Colombian contagion

Washington’s concerns about failed states such as Yugoslavia apparently do not apply in the Western Hemisphere, where another state is rapidly breaking apart. Colombia, hailed as a democracy throughout the Cold Wa r, is dissolving before our eyes. Curiously, the United States is ignoring this disintegration even though its ramifications for the hemisphere will be at least as important as Yugoslavia has been for Europe.

The World Today
Published 1 February 1998 Updated 7 December 2018 4 minute READ

Most of the attention paid to Colombia over the past fifteen years has been drawn by its drug cartels pouring cocaine into the United States and Europe. The cartels, first in MedellÌn, then Cali, contributed mightily to the destruction of the country.

These narcotraficantes wage war against the central government through bombings and assassinations, attacks on the judicial system, and, ultimately, the financial corruption of the entire country. A multimillion dollar bribe of a presidential candidate – later elected – and smaller payoffs to officials at all levels of society, undermine the integrity and fabric of society.

Remarkably, the national economy is still relatively prosperous. Colombia has not suffered a debt crisis like Brazil and has maintained a respectable growth rate despite political unrest. But the belief that drugs are the country’s sole problem has been deflated.

In fact, Colombia is suffering from a civil war of mammoth proportions dating back to the 1940s. Leftist guerrillas – organised in the mid-1960s – grew out of 1940s ‘self-defence’ squads and have survived almost four decades of counterinsurgency operations. They now control vast portions of the nation’s territory, including drug processing and transport sites.

Links between narcos and guerrillas were not made in heaven because their original goals clashed: the narcos, typified by Pablo Escobar Gaviria and the Ochoa family, sought to join Colombia’s highly concentrated power elite. The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas (FARC), however, wanted to destroy that elite by implementing Marxist-Leninist doctrine. Since the end of the Cold Wa r, the two antidemocratic movements have united in a marriage of convenience.

FARC activities have spread and grown in strength in the past decade. In August 1996, the guerrillas successfully attacked police stations on the outskirts of the capital, defying national counterinsurgency efforts. They also took 70 soldiers hostage at an army outpost, holding them for several months. The group cannot fight the army directly, but is operating successfully in parts of the country where the central government has no power. Less emphasis on the military allows FARC to increase criminal activities and undermine Colombian society. It uses neighbouring states as safehavens, raising concerns that drugs and guerrillas will spread.

Another insurgent group, the EjÈrcito de LiberaciÛn Nacional (ELN), operates in the oil fields of eastern Colombia. The ELN, FARC, and several smaller guerrilla org a n isations operate autonomously, but they do cooperate occasionally. Almost daily ELN bombings of pipelines have seriously hindered oil companies.

The group has caused tensions with neighbouring Venezuela because its guerrillas slide back and forth across the remote border. Venezuelan and Colombian soldiers have confronted each other with Colombian forces pursuing guerrillas and drug dealers.

As if the insurgents were not enough, Colombia’s collapse has included the development since the mid-1980s of rightwing paramilitary organisations. Human rights activists believe these groups are death squads, operating with the tacit support of the military. They originated in the country’s agricultural northwest, but a massacre in Mapiripán, in eastern Colombia last July, indicates that operations are spreading. Even the Bogotá government acknowledges that the assassination of union members and legitimate leftwing political candidates, such as hundreds of members of the Union PatriÛtica, are destabilising.


Proclamations by the paramilitaries express their intent to purge Colombia of ‘certain elements’. Several of the groups, known as autodefensas, were legalised in the 1980s to enable people in remote, rural areas to defend themselves against the growing guerrilla menace.

A new type of self-defence cluster, the convivir (‘living together’), was authorised by the Samper Pizano government in 1994 to further ‘protect’ rural people from insurgent violence. The indications are, however, that they too are inclined to ‘purification’.

A further deadly complication in this deteriorating situation is human rights atrocities allegedly committed by the military. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch Americas have accused the mobile counterinsurgency units of conducting assassinations for well over a decade.

These extra-legal activities have led to charges that Colombia’s military is the most brutal in the hemisphere, a startling assessment considering events in El Salvador, Guatemala, or Argentina in the 1980s. Concerns about the role of the army led to suspension of U.S. counter- i n s u rgency assistance in 1994. The armed forces say they are fighting for the survival of the state and that the guerrillas have committed the majority of the atrocities.

