Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos behind U.S. President Barack Obama

Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos behind U.S. President Barack Obama

When Barack Obama entered office in 2009, many Latin America specialists reveled in the prospect that U.S. policy would reform its Cold War approach to a region that is a major source of foreign oil, illegal immigration, and illicit narcotics. The United States would at last recognize and address the complex political and economic dynamics of a region still struggling with its colonial legacy, and where one-third of people still endure often extreme poverty.

It is not by chance that eight of the world’s 10 most violent countries today are in Latin America or the Caribbean. Although narcotics figure in some of the violence, poverty, social exclusion, and weak institutions are the critical drivers. More to the point, hopes were that Obama would abandon the long-standing U.S. support of “friends” who show little regard for the human rights and welfare of marginal citizens, and would cease equating threats to those friends with threats to U.S. national security. In a word, U.S. policy would incorporate a more balanced approach and better address the welfare of those from “below.”

Alas, it has not happened. The country of Colombia offers a case study of much that bedevils U.S. policy toward a still-troubled region.

Backdrop to Colombia’s Violence

With numbing poverty, extreme social exclusion, and a prolonged insurgency, Colombia is a land of paradox. Spectacular scenery, rich natural resources, and enormous human talent obscure the darker side of a land where things are often not what they seem. Mainstream media and official pronouncements from Bogotá and Washington portray the positive side—growing (if restricted) tourism, urban renewal in the industrial city of Medellín—while spinning the negative. Colombia’s violent insurgent conflict, for example, is said to be ending, yet January 2012 was the most violent month in eight years.

Nearly half of all Colombians—and some 60 percent of rural dwellers—suffer from poverty, with some of Latin America’s worst just outside the old walls of colonial Cartagena, site of the recent Sixth Summit of the Americas (and of the prostitution scandal now tainting the U.S. Secret Service). Colombia is the world’s fourth-most unequal country by income distribution.

Land distribution is also highly skewed. Informality, corruption, straw ownership, tax evasion, and violence mark land transactions. Fewer than 1 percent of landowners control 60 percent of farmland—the region’s highest land concentration. Drug mafias and right-wing paramilitaries today control 35 percent of prime farmland. Land inequality has long been linked to the country’s conflict, which has internally displaced some 6 million people—the most of any country in the world. Many settled on Colombia’s urban fringes, but remain more in than of the city. Thousands more fled to Ecuador and Venezuela, and some to Panama.

Colombia’s violence has historically been political. The country’s main insurgency—of a dozen or so to emerge in the second half of the last century—is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Debuting as a peasant insurgency in 1964, its roots go back to the 1930s to land conflicts on the agricultural frontier. The FARC, which U.S. counterinsurgency programs have targeted since the 1950s, remains active today, as does the numerically smaller and weaker National Liberation Army, or ELN, which recently allied operationally with FARC.

In the mid-1970s, Colombia entered the trade in illegal narcotics, first with marijuana, then coca and cocaine in the 1980s, as well as some opium poppy for heroin. The trade helped fuel the longtime violence. Global changes also stirred the country: As the Berlin Wall fell and the United States invaded Panama in 1989, the Cold War segued into the drug war, and then into the “war on terror.” Meanwhile, the U.S. role in Colombia grew.

The civil conflict accelerated in the 1980s, when both estate owners and drug mafiosi, then buying estates, organized paramilitaries to fight rebels who were killing and extorting landowners. The military secretly aided these paramilitaries, not only to extend security, but to fight a dirty war by proxy—a practice that had been promoted by the United States since at least 1959. The paramilitaries massacred and maimed civilians, often in a strategy to induce fear and drain a rebel-occupied area of support. Entire villages fled. First organized by region, the paramilitaries united in 1997 under the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC. They trafficked in drugs, acquired lands through forced eviction, and engaged in corruption, often with local officials colluding.

The peasant FARC was also evolving. It entered the drug trade around 1982. Working with small coca farmers came naturally, and the trade brought mutual benefits. FARC at first protected farmers and fixed prices, and later climbed the chain to process and commercialize some cocaine. Their main relationship to the trade was—and continues to be—control over the trade in coca, cocaine’s raw ingredient. This is the least profitable side of the business globally, yet one that considerably enriched the FARC.

At the same time, a quest for peace was on the FARC agenda. During President Betancur’s peace process (1982-1986), the rebels negotiated a two-year ceasefire and formed a political party, the Patriotic Union (UP), which won 14 congressional and hundreds of city-council seats in 1986. Reaction to these victories from the country’s establishment was brutal: army-backed paramilitaries began to assassinate hundreds of UP candidates, followed by UP elected officials, including congressmen and two presidential candidates.

