The Conflict in Colombia: Implications for Ecuador’s National Security

The inability of the Colombian State to control its national territory and diverse armed groups is perceived to pose a threat to the other countries of the Andean region. The danger posed by Colombia’s internal strife is not a typical scenario of external aggression or inter-state competition. Rather, violence in Colombia is a post-cold war conflict with multiple actors whose nature and origins vary greatly. Colombia’s case defies traditional scenarios that emphasize the role of the nation state as the leading actor in the international system; in this conflict, many of the parties involve actors across borders, including peasants, military and police forces, guerrilla movements, entrepreneurs and merchants, border populations, human rights organizations, smugglers, drug-traffickers, and illegal crop growers. While some of these actors engage in violence, not all of them do, yet all are deeply affected by the violence raging in Colombia today.

The Colombian government’s strategy consists of internationalizing its conflict. The Colombian State is betting on convening international civil society and friendly governments, under the principle of joint responsibility, because it recognizes its own institutional limits and incapacity to stop the conflict and achieve peace. The United States gave the most resounding response when it approved $1.3 billion to finance the military component of Plan Colombia.

At least since the government of former President César Gaviria (1990-94), Colombia has maintained that drug-trafficking is an international problem which it is incapable of solving on its own and that its central concern is not drug-trafficking per se, but the violence derived from drug-trafficking within its borders. Colombia views drug-trafficking as a transnational security threat, an expression of organized crime that transcends borders. In this sense, its interpretation is nearly identical to that of the United States, which has led both countries, not surprisingly, to pursue similar policies to address the issue.

There has been a great deal of discussion of late about how Plan Colombia will affect the neighboring countries of the Andean region. In the case of Ecuador, based on the logic of national security, the principal concern is first to contain the violence within Colombia’s borders, and second, to prevent the conflict from affecting local actors and populations.

Containment and prevention, however, do not necessarily imply a willingness to participate in an international force to intervene in Colombia. Hence, the foreign policies of Colombia’s neighbors differ radically from that of the United States in three fundamental respects.

Preventing the infiltration of guerrillas and other violent actors is a priority, and is more important for Ecuador than is the drug-trafficking issue, which, of course, has been the main priority of the United States. For Colombia’s neighbors, hostility toward the guerrillas is not based on a strategic objective of containing drug trafficking but on the need to neutralize the ability of these Colombian actors to operate and expand their presence in their respective national territories. The presence of guerrillas in border areas is not a new phenomenon, but the escalation of the war is likely to have great impact on local border populations. Another factor is that the other Andean countries do not necessarily associate Colombia’s guerrillas with drug traffickers, a view that differs radically from that maintained by the United States, which sees drug trafficking and guerrilla activity as virtually one and the same.

Ecuador has no interest in becoming part of the Colombian problem. Not only does it lack the capacity to play a role in that conflict but it also lacks the will to become involved with one of the actors, namely the Colombian government, through direct military cooperation or economic aid beyond the existing mechanisms for intelligence sharing–and even here it is willing to cooperate only if doing so does not threaten its own interests.

Washington’s military support for the Colombian army and its skepticism of the peace negotiations with the guerrillas has the potential of exacerbating the possibility of immediate conflict in all of Colombia’s border regions. For neighboring nations, theaters of immediate and inevitable conflict already exist: the massive displacement of local populations, the mobilization and withdrawal of the guerrillas and other forces, confrontations, and the economic collapse of poppy- and coca-growing regions.

U.S. policy in Colombia risks forcing Ecuador to become involved in the conflict, whereas it would seem to be in Ecuador’s interest to remain isolated. But an Andean security system without a U.S. presence is simply unthinkable. This would not be acceptable to Washington not because it would not address the security issues of the countries in question, but because it would force other topics on the agenda, most notably, drug-trafficking.

In this context, the $1.3 billion budget earmarked for military-enforced crop eradication implies a scenario of imminent war on the northern border. Ecuador can redefine its foreign policy interests, which should include the following key points.

  1. Prevent operations by armed actors in Ecuadorian territory. This implies controlling not only guerrillas and drug-traffickers but also paramilitaries and the Colombian army and police, and assuming an attitude of prudence vis-à-vis U.S. activities in the region.
  2. Mitigate the effects of a potential humanitarian disaster. Refugees, displaced populations, and economic collapse in towns on both sides of the border are the inevitable consequences of the hypothetical success of the eradication policies, and must be addressed with adequate policies and programs.
  3. Consolidate control over its territory and preserve the social fabric. Ecuador must prevent the “Colombianization” of its society, that is, the adoption of violent responses to social conflict in vulnerable areas along the Ecuador-Colombia border.
  4. Maintain Ecuadorian territory free of drug crops. Eradication in Putumayo may shift the agricultural border of illegal crops toward Ecuador. In this sense, the Ecuadorian government must make every effort to keep its territory free of illicit crop production. But Ecuador cannot win the international drug war on its own, because it is a global issue. It can commit to nothing more than keeping its territory free of illicit crop production.
  5. Preserve the environment. The eradication campaigns will be carried out on the very boundaries of several ecologically diverse national parks. The use of chemical or biological agents may destroy a natural resource that is important for Ecuador’s future.