Colombia: Parapolitics, the Chavez-FARC link, and Free Trade

By: Guest Authors

by: William L. Marcy Ph.D.

The recent and most stunning rescue mission conducted by the Colombian military of Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. counternarcotics contractors for the Pentagon from the FARC-a Colombian guerrilla organization-is a victory that should be celebrated by all. As hostages of the FARC, Betancourt and the U.S. contractors were high-level pawns in a struggle that has existed within Colombia for more than 40 years.

Recent events in Colombia such as this rescue mission have been high-profile demonstrations by the Colombian government to show that it is winning the war on drugs and deserves a free trade deal with the United States. Indeed, the FARC has been severely weakened and it appears as though U.S. aid has helped Colombia begin to win. However, when one looks at Colombia and the prosecution of the war on drugs, not everything is as it seems. Significantly, owing to the political complexities of Colombia and the fact that high-profile events have overshadowed more critical assessments of the war on drugs, underreporting and misleading information presented by the right and the left have prevented the U.S. public from receiving a clear picture regarding U.S. policy in Colombia.

President Bush inherited a counternarcotics program called Plan Colombia from former president Bill Clinton. In 2001, President Bush renamed U.S. policy and launched a multi-country program called the Andean Regional Initiative (ARI) and the Andean Counterdrug Initiative (ACI), as a way to counter narcotics production in Colombia and the Andean region. Similar to his father’s Andean Initiative and Andean Trade Preferences Act, the ARI was designed to promote democracy, economic development and regional stability, while the ACI was designed to sustain Plan Colombia and other regional counternarcotics programs. The percentage of the funding for these programs leaned towards military assistance in the form of ACI funding. For example, for fiscal year 2002, $625 million of the $782.82 million appropriated for the ARI was designated for the ACI; for fiscal year 2003, $700 million of the $835.5 million appropriated for the ARI went to the ACI.

The Bush administration launched the ARI and ACI while planning for its war in Iraq in 2002. Colombia was a temporary member of the UN Security Council. In exchange for renewed aid, the Colombian ambassador to the UN gave the Bush administration an unedited report on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. This report was to be given to all members of the UN at the same time after it was edited. However, by giving the Bush administration the report before hand, the Bush administration was able to disseminate and then provide the information to the other four permanent Security Council members as they saw fit to do so.

In July 2002, as part of an emergency supplemental spending bill, the U.S. Congress removed all restrictions on Colombia’s use of U.S. counternarcotics aid so that it could support a “unified campaign against narcotics trafficking, terrorist activities, and other threats to its national security.” This opened the door for U.S. aid to be used directly against Colombia’s Marxist guerrillas, the FARC and the ELN, who have been waging a guerrilla war against their governments since the 1960s. Notably, as the war on drugs progressed into the 1990s and the Cold War wound down, the guerrillas increased their involvement in the taxing of coca crops to finance their operations.

The guerrillas’ use of “revolutionary taxes” led to the appearance of paramilitaries in Colombia. During the late 1980s and early 1990s Colombia’s powerful Medellín and Cali cartels had become rural property owners linked to the conservative, land-holding elite. Many campesinos were displaced and migrated to regions such as Putumayo where there was little governmental authority. In these marginal regions, the FARC provided law and order and defended the campesinos’ interests, including participation in the narco-economy. As the cartel’s landholdings expanded, the FARC’s presence and control over the Medellín cartel’s activities in the rural areas seriously heightened tensions between the two factions and strengthened the cartel’s ties with the rural landholding elite. Consequently, the Medellín cartel formed paramilitary groups to attack the FARC. Members of the Colombian military who were frustrated with the military’s attempts to defeat the guerrillas formed a noteworthy portion of these paramilitary organizations. Significantly, growing ties between the Colombian military and the paramilitaries undermined peace efforts in 1987 as the FARC’s political party the Union Patriotica (UP) was decimated in a dirty war led by paramilitary units. By 1997, a majority of Colombia’s paramilitaries were united under one banner called the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). By this pint the AUC and other paramilitary units were financing their anti-guerrilla activities through their cooperation with Colombia’s cartels and narcotics trafficking.

In 1999, peace efforts were renewed and the FARC was given a safe haven the size of Switzerland, called La Zona de Distensión. Colombian President Andrés Pastrana argued that the guerillas’ revolutionary ideology would facilitate the ability to negotiate with them, whereas no settlement could be reached with the narco-traffickers. However, U.S. officials believed that the safe haven led to an increase in drug trafficking and insisted that Pastrana combat the “narco-guerrillas.” According to Undersecretary of State Thomas R. Pickering, “Colombia’s national sovereignty” was “increasingly threatened by well-armed and ruthless guerrillas, paramilitaries, and narcotrafficking interests which” were “inextricably linked” and had taken control over Colombia’s rural areas. In need of foreign assistance, Pastrana went to the United States for help. U.S. officials called for more military assistance and tuned Pastrana’s plan into a two-year, $7.5 billion dollar plan to attack narcotics production and any organization associated with it for fiscal years 2000-2001.