With bitter memories and funds derived from increasing criminal activity, FARC decentralized and spread across Colombia in trickles in the 1980s and 1990s—a dispersion that would later render them vulnerable. Unlike other insurgencies, FARC never enjoyed a “liberated” zone. As a mobile force, it could not defend its actual and potential social base among peasant farmers and others from brutal paramilitary reprisals. And it attacked those seen as aiding the paramilitaries. Although 75 percent of atrocities are attributed to paramilitaries and the state, FARC evinced a growing unconcern for civilian welfare as the conflict degenerated. It recruited by force, even children, and attacked police posts with imprecise homemade mortars that caused deadly collateral damage. Civilians, estranged from all warring parties, fled.

By the mid-1990s, FARC, operating more like a regular army, often moved columns across open country. It dealt security forces eight major defeats from 1996 to 1998. Those coincided with the election of Andrés Pastrana as president in 1998—and also with the beginning of a massive increase in U.S. aid. From 1998 to 2012, that aid totaled $8.5 billion—with 75 percent going to the military and police. It supplied helicopters, trainers, and intelligence, and was soon the largest U.S. aid program outside South Asia and the Middle East.

Elusive Peace

After winning on a peace platform, President-elect Pastrana met informally with then-FARC chief Manuel Marulanda to discuss a plan. Peace was a heady prospect for war-weary civilians. Arguing that peace was a precondition to fighting drugs, Pastrana wove drugs into a historic plan, as he and Marulanda had agreed. For Pastrana, drugs were a social ill, not a security threat, and he opposed aerial herbicide spraying on poor coca farms—the mainstay of U.S. anti-drug policy. Pastrana wanted rural development, and FARC agreed to reduce coca in return for development in coca zones with a rebel presence—so-called “crop substitution.” A UN pilot project began in a demilitarized zone created for talks. All was part of what Pastrana called “Plan Colombia” in late 1998.

As the war continued to rage, paramilitaries hovered menacingly on the DMZ’s perimeter while they massacred beyond it. To no avail, Marulanda repeatedly asked Pastrana to control them. Soon after Pastrana entered office, his military announced the forthcoming creation of a U.S.-backed anti-drug battalion. Two others would later appear. Influential U.S. interests in Congress and beyond thought the peace plan, including the DMZ, would harm anti-drug efforts. After February 1999, , the dice were cast when FARC killed three U.S. activists helping an indigenous group resist the incursion of U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum—under circumstances that were never clarified. The murders strengthened anti-peace interests, at a time when counter-narcotics was a creeping guise for counterinsurgency, which was politically unsavory in the United States after Vietnam. One year after assuming office, pressed by the U.S. government and his own U.S.-backed military, Pastrana described a “Plan Colombia” that reversed the original strategy: drug-control was now a precondition for peace.

Peace talks limped for over three years as the war worsened. Pastrana’s presidency saw the greatest growth in rightist paramilitaries, which were guilty of an overwhelming majority of the country’s human-rights abuses. Pastrana ended the peace process in February 2002, the same month that AUC chief Salvatore Mancuso announced that his paramilitaries were backing candidates in the forthcoming March congressional elections, and predicted—correctly—that paramilitary political power would be reflected in more than one-third of the winning seats. In May, Álvaro Uribe, a large landowner and former governor, won Colombia’s presidential elections on a platform to defeat FARC. An electorate that had once voted for peace through dialogue now voted for peace through war.

Uribe deftly exploited the 2001 attacks on the U.S. activists—attacks that everywhere ushered in a sea change in perceptions and norms regarding global security. With U.S. help, Uribe’s military waged counterinsurgency under a slogan of “democratic security.” His defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, who would be elected president in 2010, led the way. Uribe’s popularity soared. He won a second four-year term in 2006—and tried for a third, which the Constitutional Court blocked. On the battlefield, he reduced FARC numbers to about 9,000—from 18,000 (one-third women) in 1998. Better intelligence and air power, with troop mobility and “smart” bombs, led to rebel captures, deaths, and defections. FARC returned operationally to its guerrilla origins, with small units using hit-and-run tactics.

Levels of violence fell in the cities, home to Colombia’s elite, and foreign investment rose. U.S. presidents Clinton (out of office when Uribe entered) and Obama praised Uribe. George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009—the highest U.S. civilian award.

