CLAI Commentary

A series of occasional commentaries on important
policy issues affecting
Latin America and the Caribbean.

September 27, 2002


 The Colombia Challenge

By Dr. James Ferrer, Jr. and Eduardo Segatore1

      President Álvaro Uribe Vélez is visiting Washington this week to obtain support from the United States. Last month, he took office in the face of an extremely difficult domestic situation.

     Colombia’s history has been plagued by violence and insurgency. In the beginning of the twentieth century the country was devastated by the “war of a thousand days.” In the 1950’s Colombia suffered la violencia, a bloody internal war that left some 200,000 dead. Today, Colombia is again marked by intense internal warfare and violence. The current struggle, however, deeply involves also the multi-billion dollar drug trade. Funds from the narcotics trade have financed the growth of the three major terrorist groups: the FARC, the ELN and the paramilitary forces.

     Colombia’s socioeconomic problems cry out for reform and for the development of a strong, purposeful national will to resolve the country’s chaotic situation. Foremost, the drug problem has to be solved. The drug trade not only finances organized violence, it has corrupted and warped much of the country’s political and economic system. The nation must organize and finance a much larger, professional military force capable of dominating the terrorist groups. The government must also demonstrate its respect for human rights and its commitment to democratic government.

     President Uribe’s campaign for the presidency advocated a hard-line approach to the terrorists. He presented what would be the 100 points of his presidential program. This document describes the need for education reform, administrative reorganization, austerity and more resources for social services. What stands out are the proposals for military and police reforms, including an emphasis on technical training. Thus far he has taken a few important steps, including the appointment of Santiago Montenegro as Planning Minister. On Saturday, September 21, he signed a decree creating two special geographic zones in which the military chiefs will take over control of all the security forces. Uribe seems to be heading in the right direction to regain control of the country.
Ever since the drug trade became intertwined with Colombia’s internal struggle, the United States has had a growing interest in the situation. Most of the cocaine that enters the United States apparently comes from Colombia. President Clinton devised Plan Colombia to help eradicate the drug trade. Given the September 11 attacks, after which terrorism became the primary policy concern of the United States, defeat of the narco-terrorists has become even more crucial.

     As long as Colombia demonstrates the political will to defeat the narco-terrorists and it takes steps to protect civil liberties in this difficult situation, the United States should actively support the country’s efforts. However, the United States’ support is not sufficient. The other countries of the hemisphere, and especially Colombia’s neighbors, should be persuaded to join the anti-narcotics/terrorists struggle.

     Even though the situation in Colombia has a deep and direct affect on the countries of the hemisphere, and especially on South America, the region has not been sufficiently engaged. This situation needs to change. The countries of the hemisphere, perhaps through the Organization of American States, should play an important role in helping Colombia restore domestic peace. A larger role for the Organization of American States is both desirable and feasible. A multilateral scenario may help to ease the concerns that some South American countries have about a possible growing U.S. military presence in the region. The institutional framework exists; it’s time to start using it effectively.

     The situation in Colombia is the most serious security issue in the hemisphere. The widespread violence and the drug trade affects the entire hemisphere. Ultimately, the responsibility for resolving the country’s domestic turmoil rests squarely with the Colombian people and government. Colombia must fulfill its responsibilities. If it does, the United States and the other countries of the hemisphere should firmly support its efforts.

1 The views expressed in this article are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Center for Latin American Issues or of The George Washington University.