|COLOMBIA IN CRISIS|
August 11, 1999
While Colombia struggles with civil war and a decaying economy, American politicians debate how the U.S. should continue to participate in the country's drug war. Following a background report, Elizabeth Farnsworth discusses the issue with three policy experts.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For more on the drug war in Colombia we turn to Peter Reuter, a professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland. He has also been a senior economist at the RAND Corporation, where he founded its drug policy research center. Gabriel Marcella, a professor of third world studies at the U.S. Army War College; he served as international affairs advisor for the U.S. Army's Southern Command in Panama from 1987 to 1989. And Michael Shifter, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a non-profit organization; he's also a Professor of Latin American Politics at Georgetown University. Welcome to you all.
And, Gabriel Marcella, starting with you, set the scene a little more for us here, how much, we saw on that, but explain how much of Colombia the guerrillas control, FARC mostly, and how big a threat they are to the government.
GABRIEL MARCELLA: The guerrillas right now are in control of approximately 40 percent of the national territory. Much of this territory is lightly populated, and lies to the eastern side of the and in the broad Amazon basin. They constitute a serious threat to the government of Colombia. My estimate and that of most analysts right now, it is not a threat that would topple the government of Colombia. However, it can maintain for the long-term a sustained level of conflict to include periodic attacks against police, military installations, destruction of infrastructure. In essence, it contests the legitimacy of the government throughout the nation and particularly in the 40 percent that it controls directly.
|The insurgents and drug trade|
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Peter Reuter, add anything you want to that or subtract anything you want and explain the relationship between the insurgents and the drug trade.
PETER REUTER: Well, the insurgents are intimately involved in the drug trade, as are the paramilitary. The drug trade is the one sort of free source of money that is available to any effective criminal group and the guerrillas and the paramilitary can both offer protection on extortion for the coca growers. And so there has sort of been a long history of involvement -- sometimes it's more guerrilla, sometimes more paramilitary -- but they are both intimately involved with this and are likely to continue to be so, despite U.S. efforts.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael Shifter, anything to add that intimately involved with this?
MICHAEL SHIFTER: Absolutely and I think the crucial point is that the government itself is very weak and it's lost a lot of authority throughout the country. That has enabled the guerrillas, the paramilitary groups to really expand. So you have an intersection of three tendencies, the drug economy, political violence which has happened for a long time and institutional deterioration of the political system. And that has really created a severe crisis.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. Shifter, just one clarification, when
you say - when there's an intimate involvement, which I know actually
Mr. Reuter used that word, but you don't mean that the guerrillas are
actually trading the drugs or growing them; it is the protection, right?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Mr. Marcella, or, Professor Marcella, comment -- if you -- on the relationship between the insurgents and the drug trade? Add anything or subtract from that but then explain specifically the U.S. involvement at this moment.
GABRIEL MARCELLA: The relationship is well described by Michael Shifter, and I would add to that that it is a marriage of convenience. That is to say that the FARC -- specifically the FARC but also the ELN -- raises enough funds to support not only their political activities but also their military operations. So in a sense, the drug problem has intensified -- an old insurgency problem -- and actually intensified the problem of paramilitaries because the paramilitaries exist in part because of the absence of law and order. And much of this is due to the influx of drug money and to the coffers of the insurgents.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now fit the U.S. role into this. What is the U.S. doing specifically in this drug war?
GABRIEL MARCELLA: Well, let me state up front that I do not speak on behalf of the United States government.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I know that. You are all here as people that know what is going on.
GABRIEL MARCELLA: Great. Thank you. The United States is helping the government of Colombia combat the narcotics problem. All of our assistance is designed to improve the capabilities of the military, the police especially, less so the military but certainly the police and other institutions of the government to deal with the narcotics problem. We -- that means administration of justice, alternative development schemes for the peasants and a variety of other things. But let me underline that we have not crossed the line from counter-narcotics to counter-insurgency and there rages a debate within our community and within the academic community as to whether Colombia should be supported at both levels. That is to say we should support their efforts to fight the insurgency at not stop simply at the counter-narcotics effort. And my colleagues can speak to that. I can speak to that if you wish also.
|U.S. intelligence efforts|
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael Shifter, it's not so easy not to cross that line, right, even now between the drug and the anti-insurgency efforts?
MICHAEL SHIFTER: Right. These are very much interconnected, intertwined.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I thought there was a GAO report saying that the U.S. was sharing intelligence with the military and that this intelligence was being used in the counterinsurgency?
MICHAEL SHIFTER: That's correct, on the insurgencies, that is correct. We always draw these lines. That is one of the lines that 's been drawn. We share intelligence but up to that point. And so the question is really in practice, in reality in a situation of severe conflict and war that, internal conflict in Colombia, is it realistic, does it really make sense to draw these distinctions? I think in reality those are so interconnected that the distinctions lose meaning in practice.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you agree with that, Peter Reuter, that the distinctions lose meaning? And what conclusion does that lead to you draw for what the U.S. should do next?
