TOPICS > Politics

Confrontation in Colombia

February 25, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: As recently as a month ago, there was new hope that Colombia’s four-decade civil war was moving toward peace. The government of President Andres Pastrana, who has long pushed for a negotiated settlement, agreed in January on a timetable for peace talks with Colombia’s main Marxist guerrilla group.

The Colombian revolutionary army, or the FARC, as it’s known, has close ties with Colombia’s cocaine traffickers, and is considered Latin America’s wealthiest insurgency group ever.

But in the last few weeks, the rebels stepped up their deadly attacks on law enforcement and civilians, even as their leaders were at the peace table. And last Wednesday, they were accused of hijacking a civilian jet and taking a Senator as hostage.

Within hours, President Pastrana called off the peace talks, squarely placing the blame on the FARC, and he said would no longer provide the rebels with a safe haven in the Colombian jungle known as the demilitarized zone. The FARC demanded the zone three years ago as a condition for coming to the peace table.

PRESIDENT ANDRES PASTRANA: I have decided to end the demilitarized zone as of midnight today. I have given all the necessary orders to our armed forces for them to retake the mentioned area. I also reiterated my order to combat, all over the country, all illegal groups by conducting operatives not only of a defensive nature, but also of an offensive nature.

RAY SUAREZ: A day later, FARC rebels began moving out of the safe haven as the Colombian army moved in. The dashed hopes for peace coincided with a shift in US Policy toward Colombia.

Three years ago, the Clinton Administration provided Colombia with $1.3 billion in weapons and training under a program called Plan Colombia. 250 US soldiers are there as part of the package. By law, the aid could only be used to fight the drug trade, not the rebels.

But since September, the Bush Administration has viewed Colombia as another front in its terrorism war. Last month, the White House asked Congress for $98 million to fund a brand-new mission: protecting oil pipelines owned by foreign companies from rebel attacks.

The White House is also planning to provide Bogota with military intelligence to help it intercept phone calls and track rebels from the air. That’s welcome news to Pastrana, whose term runs out this summer. Many candidates are campaigning to succeed him, including Ingrid Betancourt, a stinging critic of the FARC whose family has long been politically powerful. She’s known overseas for her new book, “Until Death do us Part.” It describes her return home after a comfortable life abroad.

But over the weekend, the FARC said it kidnapped Betancourt as she was traveling in rebel-held territory. The insurgents want to trade her for rebel prisoners.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the fighting in Colombia, we turn to Luis Alberto Moreno, Colombia’s ambassador to the United States; and Michael Shifter, senior fellow at the Inter-American dialogue and an adjunct professor of Latin American Studies at Georgetown University.

Mr. Ambassador, tell us the latest on the Betancourt kidnapping. Have there been any further communications from the kidnappers?

LUIS ALBERTO MORENO: Not different than some of the people that were released that were kidnapped with her when she was going into the area which was at the time being retaken by the government. This is a very sad moment, of course, for Colombia to see that somebody who is aspiring to be president of Colombia were kidnapped.

But we don’t have any latest information other than to know that she is in the hands of the FARC, as are, unfortunately, other members of the Colombian Congress. There’s already with the Senator that was kidnapped last Wednesday a total of five members of Congress who are also being kidnapped and held hostage today by the FARC.

RAY SUAREZ: What’s your government’s general response? Will you negotiate with these people? Are you prepared to make a deal with them, given that they do hold such a large number of people?

LUIS ALBERTO MORENO: Well, President Pastrana won’t really… not only was elected with a mandate of achieving peace with the FARC, he went as far as he could. He tried every possible avenue to negotiate a peace element with the FARC, but unfortunately to negotiate it takes two.

The strategy that the FARC has developed lately and especially in the last month since the international community came and tried to broker a last-minute solution, is to invoke terrorist acts. They did in the last month alone about 170 terrorist acts.

They, for instance, destroyed 22 electric pylons, 33 electric pylons in the last month alone. They put car bombs; they bombed a pipeline. They did more kidnappings. This is continuously an offense that the FARC has taken against civilian society in Colombia.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Shifter, how do you read the kidnapping? Is it just part of the back-and-forth of this very long civil war or because she was running for president, does it up the anti-some?

MICHAEL SHIFTER: Well, I think what it shows, the kidnapping, is the immense cruelty of the war in Colombia, not only the cruelty on the part of the FARC but on the part of all the violent actors that are involved in this terribly tragic situation. Senator Betancourt is somebody who has shown tremendous courage in her political life.

I think this shows that even elections which have been the heart of Colombia’s political system is at risk and democracy is at risk in Colombia. So I think this is really a metaphor for the tremendous cruelty and savagery and brutality of this conflict on all sides.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned her courage. Might there also have been an element of risk-taking that sort of was beyond what was perhaps prudent in this case? This was an area, if I understand this correctly, that was in dispute. Rebels were being chased out by government forces?

