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Colombia and its Neighbours: The Tentacles of Instability

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While the Colombian armed conflict has deep roots in history, increasingly it is fuelled by the inflow of weapons, explosives and chemical precursors and financed by an outflow of drugs. The tentacles of instability criss-cross the 9000 kilometres of land and water that separate Colombia from and link it to its five neighbours, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Venezuela and Panama. Those borders are largely uncontrolled, and the Colombian government has stepped up its demands for fuller regional cooperation. The neighbours are greatly reluctant, partly because of internal crises and partly because of their view of the conflict. Yet, Colombia needs more help from them to make progress in ending that conflict, while peace in Colombia would give them a better chance to solve their own serious domestic problems.

The first months of 2003 witnessed a marked surge in violence. The FARC tried to assassinate President Álvaro Uribe, a paramilitary unit made a foray across the border into Panama, and both the FARC and ELN have made a determined effort to counter the upgrading of the Colombian military, assisted by the U.S., to protect the major oil pipeline that runs through the provinces bordering Venezuela. The killing of two crew members after a U.S. spotter plane crash-landed while under FARC gunfire, and the kidnapping by the insurgents of the three American survivors raised the level of U.S. military involvement, at least in rescue operations, as well as the intensity of the hemisphere's focus on the conflict.

President Uribe challenged his neighbours to formally declare FARC a terrorist organisation and give substantive intelligence, counter-drug and counter-insurgency support. Although he received encouraging resolutions from a Central American presidential summit, the OAS Permanent Council and the United Nations Security Council, only Panama fully met the request on FARC, and overall there is insufficient new concrete cooperation.

Relations between Colombia and the Chávez government in Venezuela have been strained for some time by the latter's at least tacit tolerance of the insurgents, who move nearly freely on either side of the Venezuelan border, and the significant flow of drugs through that country. Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama each feel vulnerable to the impact of their neighbour's internal conflict, not least because their exposed border areas are poor and structurally underdeveloped. They blame Colombia for not doing enough to contain the conflict and subjecting them to incursions of irregular armed groups and drug and arms traffickers, as well as refugees. While Peru and Brazil are confident they can manage any direct spillover, largely because of forbidding geography, they worry about drug trafficking and the side effects of Colombian and U.S. counter-drug policy. Peru's apprehension relates to a sudden rise in coca cultivation that may be negating Colombia's recent eradication gains. Brazil knows that the rising crime and drug problem in its main cities has direct links to Colombia but the new government is still reviewing its policy and is clearly uncomfortable with Washington's Plan Colombia approach.

The reactions of Colombia's neighbours depend substantially on their own domestic political dynamics. All five have deep economic and social problems. Brazil and Ecuador inaugurated new presidents early in 2003 and are still edging into their policies toward Colombia. Venezuela's Chávez withstood a crippling two-month general strike but the survival of his government and the stability of the country are far from assured. Peru's President Alejandro Toledo has seen his approval rating plummet, and his signature political reform project endangered. Colombia's conflict presents Panama with a serious security threat.

This report examines the armed conflict's impact on Colombia's neighbours. Nothing has altered Colombia's basic responsibility to manage the conflict. It needs to move toward a negotiated solution by pursuing a broad, integrated security strategy that combines strengthening the security forces while respecting human rights, extending the rule of law, and implementing credible political and economic reforms. But more effective regional security cooperation, an end to mutual recriminations, and establishment of a political consensus would do much to help the Uribe administration. Operationally, Colombia and its neighbours should give priority to enhanced joint border control and development, more effective intelligence sharing and judicial cooperation, confidence building between the military and police and more concerted action against drugs.


To the Government of Colombia:

1. Give high priority to establishing or strengthening state security and law enforcement, with full respect for human rights, new social and economic development and environmental protection programs in the border provinces, as part of a new comprehensive rural development strategy.

2. Pursue within the framework of the Andean community, but including Brazil and Panama, a joint security strategy to block illegal armed groups and drug traffickers from moving freely across the region's borders.

3. Deny sanctuary and refuge to illegal armed groups by developing real-time systems for exchange of operational information with neighbours and joint military and law enforcement planning.

4. Request the UN, OAS, and the international financial institutions to join the Andean community, along with Panama and Brazil, in pursuing plans and projects for both short and long term border protection, conservation and development, depending on the characteristics of each border.

5. Review intelligence, planning, communications and transport with its neighbours and international supporters, including the The United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNDCP) and the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD), to produce a more effective border surveillance system, and conduct a new regional review of overall counternarcotics policy, seeking common approaches where possible and mutual understanding of differences on eradication, interdiction, law enforcement and alternative development.

6. Give priority to re-establishing local government and courts with adequate security in combination with local community infrastructure and economic development projects, especially in border municipalities from which authorities have fled.

To the United Nations:

7. Work with other international organizations, including the OAS, the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank and bilateral donors and join with the Andean Community and with Brazil and Panama in comprehensive short and long term planning for Colombia's borders, including:

(a) security, economic and municipal development; and

(b) conservation of rain forest, bilateral watershed management and protection of other environmentally vulnerable natural resource areas, where appropriate.

8. Insure continuing counsel and protection for refugees forced to flee across Colombia's borders and plan, together with the governments of the region, for their safe and rapid repatriation and resettlement in Colombia.

9. Explore innovative avenues for enhancing support from Andean neighbours for the ongoing efforts at humanitarian and ceasefire accords.

To the Members of the Andean Community, Brazil and Panama:

10. Ratify the Inter-American Convention Against Terrorism and adopt implementing legislation particularly with respect to money laundering and cooperation on border controls and among law enforcement authorities.

11. Expand armed forces and border police cooperation to enable real-time operational responses to Colombian requests to block illegal armed groups from obtaining sanctuary.

12. Develop with the OAS specialized entities bilateral and multilateral plans of action to increase capacity to prevent the flow of illegal drugs and arms across borders.

13. With UN and OAS assistance and the support of the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank, design short-term programs to strengthen the economy, municipalities, and resource conservation, as well as comprehensive longer-term rural development strategies.

14. Treat the FARC, AUC and ELN as terrorist organizations until such time as they enter into humanitarian and ceasefire accords and halt their criminal actions.

To the International Community:

15. Donor governments, including the U.S. through its Andean Counterdrug Initiative, the EU, international organisations and international financial institutions, should:

(a) increase substantially and better coordinate aid to Colombian NGO and government alternative development, community economic and social development, and rule of law projects; and

(b) help Colombia and other Andean countries design longer-term rural development strategies directed at poverty reduction and provide resources to help implement those strategies.

16. The U.S. should, through its Andean Counter Drug Initiative and in conjunction with other countries providing security cooperation, give financing and technical assistance and share intelligence to improve border surveillance and police mechanisms and offer joint training to the armed forces and police deployed by Colombia's neighbours to the border.

17. The EU and its member states, the U.S., Canada, and the international financial institutions should increase support to Andean region border programs with the multi-purpose objectives of promoting security, denying sanctuary to illegal armed groups, severing cross-border illegal drugs and arms trade routes and pursuing sustainable development.

18. Countries that manufacture precursor chemicals should explore additional measures to regulate end use, including by enhancing information sharing with Colombia and its Andean neighbours, Brazil and Panama, and, in coordination with appropriate UN and OAS entities, should provide additional training to national customs and border police.

Bogotá/Brussels, 8 April 2003


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