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Professor of international studies school of international studies university of miami

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Colombia’s Internal Conflicts and Regional Security

President Pastrana’s peace initiative has also been hindered by the growing spillover from the nation’s internal conflicts into surrounding countries. Colombian guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug traffickers now routinely cross over into the neighboring territories of Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador for safe haven, supplies, arms trafficking and drug smuggling. Incidents of cross-border kidnappings and assassinations have also risen dramatically in recent years. And thousands of Colombia’s displaced peasants have sought refuge across the borders in Venezuela and Panama.

After President Hugo Chavez assumed the presidency in Venezuela in February 1999, Colombo-Venezuelan relations deteriorated rapidly. Chavez immediately accused Colombia of failing to control its borders properly and then announced that he might open negotiations with the FARC directly rather than await results from Pastrana’s flagging peace process. Given his populist, anti-establishment and vaguely “revolutionary” rhetoric, some observers in Colombia feared that he might provide clandestine support for the FARC or even grant them “belligerent status”. While in practice Chavez did none of these things during 1999, bilateral relations between the two neighbors remained tense and uneasy at the outset of 2000.63
Although less public, similar tensions have also cropped up in Colombia’s bilateral relations with Brazil, Peru and Ecuador over the last year and a half. During 1999, all three countries sent substantial military reinforcements to their borders with Colombia to strengthen their defenses against cross-border incursions. As the primary route for gunrunning and drug smuggling in and out of Colombia and a key zone of conflict between the FARC and the AUC paramilitaries, however, the Panama-Colombian border was by far the most contentious of Colombia’s bilateral relations in 1999. The departure of U.S. troops from the Canal Zone at the end of the year and the limited military capacity of Panama’s National Police raised serious questions about the future security of the canal itself.64
From the U.S. perspective, the Colombia’s inability to secure its own borders or to curb cross-border drug trafficking and guerrilla incursions effectively converted the country into a serious threat to regional security in northern South America. Over 1999 the Clinton administration worked to “contain” the Colombian “threat” by pressing Colombia’s neighbors to form a “Group of Friends” to intervene diplomatically (and perhaps even militarily) in the Colombian crisis. The reluctance of the neighboring country-governments to commit to this U.S. initiative was apparent from the outset and Washington’s diplomatic efforts produced no meaningful collective response vis a vis Colombia. This failure, along with growing U.S. concern over Colombia’s internal stability, ultimately prompted Washington in late 1999 to propose major unilateral increases in U.S. assistance to Colombia designed to bolster the Pastrana administration’s capacity to deal with the country’s mounting problems.65

Drug Trafficking, Guerrilla Warfare and U.S.-Colombian Relations

Already deeply troubled by skyrocketing drug production and trafficking, escalating guerrilla and paramilitary violence, and deteriorating political and economic conditions in Colombia, as early as March 1,1998, Washington opted once again to “certify” Colombia as “fully cooperating” with the U.S.-led war on drugs for the first time since 1994. In 1995, the Samper administration had been “decertified”, but was granted a “national security waver” by the Clinton administration that permitted a continuation of U.S. aid to Colombia. In 1996 and 1997, the Samper government was decertified outright and the flow of U.S. aid was severely curtailed (except to the National Police). Although Clinton did not ultimately impose trade sanctions on Colombia as the U.S. legislation authorizes in cases of decertification, Washington’s use of “coercive” diplomacy or diplomatic “blackmail” during this period did exert a profoundly chilling effect on overall business activity and foreign investment inflows from 1996 onward.66