The increased military aid undermined Pastrana’s peace process as the FARC guerrillas claimed that the paramilitaries, aided by the Colombian military, had entered the Zona de Distensión to soften up the guerrillas. Violence in Colombia increased dramatically and Colombia was on the verge of becoming a failed state.

Following the September 2001 attacks against the United States by al Qaeda, the U.S. saw the FARC as a multinational terrorist network linked to the overall war on terror. In November that same year President Bush issued Executive Order 13224 which designated the FARC as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist Organization. By January 2002, President Pastrana ended all hopes for peace by discontinuing recognition of the Zona de Distensión. The election of Alvaro Uribe Vélez as president of Colombia in May 2002, indicated that the Colombian government was going to take a more hard-line stance against Colombia’s guerrillas.

Alvaro Uribe Vélez is from a prominent land-holding family in Colombia. Uribe’s father was assasinated by the FARC in 1983. Between 1995and 1997 Uribe was the Governor of Antioquia. As governor of Antioquia, Uribe was considered responsible for the formation of local defense units called CONVIVIR units. The CONVIVIR units were alleged to have worked with Colombian paramilitary units and were later incorporated into them after several units were ruled to be illegal. Moreover, a 1991 DIA report cited Uribe for assisting the Medellín cartel in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Uribe was “linked” to a business involved in narcotics activities in the United States. He was also considered “a friend of Pablo Escobar.” The State Department claimed that this information was not fully evaluated and could not be confirmed or denied.

As president, Uribe’s stance against the FARC and his efforts to demobilize the paramilitaries brought a semblance of stability to the urban centers of Colombia. Uribe’s attempts to negotiate peace with the guerrillas were unsuccessful. Peace talks started with the ELN in 2005 and collapsed in 2007 over the Colombian government’s demand that they concentrate all of their troops in one area. Negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC also stalled as the military conducted more aggressive operations against the FARC with U.S. assistance. Further undermining peace negotiations, the Colombian government and the FARC traded accusations about paramilitarism and the penetration of drug money in all levels of politics and state security. In 2005, Uribe initiated the demobilization of paramilitary organizations. However, this effort was criticized by international organizations for offering favorable terms to the paramilitaries because it allowed them to remain intact and it prevented their leaders from being prosecuted on charges of drug trafficking or human rights abuses. Only recently in 2008 have important members like Salvatore Mancuso of the AUC been extradited to the U.S. by the Colombian government.

In 2007, the Uribe presidency found itself mired in several scandals that tied many members of his administration (his Secretary of State, Maria Consuelo Arajuo, and chief of the DAN, Jorge Noguera) and 33 members of his Liberal Party within the Colombian Congress to the paramilitaries. Moreover, in June 2008 it was revealed that Uribe had bribed Congresswoman Yidis Medina to vote to change the Colombian Constitution in order to allow him to run for a second term as president. This emerging scandal was perceived as damaging to Colombian interests prior to John McCain’s recent visit to Colombia and some analysts alleged that the hostage rescue mission was a way to deflect attention from Uribe’s political troubles.

Still, Uribe remains widely popular among the Colombian people with an 84% approval rating. However, his popularity is mostly in urban centers such as Bogotá, Medellín and Cartagena owing to his hard-line stance against the guerrillas. Notably, there was a spontaneous and massive nationwide demonstration in the cities of Colombia against the FARC in February 2008. However, demonstrations against all violence including state and paramilitary violence were held in March, but the marches were marked by intimidation and government criticism that the marches were organized by the FARC. New marches against the FARC will be held in late July. However, the nation remains divided between the urban centers and the rural areas, which are populated by campesinos (peasant farmers), indigenous people and Afro-Colombians who have been the victims of paramilitary violence.

The Colombian military scored several victories against the FARC in 2008. These victories have decimated the FARC at the core of its leadership. In March 2008, the cross border attack on a FARC safe haven in Ecuador killed the spokesperson and number 2 in command of the FARC, Raul Reyes. The assassination of Iván Ríos another FARC commander, also in March 2008, by a deserter was another blow to the FARC’s organization. The FARC picked up small-scale attacks after these events, but the death of the FARC leader Manuel Marulanda on May 24, 2008, left the FARC hierarchy in disarray. Owing to desertions, the FARC’s operational capacity has been reduced from 16,000 men in uniform in 2001 to an estimated 9,000 men in uniform in 2008. Alfonso Caño in now believed to be in control of the FARC, but the recent success in freeing Ingrid Betancourt and the U.S. contractors has demonstrated the FARC’s weakness.

