at the seams. Colombia is under siege from one of the world's most virulent home-grown drug networks as well as a rising tide of political violence that threatens to set off a civil war.

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The country's turmoil bodes ill for the United States in several ways. It could undercut Colombian democracy, striking a blow to the spread of civilian, pluralistic rule throughout Latin America - a trend the US supports. Also, the growing drug problem tests the ability of the US and its Western Hemisphere allies to contain a scourge that is already straining US-Latin American relations. Finally, Colombia has strategic importance, since it sits just south of Panama and the canal.

``Even more than Mexico, Colombia is the country closest to Central America - and the Panama Canal - that has the greatest chance of destabilizing,'' says Juan Tokatlian, director of international studies at the University of the Andes.

The two-year-old government of President Virgilio Barco Vargas seems unable to corner any of the major narcotraficantes or halt the political killings and disappearances that some say are reminiscent of Argentina's tragic ``dirty war'' of the early 1980s. And it finds itself besieged as well by critics from the United States - including US senators who, frustrated by the ceaseless flow of ``coke'' onto US streets, threaten to send in US troops.

Colombians resent US declarations that they are not doing enough to defeat the drug traffickers. ``When a Colombian official is killed by the drug mafia, then they say this country is run by traffickers,'' Mr. Tokatlian says. ``But isn't it just the opposite? The fact that people are dying means they are putting up a fight.''

Colombia's drug barons, said to control production and distribution of about 80 percent of the cocaine that flows into the US, have in the past four years carried on a war of assassination and intimidation against law enforcement and judicial officials, and anti-trafficker journalists and politicians.

They have joined forces with leftist guerrillas and right-wing death squads to protect their assets and eliminate their foes.

A longtime close ally of the US, Colombia is only now getting the attention of most Americans, because of the drug issue.

``Colombia hasn't aroused the interest of the United States because this country hasn't been a problem,'' Tokatlian says. ``Now that things are getting worse here, we're starting to get some attention up there.''

In fact, Colombia has been a clear exception to the almost general rule of Latin American economies in dire straits which have captured public attention in recent years. While Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, and others have struggled with almost unmanageable foreign debt problems, Colombia's economy has harvested the fruit of wise fiscal policies (as well as benefited from the wealth of the illegal drug trade).

Although the debt has grown from $6 billion in 1980 to $15 billion in 1987, fiscally prudent Colombia has managed its foreign obligations well and is considered one of the best credit risks in Latin America.

Economic growth has averaged over 5 percent in the past two years. Exports, once based almost solely on coffee, now include flowers, bananas, petroleum, and coal.

One example of confidence in the economy is the intent of US investors to increase their stake in the booming Colombian energy industry.

But the vibrant economy has worked largely to the benefit of a few. Nearly 1 of every 2 Colombians still lives below the poverty line.

The nation's largely democratic history (with some interruptions), now in its 103rd year, is the story of a power balance between two political parties tightly controlled by the nation's elite. The deep, widespread poverty and the unwillingness until recently to open up the political system have spawned a level of political violence unknown in almost any other country.