Combined with the global economic slowdown, deepening recessions in neighboring Brazil, Venezuela and Ecuador, and Samper’s own populist and clientelistic economic mismanagement during his term, U.S. decertification helped to send the Colombian economy into a tailspin in 1997-8 from which it has yet to recover. Indeed, in 1999 Colombia experienced its worst economic recession in 70 years as the economy contracted by almost 6 percent while unemployment levels topped 18 percent.67 The severity of Colombia’s present economic crisis and the widespread popular discontent caused by it have greatly compounded the problems of common criminality and governability faced by President Pastrana during his first year and a half in office while simultaneously fueling and emboldening the country’s guerrillas. The guerrillas’ actions – kidnappings, infrastructural sabotage, escalation of armed conflict – have in turn exacerbated and prolonged the country’s current economic downturn.68
By early 1998 the deteriorating situation in Colombia had become so worrisome to U.S. authorities that, despite the fact that President Samper’s tarnished four-year term was not scheduled to end until August 1998, Washington proceeded to recertify Colombia on March 1 anyway. This decision cleared the way for the Clinton administration to provide US$ 289 million in counternarcotics aid to Colombia in Fiscal Year (FY) 1999, a sum which immediately catapulted Colombia into the position of the third-ranking recipient of U.S. foreign aid world-wide, behind only Israel and Egypt. Because the U.S. fiscal year does not begin until October 1 of each calendar year, the new U.S. aid funds began to flow into Colombia only in late 1998 (well after President Pastrana took office on August 7). This timing assured that the tainted Samper government received no direct benefits from the FY 1999 increase in U.S. assistance.69
Once Pastrana took office, U.S.-Colombian bilateral relations warmed rapidly. In October 1998 President Clinton hosted President Pastrana in a state visit to Washington, clearly underscoring the contrast with former President Samper who had been officially denied a visa to travel to the United States in 1996. Although skeptical, the Clinton administration publicly endorsed President Pastrana’s peace overtures toward the FARC guerrillas in late 1998. In fact, at the request of President Pastrana, the Clinton administration even agreed to send emissaries to meet secretly with representatives of the FARC in Costa Rica in December 1998 to discuss the FARC’s willingness to undertake drug eradication programs as part of the peace process. Once publicly revealed to the Republican majority in the U.S. Congress, however, these secret talks proved so controversial in Washington that the Clinton administration was forced to disavow them and pledge to refrain from any future discussions with FARC “terrorists”. 70
The Clinton administration continued to back Pastrana’s peace initiative throughout 1999 in its public diplomacy. Yet, as the negotiation process bogged down month after month, key U.S. policy makers clearly reached the conclusion that the FARC would never negotiate seriously unless compelled to do so by defeat on the battlefield. Indicating an important shift, in March 1999 Washington agreed to begin sharing U.S. intelligence on drug trafficking and guerrilla activity with Pastrana government and the Colombian military, including data obtained from satellite observation of the zona de despeje71
By mid-1999 more than 300 American personnel were stationed in Colombia: 200 U.S. military trainers and advisors and more than 100 Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operatives. Drug control remained the stated U.S. policy priority in Colombia. The primary U.S. mission was to train and equip a new, 950-man mobile anti-narcotics battalion within the Colombian army.72
But stalemate in the peace process and setbacks suffered by the military in combat against the FARC over 1998-99, combined with mounting evidence of FARC’s deepening involvement in the drug trade, forced Washington to accept that the war on drugs could no longer be neatly distinguished from the guerrilla war. At the urging of Washington, in September 1999 the Pastrana government released a document entitled “Plan Colombia” in which it set out its general strategy for dealing with the multiple ills besetting the country from drug trafficking and political violence through humanitarian crisis and economic stagnation to institutional corruption. The price tag attached to the plan was US$ 7.5 billion over a three-year period of which Colombia promised to foot US$ 4 billion. It was hoped that Washington would provide US$ 1.5 to 2 billion and that the reminder would come from the multilateral financial institutions (e.g., IMF, World Bank, and IDB) and the European Union.73
After failing to push an earlier request through the U.S. Congress in late 1999, on January 11, 2000, the Clinton administration submitted a new bill to the U.S. Congress for a US$ 1.28 billion emergency aid program for Colombia. Intended to help Bogota fight the country’s mushrooming narcotics trade and to prop up its democracy over the next two years, about half of the money was included as a supplemental budget request for FY 2000. The other half was incorporated in Clinton’s budget proposal to Congress for FY 2001 presented on February 7, 2000. Added to the US$ 300 million previously appropriated for Colombia in the FY 2000 budget, total U.S. assistance to Colombia in the next two years, if approved by congress, will reach almost US$ 1.58 billion, nearly doubling the amount provided over the entire decade of the 1990s.74
In effect, with this new aid proposal the Clinton administration unveiled a dramatic shift in U.S. strategy toward Colombia. In 1999, as in previous years, virtually all of Washington’s anti-narcotics aid had been channeled through the National Police rather than the military. The new package in, contrast, assigned the bulk of future U.S. assistance to the Colombian armed forces (army, air force, and navy) while substantially reducing aid flows to the police. Of the total US$ 1.573 billion to be provided over the next two years, almost two-thirds - US$ 940 million - will go to the military, versus US$ 96 million for the police. To underwrite training, equipment and the purchase of 30 Black Hawk and 33 Huey helicopters for two new anti-narcotics battalions, the army is slated to receive US$ 599 million (US$ 512 million in FY 2000 and 88 million in 2001). For interdiction activities, the air force and the navy will get US$ 341 million (US$ 238 in FY 2000 and 103 million in 2001).75
While White House National Security Advisor for Latin America Arturo Valenzuela claimed that the new U.S. aid had “nothing to do” with the anti-guerrilla struggle, U.S. Drug Czar Barry McCaffery more forthrightly admitted that the money would make an “important” contribution to the Colombian army’s fight against the guerrillas. In practice, Washington’s continuing rhetorical efforts to maintain a strict division between U.S. anti-narcotics aid and the Colombian military’s anti-guerrilla operations are both disingenuous and futile. Current Colombian reality simply does not lend itself to such facile distinctions. Indeed, during his late January 2000 trip to Washington to shore up U.S. congressional support for President Clinton’s aid package for Colombia, President Pastrana openly recognized that to the extent that the FARC are “in the business”, U.S. anti-narcotics funds and equipment would be used against the guerrillas.76

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