MICHAEL SHIFTER: Well, I think one could talk about the risk that she took and questioned whether this was the wisest thing. But the fact of the matter is that she is a presidential candidate, and she felt that she wanted to show support for the citizens of that community because of the end of the peace process and the possible consequences that they could suffer. And I think she wanted to show that she cared about them and she connected to them and that was her motivation.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Moreno, maybe you could help Americans understand what’s at stake here. This has been called one of the longest civil wars in the world, pushing 40 years. What is it that the rebels want and what is it that the government is unwilling to give?

LUIS ALBERTO MORENO: Well, there’s no question that the… this has changed over the years. I think one could argue that they had, you know, legitimate causes at the beginning of this conflict, which was 40 years ago but as a result of the change in the East-West conflict and the fact that they no longer were part of the military arm of the Communist Party, the FARC, because of drugs, really increased in size.

And the minute drugs became an issue in Colombia and became kind of a platform for all violent actors in Colombia unfortunately the conflict in Colombia changed and it became worse as Michael was saying. Now it’s really a challenge on Colombian democracy. How to go about resolving it will clearly Colombia needs to continue to invest in bettering the capacity of its armed forces to provide security throughout the country. Colombia is a country that really has a lot of frontier areas. Most of the population is concentrated in ten cities. You have about 70 percent of the population there.

So the real answer here is, one, strengthening the military in our country, making it bigger, making it more effective. Two, doing something about the production and the transport and the traffic of drugs. And this is at the heart of weakening all violent actors in Colombia.

Three, it is really the promotion of human rights and the strengthening of human rights throughout the country. I think those are critical elements for changing this conflict around.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, the Ambassador just suggested that drugs have sort of poisoned the FARC’s original political program. Do they represent a strain of the Colombian public or does narcotics money keep them in the field long after they ceased to represent a part of Colombian life?

MICHAEL SHIFTER: The FARC, I think, is a very complicated organization. Clearly they commit terrorist acts. Clearly they’re criminals and bandits that rely on the drug trade. They’re also guerillas in their origins. So it’s very, very complicated.

They’re all of the above. They don’t enjoy populous support and sympathy because of the barbarous acts that they’ve committed so the task is, as the ambassador said correctly, to establish and assert authority in the country.

This is a war about power and different factions with a lot of money, a lot of resources, a lot of military power, vying for power, claiming territory and a government that hasn’t been able to establish complete control over its own territory.

And that is the principal task. It’s hard to see how this crisis will be resolved and how to turn around the decline without the government regaining some initiatives and gaining control of its own authority — and its own territory. That’s the fundamental challenge. That, I think, is what the Colombians have begun to do but they need a lot more support and a lot more time.

RAY SUAREZ: A lot more support from where? The Bush Administration has been in office 13 months now. Is there American governmental support for this tougher line against the FARC?

MICHAEL SHIFTER: Well, I think there is. I think we’re moving in that direction. Clearly there is… the Bush Administration is concerned about this situation. The peace process has broken down which opens the way for greater involvement.

I think the focus so narrowly for so many years on narcotics and drugs was misguided. If we eradicate coca and the state and the government can’t function properly, then the problem is not going to deal with the fundamental problem.

Now we’re in the war on terrorism. That is a dimension and a problem in the Colombian context. But again the US policy should be oriented towards trying to bring this conflict to an end. That should be the political objective, which includes strengthening the security forces in Colombia, making them more professional so that they respect human rights and are more capable of protecting Colombian citizens.

RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador, American aid was specifically meant to be part of the war on drugs. During the Bush Administration and since September 11, is there support… are you hearing support from American governmental sources?

LUIS ALBERTO MORENO: Well, there is no question, Ray, that ever since September 11 there’s been a profound change not only in the way Americans think but I think the way the world thinks. In Colombia you have, as Michael was suggested, all of these expressions of terrorism, of drug trafficking, that have been really at the heart of this conflict.

So therefore what we are seeing and what I think is important to see is to help resolve the conflict. How do you resolve it? There is no question, as I was saying earlier, with a stronger military. You need a social and economic component; economic security is critical here. It is critical to be able to protect a lot of the infrastructure in Colombia, which is now being targeted by the FARC, to be able to destroy the economic underpinnings of the country. We need to be able to react to that — protecting pipelines, protecting the electric pylons, protecting the water systems and also to be able to enhance trade and trade possibilities between Colombia and the United States.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you want still more American aid to accomplish this?

LUIS ALBERTO MORENO: Yes, I believe that is necessary. I believe that not only is American aid necessary, American intelligence and all the resources the United States can bring to the table — as well as what the Colombian people and the Colombian government must do. This is precisely what President Pastrana set out to do. This is why he came out with plan Colombia, which had a very important economic and social component. This must be part of the equation, as this goes directly at the root causes of the violence.

RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Ambassador, Professor Shifter, thank you both.