Colombia borrows Peru's playbook to fight rebels
On Tuesday, an official suggested that the state of emergency become permanent.
On Aug. 12, just five days into the presidency of Alvaro Uribe Vélez, Colombia found itself in a situation not unfamiliar to many Latin Americans: living under a state of emergency.Skip to next paragraph
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Mortar shells rained down on the city's poorest neighborhood, El Cartucho, during Mr. Uribe's inauguration on Aug. 7, killing 21 people. Less than a week later, living up to his campaign promise to govern with a "firm hand," Uribe declared a state of "conmocion interior" a limited state of emergency to help the government combat the country's rebel groups, the strongest of which, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), allegedly committed the inauguration-day crime.
While Colombian public opinion tends to split along socioeconomic lines the rich and better-educated welcome the declaration, while the poor say it will only exacerbate the killing here experts say that if history is any indication, this state of emergency is likely to continue here until the end of the now four-decade-old civil war.
"States of emergency aren't that unusual in Latin America," says Eduardo Gamarra, the head of the Latin America and Caribbean Center at Florida's International University. "The problem in Colombia ... is it's a state of emergency that is not going to be temporary but long term."
Peru lived under a constant state of emergency when Alberto Fujimori was president from 1990 to 2000. Bolivia has declared a state of emergency for economic reasons during every democratic government since 1985. And within the past year, temporary states of emergency have been declared in Argentina, Peru, and Paraguay.
In Colombia, besides imposing a 1.2 percent tax on the wealthy to raise $800 million to augment the armed forces, the de facto state of emergency, which will initially last for 90 days but can be extended twice, allows the government to restrict the movement of citizens, tap cellphone calls, and raid homes of suspected criminals, in some cases without a judicial warrant.
Last week, Minister of Defense Martha Lucia Ramirez said that the government would arm 15,000 farmers under the new decree in order to form a rural defense force. And on Tuesday, Interior and Justice Minister Fernando Londono suggested in a speech to Congress that some of the emergency powers may need to become permanent, including combating the smuggling of gas, a primary weapon of the FARC, and ending a law that returns goods to narcotraffickers.
States of emergency in Latin America have not necessarily ended well for their leaders. Argentina's brief state of emergency late last year failed to quell unrest following then-President Fernando de la Rua's economic austerity program, and he was ultimately forced to resign.
And though Mr. Fujimori is credited with eliminating the rebel groups Shining Path and Tupac Amaru in Peru, in 2000 he fled to Japan to escape trial for his alleged connection to 25 death-squad slayings of terrorist leaders during the early 1990s. Fujimori denies any connection with the killings, and Japan has thus far refused to extradite him.