Save a slot for Colombia

Push Colombia to the front burner. What happens next there may say much about the world's prospects for a less violent future.

Many crises, wars, and near-wars bubble on the international stove. Colombia is among those we in the international community ought to attend to, not just because it is one more fountain of violence – it is that – but because we can make a difference by giving Colombia's people a bit of attention.

After enduring decades of killing, kidnapping, and corruption, the citizens of Colombia may be at a tipping point, ready to push their society forward. They need a little help. The US and other donor countries have sent billions in aid, most of it military, over the years. Many assume the assistance should be military. But the world's recognition of the willpower of this proud but battered people may now be more important.

Colombians, a thoroughly political people, have just elected a new president. Álvaro Uribe campaigned on the slogan mano firme, corazón grande, "a firm hand, a big heart," proposing that formula as the "road to confidence" for a disintegrating society. Giving Mr. Uribe a huge mandate, Colombians clearly liked both ends of his tough-love plan. The US government, seeming to lose the heart part in translation, liked the firepower feature.

Soon the president-elect will make the obligatory trip north to arrange a specific package of aid. Let's hope his round of calls on the White House and Congress leads to more than a ratcheting-up of US-funded combat. It is time for a fresh understanding of the challenges faced by Uribe.

The Colombian government may need money and materiel from the developed world, but it is the Colombian people who are going to win the peace. It is their collective !!iexcl!!No mas! – No more! – that will finally bring the killing, the kidnapping, even the narco-trafficking to a halt.

In a couple of huge !!iexcl!!No mas! demonstrations, millions of Colombian citizens have taken to the streets, asserting for a few hours freedom from the fear that dogs every step of every citizen every day.

From a distance, this looks like a traditional civil war. A beleaguered government struggles against rebels claiming to be social reformers; narcotics gangs take advantage of the chaos to make billions; the Army and police struggle to cope; when they fail, vigilante groups spring up; everyone gets dirty in the river of drug money, weapons, and corruption that sluices through the land. For individual Colombians, this is a formula for terror from all directions.

A common cycle: Rebels come into a village at night to recruit. They kill anyone who opposes them. Next day, government forces arrive to go after anyone who collaborated the night before. Vigilantes take their turn at cleansing the community and, through it all, US-backed antidrug units spray the villagers' coca fields and hunt down anyone connected with the drug-processing and export trade. Schools collapse and local government ceases. The villagers flee to the big cities where they hover in huge, makeshift slums. The men find work carrying weapons as security for rich people or take up freelance kidnapping.

The result for everyone, poor or rich, city-dweller or villager, Colombian or visitor, is a sense of unending personal danger.

Fear isolates. The common cultural heritage is replaced by defensive walls, the collective democracy splinters into deadly factions, and everyone feels abandoned.

Here is where we come in – "we" being everyone around the world determined to defeat terror, everyone hoping to prevent narco-violence from erupting in their own backyard, everyone concerned that Colombia's problems are spreading in Latin America.

It is still early, but it is possible that the !!iexcl!!No mas! demonstrations and the vote for Uribe's program were the signals that millions of Colombians are now ready to step through the fear to create a new Colombia. We can make a difference just by paying attention, acknowledging the courage it takes for these fine people to fight back, and ensuring they don't feel isolated.

A boost for the Army and police is certainly in order. But the goal must be security measured by citizen confidence, not by statistics about the number of combat patrols. Uribe is calling for an iron fist, but he's also proposing a thoroughgoing transformation in the life of the nation. Mere war will only increase the divisions, flush more people out of their homes, and lead to more destruction.

Either way, Colombia is a harbinger. If Colombians can pull their country out of the fire, we can hope that other struggling nations – Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, several in Africa – can do the same. If they can't, many more people will be cowering powerless behind barricades.

Save a slot for Colombia in your personal news cycle.

• Larry Seaquist, a former US Navy warship captain and Pentagon strategist, writes and consults about contemporary war and peace as chair of The Strategy Group.

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