Yet, as always, there was a darker side, which Uribe tried to obscure with media management, semantic dodges, and legal chicanery. For Uribe, Colombia had no “armed conflict,” but rather a war with “terrorists”—who, he argued, were to blame for Colombia’s poverty. Uribe’s critics, including human-rights defenders, were “terrorist sympathizers.” The language resonated with Uribe’s backers—and made many of his critics into paramilitary targets. Counterinsurgency under Uribe is thought responsible for half of all of the country’s internally displaced people. And shadowing economic growth is the world’s highest murder rate for union leaders. AFL-CIO cites 3,000 killed since 1986 (195 from 2007 to mid-2010, with only six convictions), and an impunity rate well over 90 percent. Investigative journalists have fared little better.

Mimicking Pastrana’s peace process, Uribe initiated talks with paramilitary leaders in 2002. He went so far as to allow them to address Colombia’s congress in 2004. In exchange for demobilization, they sought light jail sentences and immunity from extradition to the United States on drug charges. When a 2005 Justice and Peace Law was crafted accordingly, outrage from human-rights groups led the Constitutional Court to amend it. Nonetheless, some 30,000 combatants had officially “demobilized” by 2006. FARC noted with scathing sarcasm: “You don’t make peace with friends.”

Scandal rocked Uribe’s presidency. First came revelations that some of those who “demobilized”—12,000, says Pastrana, though the number is unknown—were not paramilitaries. And some paramilitary groups never demobilized, today operating as criminal bands trafficking drugs and serving the same dark interests as before under new names. Other combatants demobilized but later joined criminal bands. Twenty-some paramilitary groups remain active, and may indeed exercise even greater political power at local and national levels, and greater territorial control, than before “demobilization.”

Strong circumstantial evidence of Uribe’s links to paramilitaries—officially suspected of 150,000 murders—and their supporters abounds. They helped elect Uribe and many pro-Uribe congressmen. Since 2006, following Supreme Court investigations, more than 60 congressmen, all Uribe supporters—including a close cousin—have been jailed for paramilitary links.

When jailed paramilitary chiefs began to talk, Uribe extradited 14 of them to the United States, allegedly to enforce silence rather than justice. And he launched an attack on Supreme Court judges. The attack used the national intelligence agency (DAS), operating under the presidency, to eavesdrop on the judges—as well as to intimidate Uribe’s critics. Moreover, a Uribe-appointed intelligence head—Uribe’s campaign manager on the Caribbean coast in 2002—was charged in 2007, after resigning as acting consul-general in Milan, with complicity in the AUC murder of Colombian union leaders.

And very alarming was the revelation that Colombian soldiers, pressed for results and offered benefits for rebel kills, had since 2002 lured up to 3,000 young civilians to secluded spots under the pretense of employment, then murdered them to present their bodies as felled rebels. Fewer than 2 percent of those cases have yielded convictions. Among the charged were U.S.-trained officers.

Uribe departed in 2010 as Colombia’s most popular president, and Juan Manuel Santos, his defense minister, succeeded him in August. Unlike Uribe, who is a wealthy but provincial landowner, the cosmopolitan Santos represents Colombia’s traditional “oligarchy.” As president, Uribe melded the views of 19th-century rural Colombian elites with those of 21st-century neoliberalism—a combination infused with mafioso criminality. Santos has largely continued Uribe’s security policies but has veered in other ways. He has worked to mend Colombia’s international relations, notably with Ecuador and Venezuela. And through a new land law, he has pledged to restore lost land to conflict victims. But the challenges of restoration are formidable: 20-some land-restoration leaders have been assassinated since 2010—the work of what Santos calls a “dark hand.”

The war grinds on. In March 2012, Bogotá asked the United States for drones to fight FARC, whose chief, “Alfonso Cano,” was killed in combat in November 2011. Long-time rebel “Timochenko,” trained in Russia and Cuba, replaced Cano. Timochenko announced in early 2012 that FARC again wanted to dialogue—but quickly added that talks did not mean surrender. In a good-faith gesture, FARC agreed in late February to cease abducting for ransom, and in April unilaterally freed 10 police officers and soldiers held captive for 14 years—the last of security forces they held. Santos lauded the actions, but said they were not enough for talks.

What and Whither

The armed conflict has grown increasingly complex. Right-wing paramilitaries and criminal bands have joined the weakened yet resilient FARC, forming a hash of shifting alliances. All parties, including public security forces, egregiously violate human rights. For a decade, civilians have been in the crossfire of three overlapping wars—on insurgency, on drugs, and today on “terrorism.” The wars spill across borders and threaten regional stability. The number of war casualties is staggering. One study estimates 50,000 deaths from 1988 to 2003, and another 200,000 since 1964. Colombia today has the world’s second-highest number of landmine victims, felled by mines placed in areas where rebels have retreated.