On the move

Colombia is the most violent society in the world, be it political conflict or common criminal assault. The people are fleeing domestic turbulence, either because of direct attacks or because their lives are destabilised. A government study indicates that between 1985 and 1997 a staggering one in forty Colombians, or 920,000, have been displaced because of armed violence. A growing number are moving as far as Panama, where they have become international refugees and a source of tension with neighbouring states.

Colombians are also going into Venezuela either to escape ELN violence or, in the case of drug dealers or other criminals, to put themselves beyond Colombian justice. Others are trekking into Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil.

The guerrillas currently operate in five neighbouring states, giving them quick access to Colombian soil. The threat of turmoil spilling over into other nations is significant and growing.

As the central government tried to maintain a semblance of democracy, hundreds of people withdrew their candidacies for last October’s municipal elections, fearing assassination by the guerrillas.

Voting was reportedly exclusively urban because fear was too widespread in the countryside. Forty percent of the country – mostly the rural areas – is effectively not governed by Bogotá. Disintegration of the Republic is becoming reality. Under current conditions, it is a fiction to describe Colombia as a democracy.

On a recent trip to Bogotá to meet a weakened president, whom the United States seeks to oust because of his ties with the narcos, the drug czar General Barry McCaff r e y acknowledged what Colombia has known for years: the real fight is the guerrilla war.

McCaffrey now argues that Bogotá should be allowed to use U.S. counter-drug funds to combat insurgents, whom he believes are leftists tied to drugs. Last year Washington did resume assistance to the military. The resumption carried the caveat that it be targeted at narcoguerrillas, but this does not address human rights concerns.

Restoring society

The Colombian dilemma, however, is far greater than the choice between drugs and insurgents. The real question is how this nation of more than 30 million can reconstitute civil society. What steps need to be taken to hold elections and create a sense of legitimate nationhood? What can be done to cut the world’s highest murder rate per capita? Can the roughly ten thousand guerrillas be drawn into the political system with ballots, not bullets?

Finally, has U.S. pressure on Bogotá hurt or helped the country? Ultimately, and most importantly, the drug dealers, insurgents, and refugees spilling over into Brazil, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, and Peru threaten to destabilise the hemisphere.

Over the past decade, Latin American states have pursued democracy, stability, and economic reform, but a collapsing nation in their midst might short-circuit their efforts. All the countries in the region, except perhaps Colombia, have decreased the proportion of government spending going to the military. These reductions date back to the debt crisis and the ‘lost decade of the 1980s’.

As a result, the armies of the region – and certainly the states surrounding Colombia – have far less money to police their borders. If a state cannot protect its borders, its existence and sovereignty are in question.

Further, the indications are that the army and the government in Bogotá are willing to pursue drug dealers and criminals into neighbouring states, even if it violates their sovereignty. This is not surprising since the government believes that any steps are acceptable in defence of the country.

Colombians argue that the guerrillas will set up shop in other states or engage in illegal activities there. Going into someone else’s territory would merely be helping deal with the trouble. Neighbouring states are able to stop these activities which undermine their sovereignty. Colombia and Venezuela have already skirmished; it may be only a matter of time before this is repeated in Panama, Brazil, Peru, or Ecuador.

Armies will press threatened governments to augment military budgets. Militaries, deprived of funding for a decade, will hungrily accept fresh responsibilities to justify new arms, especially when producers are willing to sell weapons. These are not necessarily positive developments in an era where civilian governments have had some success in maintaining or redressing the civil-military balance. With changes in the balance will come greatly increased tensions for the democracies that the United States has so long championed.

In many ways, democracies are the least stable regimes for the region since they are so susceptible to public pressure. But democracy is still preferable to the more traditional forms of autocracy and military dictatorship, which bring corruption, intolerance, and frequent violations of human rights.

The Colombian contagion is likely to have extremely high costs for the northern part of South America and the Caribbean Basin if it is not contained. Colombia is disappearing, as did Yugoslavia. The United States, as the major outside actor, must recognise this and decide which of its objectives is most important – democratisation, fighting drugs, or regional stability.

The views expressed in this article are personal and do not re flect those of the Department of Defense or any part of the U.S. Government.