Colombia - A More Difficult Road Ahead

By Scott B. MacDonald

Guerrilla attacks, rampaging paramilitaries, executions of soldiers, kidnappings of politicians, assassinations of elected officials, and a struggling economy, all confront Colombia’s president-elect, Alvaro Uribe, who won the May 26th balloting and assumes office on August 7, 2002. Colombia is moving in an uncertain direction, as a new presidential team is assuming control of a country desperately hoping to break with its violent past. However, it appears that Colombia’s violence could actually get worse before it gets better. Considering the South American country’s geo-strategic location, bordering Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Panama and Brazil, what happens in Colombia is going to have an impact on those countries -- as well as raising tough questions as to the growing involvement of the United States in the region.

The May Elections

Throughout the recent presidential campaign, opinion polls indicated that Uribe, an independent candidate, would receive close to 50 percent of the vote, placing him well ahead of his closest rival, Liberal Party chief Horacio Serpa. The other major party, the Conservatives initially fielded a candidate, but he dropped out well ahead of the May poll, due to exceedingly poor standings in opinion polls. Indeed, the Conservative did well to get out of the way — Uribe captured 53 percent of the vote, hence avoiding a second round of voting between the top candidates.

Who is Uribe? Colombia’s next president has a doctorate in law and political science and had taken some business management courses at the Harvard University Extension School. He was governor of the state of Antioquia, with its capital of Medellin from 1995 to 1998. During his tenure he was responsible for the creation of a network of civilian patrol groups, which functioned as neighborhood watch organizations. Although two of these groups were linked to death squads, many local people were supportive as they brought some degree of stability. Consequently, Uribe’s campaign had a shadow from the far right hanging over it. Uribe’s hard stance on dealing with the guerrillas is no doubt conditioned by his father’s death during a kidnapping attempt by the largest guerrilla group, FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

It is also important to note that Uribe acknowledges the need to promote the development of a civic society, including the improvement of people’s lives. Despite the streak of violence during his tenure as governor, Uribe is given credit with improving public health, education and the highways systems. Aware of the contradiction of improving society and the role of the paramilitaries, he recently stated in an interview: "It’s a source of shame for democracy to have to admit that in Colombia, owing to the weakness of the state, some regions that have relative peace also have a large paramilitary presence."

The taint of Colombia’s violence is not reserved solely for the president-elect. Over the last two months the country has observed some of its most intense combat as the FARC, rightwing paramilitaries and the military have been clashing. FARC is estimated to have 17,000 combatants. Statistics released by the government on April 16 indicate that in the first quarter of the year the army killed 452 guerrillas and captured 1,560 in 440 engagements while losing 205 men. The government claims to have seized large quantities of guerrilla armaments, including 27 tons of explosives, and the equivalent of U.S.$10 million. However, since those numbers the violence has increased. This includes a particularly bloody incident when FARC forces lobbed a crudely made mortar at the St. Paul the Apostle Church in Bellavista, killing 119 civilians, of which 48 were children. The rest of the town’s population fled. FARC is now claiming that any new talks with the Uribe government will only occur if the government is willing to surrender a new demilitarized zone encompassing the two southern departments of Caqueta and Putumayo. At the same time, they are using force to carve out the new zone — declaring that all mayors, councilors and municipal officials in Caqueta are military targets. Backing up this threat, the mayor of the town of Solita was assassinated, allegedly by FARC.

A Fragmented Society

Colombia’s violence is deep-rooted in the country’s history and there are no easy solutions. Indeed, the outgoing Pastrana government staked its reputation on reaching a peace accord with the FARC. This effort sadly failed. FARC took advantage of the lull in fighting to re-supply, train and make money (based on drugs, kidnappings and taxes on local businesses).

The bottom line is that Colombia is very much a fragmented society, with a multitude of warring factions. As journalist Alma Guillermoprieto noted in The New Yorker (May 13, 2002): "In addition to the Colombian government, with its sometimes less than efficient Army, and the government in Washington, which allotted $1.3 billion two years ago to fight the drug trade, and is about to vote on thirty-five million dollars more to combat Colombian terrorism, there are warring outlaw groups on the right and the left that in recent years have grown huge on drug-trade profits: the two largest are the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (known as the A.U.C.), which calls itself patriotic and is paramilitary; and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia pr FARC, which calls itself socialist and has been waging a guerrilla campaign along the outer edges of Colombia’s tumultuous geography." Both the AUC and FARC finance their operations at least in part through the drug trade.