After years of gore and guile, the level of mistrust between government and rebels is enormous. In March 2008, for example, Colombian planes bombed a FARC border camp in Ecuador, killing a senior rebel commander and sparking an international confrontation. Following the bombing, soldiers rappelled from helicopters and, according to reliable non-official reports, shot dead wounded rebels—a violation of international humanitarian law. And in July 2008, a FARC unit holding French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt since 2002, three U.S. contractors captured in 2003, and 11 soldiers and police, received an order, ostensibly from FARC chief Alfonso Cano, to release the hostages to an aid organization which would collect and fly them to Cano to discuss a prisoner swap. The order was part of an elaborate ruse devised by military intelligence. A military helicopter painted white and with emblems of a Spanish aid organization arrived to retrieve the hostages. Soldiers aboard were disguised as foreign aid workers and affected foreign accents. Some wore Che Guevara T-shirts, and one a black-and-white Arab kafiya with a bib and armband bearing International Red Cross logos—another serious violation of international humanitarian law. As it happened, Swiss and French envoys were at the time in Colombia seeking a meeting with Cano. The timing of the ruse was perfect.

Peace and demobilization can only happen through credible agreements on much-needed societal reforms. It lies far down a tortuous road. After 50 years of struggle, FARC will not lay down its arms without something in return. And beyond this, recent complicating events may well suggest to FARC that it would lack enough security to participate once more politically. The events include assassinations of land-rights leaders as well as physical threats to labor, indigenous, social, peasant, and cultural leaders who organized an April 2012 march in Bogotá to found an alternative political party. The military, speaking for the government, publicly stigmatized the march as a FARC political front. Two march leaders have been assassinated to date, and two have disappeared. To FARC, this recalls the UP experience.

FARC has indicated clearly that it will not dialogue at any price. And just as clearly that a growing inequity, especially regarding land and agricultural policy, must be on the negotiating table. FARC has argued for “social justice” since its founding. Any dialogue today must involve not only the government and FARC, but also organized civil society. The conflict is a national problem. Fifty-five percent of citizens recently polled want the Santos government to negotiate, compared to 42 percent who do not.

President Santos has yet to respond to recent FARC overtures to dialogue. There are many powerful spoilers, among them economic interests, including some government allies. Those interests think that peace, through defeat of FARC, lies just beyond the battlefield. They reject peace through dialogue for fear of what negotiations might bring. Government policy, combined with illegal usurpation of lands, has for three decades increasingly favored land concentration. Six million people displaced and 6.5 million hectares of land usurped speak to that. Negotiations could threaten this status quo.

Playing the Spoiler

The United States has failed to play a constructive role in bringing peace to this war-torn land since Plan Colombia debuted in 2000. U.S. military aid to Colombia under President Santos, while declining, remains robust, and its concern for human rights lame. The U.S. government describes Colombia as one of the region’s “oldest democracies” and a “success story.” The U.S. ambassador, echoing Uribe, recently dubbed it a counterinsurgency “model” for Afghanistan. The 1997 Leahy Amendment to a foreign-aid bill forbids U.S. aid to foreign security units involved in human-rights violations, but the United States has consistently resorted to evasive loopholes.

Colombia and the United States signed a free-trade pact in 2006 under Uribe and George Bush, but human-rights concerns delayed implementation. Obama, whose Colombia policy differs little from Bush’s, announced at the April 2012 Summit of the Americas a starting date of May 15 for implementation—despite the 2010 murders of land-rights leaders and of union leaders since 2007, and the pact’s harm to small farmers. U.S. talk of human rights is unconvincing; its conduct contradicts its own professed values. Above all, the United States effectively supports, in the name of national security, a perverse Colombian status quo that lies at the heart of the war.

To his credit, President Santos, unlike Uribe, acknowledges the existence of an armed conflict. But his language—calling the rebels “bandits,” “criminals,” “terrorists,” and “narco-terrorists”—discourages dialogue. The mainstream press echoes that language, as do U.S. officials.

Given its leverage in Colombia, the United States can be a vital force for peace—or for continued war. The U.S. government should push for dialogue. Distinguishing among the three wars cited above—none of which can be judged a success by reasonable metrics—must precede talks. The Obama administration should cease supplying materiel to a country whose problems have no military solution. For moral and practical reasons, it should boldly summon the political will to rethink its own national security policy on Colombia, and then creatively ponder how best to achieve it. At this point, tinkering at the edges of policy will not do much.

In a broader sense, the United States should make more effort to understand the view of those from “below” and incorporate a genuine concern for their welfare in the crafting and implementation of policy. This would go far toward resolving the problems of illegal immigration and illegal drugs. And it might even reduce threats to U.S. national security.

James C. Jones is a development specialist, independent consultant, and contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.