WASHINGTON — Sixteen civilians, including women and children, were slaughtered on New Year's Eve. A radio journalist was killed by motorcycle-riding assailants as he drove to work last week. A Catholic priest was murdered last month. The head of state has survived dozens of assassination attempts. Scores of locally elected officials and police officers were killed last year. Death squads are common. Kidnappings and attacks on civil infrastructure by well-armed bands of terrorists are part of daily life. Notwithstanding the violence, Bush administration officials say that they are optimistic about the future. Quick! What country is this?
If you guessed Iraq, you lose. It's Colombia - the other war on terror - the beleaguered democracy less than four hours by air from the US that has escaped the attention of the media in recent years.
This lack of coverage is significant. Though the axiom, "if it bleeds it leads" prevails in most US reporting from Iraq, the potentates of the press have largely ignored what's been happening in Colombia. Perhaps that's because the real story is so hopeful - leading to a conclusion that patient, persistent US assistance really works. And because that's a lesson applicable to Iraq, it has little appeal to prognosticators of gloom and doom.
What hasn't been reported are the signs of genuine progress being made in ending decades of bloodletting. Members of Colombia's largest terrorist group, the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, perpetrator of the New Year's Eve massacre, are today routinely turned in to the police by a civilian population once too intimidated to do so. The equally violent National Liberation Army now finds its havens in the countryside raided regularly by Colombian National Police and Army units.
These terror organizations have long fought each other and the government - financing their operations with drug money, kidnap ransoms, and bank robberies. Now, both groups have found a formidable foe in Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe. Elected as an independent in 2002, Mr. Uribe has taken tough, positive steps toward improving the security and economic situation in Colombia.
Unlike some of his feckless predecessors, Uribe has strengthened US-Colombian antinarcotics efforts by arresting and extraditing drug-cartel kingpins and sending terror leaders to the US for trial. His willingness to take advice and assistance from the US Department of Justice, FBI, DEA, and military have resulted in dramatic improvements in human rights protections and police and Army effectiveness.
With the aid of the US Agency for International Development, Uribe has stimulated pepper- and vanilla-manufacturing centers in places that formerly produced 70 percent of the coca crop. He introduced a plan whereby the youths who are the trigger-pullers in Colombia's narcoterror groups can trade in their guns for an education. Under Uribe, Colombia's economy grew 3 percent in 2003 and almost 4 percent in 2004. The peso has risen dramatically against the dollar. Cocaine production fell by nearly half between 2002 and 2003. Homicides are down 27 percent. Kidnappings have dropped 41 percent. And the right-wing paramilitary group, the "United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia," has promised to disarm 800 fighters immediately and completely demobilize by year's end.
A stable and democratic Colombia would be proof that with patience and persistence, American policy can succeed. This is perhaps the most crucial factor in Iraq. Baghdad and Bogotá have other similarities - both are surrounded by unstable, often unfriendly neighbors. While the Middle East situation is well known to Americans, the turmoil in Latin America has largely escaped notice.
Former Rep. Cass Ballenger, who just retired from Congress and chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Western Hemisphere panel, summed up the situation for me: Fidel Castro's best friend, Hugo Chávez, runs an unpredictable, semicommunist government in oil-rich Venezuela. There is new instability in Peru; a weak, crooked government in Ecuador; and financial uncertainty in Panama, Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua. "With all this," Mr. Ballenger said, "a Colombian success story could be the beginning of a new era of American-inspired prosperity and democracy in Latin America."
But Uribe's success isn't a sure thing. New concerns about the Colombian economy have emerged, and a referendum that would have given him more power over the budget was voted down by the people. He also seems too eager to adopt fiscal policies suggested by the International Monetary Fund - taxation and spending programs frighteningly similar to those that led to the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001.
If Uribe fell - either politically or worse, to an assassin - it would be a great loss in facing down the Marxist terrorists and the drug cartels. Uribe is going to be one of "the best presidents Central and South America have ever seen," Ballenger told me, "if they don't kill him." That, too, is a lesson for Iraq.
• Oliver North is chief executive officer of Guardian Technologies International. As a member of President Reagan's national security staff he was a central figure in the Iran-contra affair, in which sales of weapons to Iran were used to fund the Nicaraguan Contra rebels. © 2005 Creators Syndicate, Inc.