The assassination of Raul Reyes provided a wealth of information about the FARC and its relationship with other regional governments. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez leads the Socialist Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and shares common political ground with the FARC, which has its own urban political front, called the Movmiento Bolivariano. Chavez had campaigned politically to have the FARC recognized as a legitimate political insurgency and have them taken off the international terrorism list. Chavez also supports Fidel Castro and has strengthened ties with the Iranian government, which the U.S. considers a state sponsor of terrorism.

Chavez’s political alliances and his criticism of the U.S. has made him the bane of U.S. policymakers in Latin America. Documents retrieved from Raul Reyes’ computer after he was killed in the cross border raid into Ecuador by the Colombian military revealed a deep relationship between Chavez and the FARC. Significantly, the captured documents revealed that Chavez had provided the guerrillas with $300 million. The documents also alleged that Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa, who shares ideological ground with Chavez, had received money from the FARC to finance his political campaign for the presidency in 2006. Of even greater concern, the documents also exposed an attempt by the FARC to sell 50 kilograms of uranium although the amount was not enough to extract the isotope to make an atomic bomb or even a dirty bomb. Still, owing to the ties between Chavez and Iran, speculation exists on whether there was an attempt to sell the uranium to the Iranian government, which is suspected of having a secret nuclear weapons program. Chavez has claimed that the documents whose validity were verified by INTERPOL, were part of a disinformation campaign.

In the meantime, FARC deserters have reported that the group found a secure refuge in Venezuela in return for bribes and formed a non-aggression pact with the Venezuelan military. In addition, the Venezuelan border, a FARC operational area, has become a conduit for narcotics leaving Colombia. More than 30% of Colombian cocaine now transits through Venezuela. Chavez has responded to these allegations by claiming that they were an attempt to “demonize” his government. Chavez added that his government had “landed the strongest blows against drug trafficking in Venezuelan history” by seizing 142 tons of cocaine since 2004. Chavez has also threatened war if the Colombian military, in pursuit of the FARC or drug traffickers, crosses over into Venezuelan territory. While Venezuela has restored political ties with Colombia Ecuador has not. Venezuela and Colombia have promised more cooperation and in the recent wake of FARC setbacks Chavez has called for the FARC to lay down their arms. Nevertheless, tensions along Colombia’s borders remain high owing to ideological differences and will continue to persist if military actions continue across each nation’s border.

Colombia’s capacity to produce large quantities of the coca leaf has not been diminished since 2001 and the implementation of the ACI and ARI. According to the United Nations, in 2007 Colombian coca growers expanded the amount of land under cultivation by 27%. Between 2003 and 2006, coca production increased from 114,100 hectares to 157,000 respectively. It has been argued by experts that the use of herbicides has caused an increase in coca production to shore up for losses incurred by spraying. Moreover, herbicides often destroy the legitimate crops of campesinos who grow coca as a form of insurance against crop failure, thus undermining their willingness to develop alternative crops. Another problem with the continued use of herbicides is the appearance of herbicide-resistant coca plants grown at higher altitudes. The level of alkaloids (the substance derived from the plant to make cocaine) in these plants is much lower and as a result, coca growers plant more plants to make up for this shortfall. The Colombian military has recently placed more emphasis on manual eradication over aerial fumigation because it is believed to produce better results. This policy is considered to be more dangerous because it threatens to bring the military into direct contact with traffickers and guerrillas.

The Bush administration and the Republicans have pushed free trade as a way to curtail narcotics production in Colombia. However, there is a problem with this argument. Free trade will actually cause an increase in coca production. People who produce coca are campesinos who have few alternatives. Many agricultural products grown in the rural parts of Colombia provide slim margins of profit when they are brought to the market. Moreover, crop substitution programs have failed miserably owing to a lack of long-term support for their development. Thus, coca is much more profitable than anything else grown in the region although it entails more risk. Free trade opens Colombia to U.S. agricultural imports, which are produced by subsidized agribusiness. As a result, many experts argue that while free trade may benefit many sectors of Colombia’s economy, it will undermine the economy of Colombia’s peasants because they will be unable to compete with U.S. subsidized agribusinesses. When previous free trade liberalization policies were conducted such as Colombia’s economic opening during the early 1990s (also known as “La Apertura”), coca production spiked. Experts once again argue that the free trade deal will lead to an increase in coca production. Moreover, economic deregulation accompanied by pervious trade deals conducted by Colombia and the United States has helped facilitate money laundering between both nations though the use of dummy corporations.

