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Backing Colombia's fight, money well-spent

By Peter Hakim / September 30, 1999



On his visit to the UN last week, Colombian President Andrs Pastrana presented his strategy for dealing with the punishing problems confronting his country - a vicious internal war against two guerrilla groups, expanding numbers of displaced persons, corruption and violence associated with large-scale illicit drug production and trafficking, and the nation's worst economic depression in half a century.

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The core of his strategy is a long-term effort to strengthen the Army, to give it a fighting chance against insurgents and drug criminals. That makes good sense. Colombia's national security is under siege and the armed forces are too weak to protect either the nation or its people.

The cost is steep - $7.5 billion over the next three years. About half is being sought from external sources - including $1.5 billion from the US. But the cost doesn't seem all that high, considering it's Colombia's future at stake. And there is nothing unreasonable about Colombia asking the US and others for a contribution. The internal war and drug trade are spilling over the country's borders, burdening all of its neighbors.

Further erosion of the government's authority is deeply threatening to Colombia's major drug customers - mainly the US, but also Canada, and Europe.

The US isn't being asked for an outrageous increase in support. US funding would rise 70 percent, from $290 million a year to $500 million. Since US officials worked with the Colombians to develop the plan, this amount is probably close to what the White House will be requesting from Congress.

Taking account of US sensitivities, Washington's contribution is ostensibly targeted for the Army's new anti-narcotics units - not for counterinsurgency forces. But that is misleading. It no longer makes sense to distinguish the two battles, if it is even possible. The guerrillas depend on narcotics-trade income; as long as it flourishes, they'll be well-financed, and able consistently to recruit new cadres.

You can't defeat the insurgents without attacking their revenue. At the same time, the guerrillas protect drug production and transport - so you can't get to the drugs and the dealers without confronting the insurgents. It's all connected.

There'll be opposition to Colombia's request from two groups in Congress.

One group, largely Republican, wants attention exclusively focused on battling drugs and is deeply skeptical about the commitment of both Presidents Clinton and Pastrana to that struggle. From the outset, this group opposed Pastrana's plans to pursue peace negotiations with the guerrillas and any US support for the negotiations, which they regarded as a frivolous diversion from the drug war. They want US aid to go to Colombia's anti-narcotics police, with whom they maintain direct contact, and they want to micromanage how it is used.

This group of largely conservative Republicans has been proven right, so far, on one score. Peace talks have produced no tangible results. They're wrong, however, in thinking that the US Congress can set Colombia's priorities - or that they can somehow bypass the president. Their tactics are likely to weaken the Colombian government further, making it harder for the country to fight drugs or guerrillas. Indeed, unless the authority of the state is reinforced, none of Colombia's problems will get solved.

Opposition to the new strategy will also come from those in Congress, mostly Democratic, who are justifiably concerned about the Army's human rights record and its links to paramilitaries. They want to withhold support from the military and rely on the peace process to deal with guerrillas. They're wrong on two counts. First, it's hard to imagine how peace negotiations can succeed unless the Colombian government has the ability to battle the insurgents. Second, rights violations in Colombia are mainly the result of government weakness, not an overzealous Army. The paramilitaries, responsible for most of the violations, command considerable support in some regions because neither the Army or police can maintain order.

To protect human rights and contain the paramilitary, Colombia's security forces need to be upgraded and professionalized. This will reinforce the crucial peace process. The solution in the end will be political not military.

Pastrana has a good plan. The US should support it.

*Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue, in Washington.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society