The Colombia puzzle

Colombia is not a quagmire, but a fog in which the players stumble around in seemingly aimless conflict. The couple of billion dollars in aid Congress and President Clinton plan to use to fight the drug menace over the next three years may also simply get lost.

The heart of the problem is narcotics and the money it spawns. Colombia produces at least 80 percent of the cocaine and two-thirds of the heroin consumed in the US. Despite all efforts, there are more drugs than ever. Ironically, US customers pay the suppliers many times what Washington gives the Colombian government to stop the traffic.

But the puzzle embraces far more than drugs. Three-cornered civil war is a constant. Guerrilla factions, rich and heavily armed, fight each other and mysterious right-wing paramilitary death squads, as well as national police and armed forces. The oldest and largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has been the most successful. Its nearly 20,000 men have fought Bogot to a standstill and carved out a piece of territory in the south the size of Switzerland. It is a "demilitarized zone," an independent area free of any government authority.

President Andres Pastrana has been trying since his 1998 election to bring the guerrillas into the political mainstream through negotiation. FARC, not especially eager, finally agreed - but on its own terms. It has continued attacking the Army and extorting "taxes" from communities, travelers, and oil and mining companies. It's selling drug lords protection and cooperation, kidnapping for ransom, and using child soldiers. Nor is it clear what FARC wants of the negotiations. It demands undefined fundamental political, social, and economic change, but not supreme power.

These woolly views may reflect the 40 years the guerrillas have spent fighting and out of touch with political reality. So in February, a government-guerrilla delegation toured Europe meeting with officials, aid donors, religious leaders, and journalists. It was a government attempt to build confidence between the groups and to show the guerrillas models of social democracy. The result remains to be seen. Some think it has boosted FARC's morale and status. The government, responding to another wave of kidnappings and sabotage, is ready to give the second-largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) its own independent zone in the north.

All this against a background of systemic national crisis. Last year, the economy suffered its worst setback in 100 years. Rural poverty matches the worst of the third world. Unemployment is at 20 percent. Foreign investment, essential for recovery, is at a dead stop. Drug influence contaminates all the institutions of state and has demoralized the justice system. In four years, an estimated 800,000 people, including many highly trained professionals, have left the country. The murder rate is 10 times higher than that of the US, and the rate of kidnapping is the world's highest.

The question is why all this should have happened to Colombia, inherently rich, with democracy well established. Unfortunately, violence is well established in Columbia, too. Upon gaining independence in 1819, Colombia had a series of civil wars culminating at the turn of the century in the War of 1,000 Days, which cost 100,000 lives.

These upheavals, in which liberals and conservatives fought for power, were marked by widespread acts of brutality. After a relatively quiet period, the assassination of a liberal president in 1948 touched off more than 10 years of war noted in Colombian history as La Violencia, with more than 200,000 dead. In the 1960s FARC and ELN appeared; their insurgencies escalated when the drug barons took center stage in the 1980s.

Some think that the habitual resort to violence to deal with differences in the past century and a half has desensitized Colombian society. Whatever the reason, Colombia is much more than a problem for the US. It is a trial for the Western Hemisphere.

*Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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