The Democrats on the other hand oppose free trade on the basis that it undermines U.S. workers and gives support to a government that has done little to combat human rights abuses by paramilitaries. Yet, Colombia’s trade unions actually favor the free trade act because it will benefit the industries where they are employed. While the Democrats’ concerns regarding paramilitary violence against labor unionists are justified, denying Colombia the free trade deal presents another set of problems. In particular, the Colombian people will ask how can the United States close the door on Colombia when they have been such a staunch ally of the United States in a region dominated by Chavez and have sacrificed their own blood and treasure to fight the U.S. war on drugs?
There is no panacea to the problem within Colombia. It is clear that paramilitarism is not dead in Colombia. The Colombian government has recently increased its efforts to show that it is cracking down on paramilitary units, but many still operate with impunity and are highly entrenched in Colombia’s narcotics underworld. Moreover, there are indications that they have penetrated the highest echelons of Colombia’s national government. The penetration of the narcotics cartels and paramilitaries in the Colombian government is nothing new if we look back at the Samper presidency, although the U.S. reaction was more punitive than the current reaction shown by the Bush administration. Concern should be expressed that the U.S. is not providing money to a government that says it is fighting the war on drugs by attacking the guerrillas, while at the same time it overlooks the illegal activities of narcotics financed paramilitary organizations.

The FARC is not to be counted out yet. However, it lost its political legitimacy a long time ago when it turned itself into a criminal organization that was financed by narcotics and kidnapping. Support for its Marxist revolution is dying as Colombia becomes more urbanized. The interference of Hugo Chavez has seriously undermined regional stability. Chavez and his regional partners see Colombia as a puppet, which is being propped up by U.S. military support. Yet, Chavez’s contribution to peace in Colombia has been equally as hypocritical as the members of the Colombian Congress and the Uribe administration who are under investigation for their links to the paramilitaries.

It is argued that military security will enable the Colombian government to control coca production. On the contrary, the military defeat of the FARC will not end coca production in Colombia. As an example, the 1992 collapse of the Peruvian guerrilla organization known as the Sendero Luminoso did not end narcotics production in Peru. Significantly, after 1992, narcotics production remained at stable levels (between 108,000 and 115,000 potential hectares) until 1996, when a fungus known as fusarium oxysporum took hold in the Upper Huallaga Valley. By 2000, potential coca production fell to its low of 43,400 hectares, but rose to 50,000 hectares by 2007, as coca farmers learned to adapt to forced eradication and the effects of fusarium oxysporum. Moreover, sporadic attacks by remnants of the Sendero and violent campesino demonstrations in the remote parts of Peru continue. These figures prove that the defeat of the guerrillas did not stop narco-trafficking. The need for narcotics production goes on even after the guerrillas are defeated, especially if coca farmers do not find adequate economic opportunities.

Free trade with Colombia will be an issue in the upcoming presidential campaign, but neither side seems to understand the implications of the positions that they have taken. On the one side, free trade undermines the rural economy and threatens to create a spike in coca production. On the other side, opposition to free trade sends a negative signal to a staunch ally who has made great sacrifices to fight the war on drugs. Clearly, a third way needs to be found regarding this issue. Trade should consider the economic situation of Colombia’s campesino farmers if it wants to halt coca production. Moreover, trade should be based on what benefits each nation. It should not be based on an abstract idea, which undermines the standards of living of those each government supposedly represents.

While the U.S. should continue to support the Colombian government, U.S. citizens should look at U.S. policy with more scrutiny. The sporadic news reports on Colombia which demonstrate daring raids and attacks do not give the U.S. public a clear picture of what is going on regarding the war on drugs. U.S. citizens must be sure that we have not developed a policy that has run amuck. Careful vigilance against corruption should be maintained. Support for the Colombian military and police in order to ensure that they become more professionalized and are able to fight all forms of illegal activity must be maintained. However this support should not be offered at the price of continued human rights abuses. A peace effort that is not disguised as a covert method to conduct a dirty war against the guerrillas is the only sure way to entice the guerrillas to lay down their arms. Yet, at the same time, the guerrillas should not be given any leeway to pursue their criminal activities. Economic policy must reflect the reality on the ground in Colombia. Colombia must not be punished for being our ally, but the free trade deal should also consider the impact it will have on Colombia’s coca growers. Weaning coca growers away from their dependence on coca should be the ultimate goal of the United States for it will help prevent the recruitment of future guerrillas and curtail illegal activity in the remote and unstable parts of Colombia.

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