PETER REUTER: I think what it points to is the word that Congresswoman Schatowsky used, which was "entanglement." I think the U.S. can claim that it is supporting a very specific mission of particular institutions, but the realities, as Michael Shifter said, are that it is support -- providing very general support -- for the military and the police in Colombia. And undoubtedly there will be human rights abuses that result from this, and the U.S. will find itself, you know, blamed in some way for that, no matter how refined the controls that it has put in place. In general it's very hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys in situations like that. In Mexico the U.S. has been long supporting the military involvement in drug control, and you know, a number of times someone that the U.S. has been particularly, has particularly praised, has then turned out to be involved in the drug traffic. I think that it is an uncomfortably - it is an illusion that one can really make these fine distinctions and orchestrate a campaign in such a fluid situation.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So, Peter Reuter, what's your conclusion on whether the U.S. should give more security assistance?
PETER REUTER: I think that the U.S. should give minimal security assistance. I think that it does little to contribute to reduction in our drug problem. It does little to contribute to the stability of the Colombian government, which is surely the other objective of anything that we do in Colombia. And it does pose serious risks of the U.S. being entangled in events that it can't control and that lead to, you know, substantial human rights abuses. Human rights abuse is sort of an oddly lame term for what we're talking about here, which are massacres.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Gabrielle Marcella, do you think that there should be a significant increase in security assistance in Colombia?
GABRIEL MARCELLA: I think that if we continue in the direction of counter-narcotics support, I think we're missing the boat on this one because eventually we must support Colombia in its efforts to reestablish law and order in its national territory. That essentially is a military effort. Now I'm not advocating a projection of U.S. forces into Colombia. I'm not advocating major increases in military assistance, but what I do advocate is changing the emphasis of just counter-narcotics to improving the capabilities of the military to perform better. That is to say, we can give advice and we can give equipment but we should not insert U.S. troops, other than as trainers. This is a lesson that we learned in El Salvador. And it is a lesson that is applicable in this case again, because El Salvador was a successful effort in that direction. I would continue and say that Mr. Reuter is absolutely correct; one of the ways we should engage the Colombians is in this whole area of the military improving its relationship with the people. This is human rights. There is no question about it.
|Fighting drugs with money|
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Gabriel Marcella, does this mean that you would recommend that a significant amount of money, maybe half a billion dollars, go to Columbia but not for the drug war? It would go for the training and the other things that you are talking about for the counter-insurgency war?
GABRIEL MARCELLA: I haven't worked out the proportions, but there should be money set aside and I don't see enough of it right now. I have not seen the current proposals by Mr. McCaffrey but alternative development is very key. You have to wean the peasants from heroin and the coca business.
PETER REUTER: Could I make a comment?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Yes, and, Gabriel Marcella, we may lose the line to you. If you disappear, I want everybody to know you why, but we'll hope you're still there. Yes. Go ahead, Peter Reuter.
PETER REUTER: Alternative development, which is the liberal version of how we deal with drug problems and drug production in Colombia, is a fine idea which has in practice only managed to sort of shift the coca trade from or the opium trade from one area to another. And I think if we go in, if the U.S. goes in with a large scale crop substitution program, it is likely to be very -- have trouble sort of presenting results that will make anyone very cheerful here. I'm not against alternative development, but the notion that this will make some substantial difference in the foreseeable future is simply unreasonable.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Shifter, where do you come down in this debate?
MICHAEL SHIFTER: Well, I think the question is not really whether we give military or police assistance or not; the question, is what for. There is a peace process going on in Colombia. We have a Colombian government. We should deal not with the head of the police or the head of the armed forces but with the head of the elected government of Colombia. We haven't done that enough. That's why the visit of Secretary Pickering I think is potentially very, very significant. So I think that should be our focus -- try to strengthen the government, the capacity of the government, the effectiveness of the government. If that means increasing military support to achieve that end, then I'm in favor of it. The problem and the risk, Elizabeth, is that we're going down a slippery slope of increasing helicopters, more assistance, more resources without having any connection to a larger objective and purpose of trying to achieve some sort of political solution and reconciliation in that troubled country.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you really want to see it in this context.
MICHAEL SHIFTER: A global, comprehensive approach.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And in the little bit of time we have left, Peter Reuter, what would you like to see happen?
PETER REUTER: Less, that is I think the U.S. tends to involve itself far too much in these drug producing countries to almost no purpose for the U.S. itself and often it's counterproductive for the countries in which they're involved. The Colombian government's credibility depends on political rather than military factors. What the U.S. can do is certainly improve its military capabilities, but that seems very much beside the point here and the risk that the military in fact become sort of Frankenstein Monster in terms of worsening its human rights record, abuse record, is something that we should worry about considerably. Given economic support for a country which is now in serious economic trouble and whose economic problems no doubt worsen their civil, the promise of civil society, say something much more with the U.S. effort.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: All right. Well, thank you a very much. We're sorry that we lost Gabriel Marcella a little bit early.