Dealing with the Terrorist Threat

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress is considering an administration request for increased military aid to Colombia. The United States over the last two years has provided Colombia with $1.7 billion, mainly in the form of military aid. Support for helping Colombia deal with what is now being diagnosed as "a terrorist threat" seems to be widespread in Washington. However debate over Colombia has bogged down over whether Colombia is doing enough on its own behalf to fight drugs and how to avoid deeper United States involvement in an ill-defined guerrilla war and widespread human rights abuses.

U.S. aid to Colombia was recently complicated by revelations that $2 million in U.S. drug war aid disappeared into the pockets of around 20 officers in Colombia’s anti-narcotics police. According to El Tiempo the money apparently was paid out to fake companies for goods including fuel, water, gasoline, vehicles and parts. The head of the anti-narcotics police was sacked and reassigned, while a number of other officers are under investigation.

The task for the next president of is huge. The difficult security situation deters badly needed foreign investment, guerrilla attacks destroy infrastructure (bombing targeted oil pipelines and electricity pylons), and the economy is sluggish. Caught in the middle of the warring factions are the Colombian people, many of whom are weary of the ongoing violence plaguing their society. It is estimated that nearly 2 million Colombians — 5% of the population — are now internal refugees from the fighting. Uribe offers a clear choice in dealing with the FARC, as opposed to the seemingly wishful hopefulness of the failed Pastrana peace plan. However, Uribe will have a difficult time in restoring his country to anything resembling relative calm.

Watching closely is Washington, D.C. The Bush administration, already keenly focused on its war against international terrorism, has little love for FARC and regards that organization as a major security threat, especially considering the alleged support provided to it by the neighboring Chavez government in Venezuela. Uribe is decidedly the man who Washington prefers to be Colombia’s president. As one reporter noted: "Nobody was surprised when the US ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson, arrived at the Uribe campaign headquarters well before the final results were announced to congratulate the victor."

All the same, the Bush administration has probably underrated the challenges represented by Colombia’s fragmented nature. There is no quick fix by military aid to resolve the more complicated problems of social inequity and the deeply seated use of violence to resolve issues. Help from the outside should include access to markets as well as qualified military assistance. Considering the increasingly protectionist nature of U.S. trade policy in an election year, market access may be difficult to provide, while military assistance by itself cannot resolve the problems facing Colombia. And, while Uribe is pro-US, it should also be understood that he is above all else a Colombian nationalist, seeking to do what he perceives as the best for his country’s national interest, including trade policy issues that could conflict with those of the Bush administration. He might just be asking for more help than Washington is willing to provide, especially if it includes economic aid and market access.

Uribe’s first foreign policy trip as president-elect was to Washington in June 2002. He visited with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Advisor Conzela Rice, IMF Director Horst Koehler, and World Bank President James Wolfensohn. The welcome was warm and the message of support from the Bush administration was clear. While many of the right things were said, however, the execution of a U.S. policy to help Colombia remains problematic and unresolved.

In his recent book, The Colombian Civil War, Bert Ruiz, the Chairman of the Colombian American Association, makes the point that for Colombia to break with its violent past, the political elite must finally become more responsible vis-à-vis the mass of their countrymen and implement significant reforms that can alleviate the country’s substantial social problems. Short of this, Ruiz warns that in a few years, the FARC will have within its grasp the ability to "combat an effective war against Colombian army forces in the country’s major areas of the country."


Much as the problems represented by al-Qaeda are rooted in socio-economic problems, so too are Colombia’s. Consequently, when the next Colombian president assumes the presidential sash in August 2002, the trick is to address social needs, defeat the FARC, breakup the AUC, maintain a flow of aid from the United States, but limit it to reasonable levels so that the local conflict remains local, and to get the economy growing again at a stronger and sustainable pace. The solution is in a balanced approach, something that has been hard to find in Colombia’s history of political feuds. Yet, the danger is that Colombia’s problems intensify and possibly spill over into the neighborhood. Colombia will remain one of the big challenges for policy-makers in Latin America and North America. Investors should beware.

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