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"President Uribe's Colombian challenge"
Comment by Mark L. Schneider in The Observer


With 53 per cent of the vote in the first round, the Colombian people have given their backing to Alvaro Uribe's plans to enforce the state's authority, double the size of the military's combat forces, and deploy one million citizens as unarmed, voluntary vigilantes. In choosing Uribe, they have also endorsed calls for reform of the old political order in Bogota, which has long been guilty of exclusion, and has been tarnished by claims of corruption, some of which is linked to the country's massive illegal drugs trade. But Uribe will face efforts to undermine him at home and abroad. He will need a lot of help, and more than a little luck, if he is to succeed.

The elections followed the collapse of peace talks in February between the government of President Andres Pastrana and the Marxist guerrillas of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Negotiations with another important leftist rebel group, the ELN (National Liberation Army) have also broken down. This is particularly worrying as both the ELN and FARC may be preparing to step up their violent campaigns - especially in Colombia's cities.

The third major illegal armed force in Colombia, the right-wing paramilitary AUC (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia ) is growing fast - backed in some areas by members of the armed forces and other powerful individuals. Both the FARC and AUC are funded by the drugs trade (heroin as well as cocaine) which continues to grow despite the $US 1.3 billion poured into the controversial anti-narcotics program, Plan Colombia, by the United States. The ELN and the FARC also rely heavily on kidnapping and extortion for their financing.

It is worth remembering that the scale of human suffering in Colombia is comparable to the world's worst conflict zones. Between 1.5 and 2 million people have been forced to leave their homes - the third largest internal refugee crisis in the world. Murder and kidnapping rates are the highest in the world. Between 1,500 and 2,500 men, women and children were massacred in contested rural areas in 2001, the vast majority killed by the AUC. A further 2,000 were victims of conflict-related killings in the same year, among them labour leaders, businessmen and women, human right activists, judicial investigators and journalists. Alvaro Uribe has himself been the target of a number assassination attempts, the most recent being just a few weeks before the election.

Ending this war is Uribe's primary task but he must also address Colombia's deep economic and social problems. His policies are both popular and controversial - and will continue to be the subject of domestic and external debate. He has pledged to rebuild the authority of the state, attack corruption, and reduce poverty. His campaign slogan was "a firm hand and a warm heart." But his critics fear he will give too much rein to the armed forces and vigilantes. The Liberal Party candidate who came in second in the election, Horacio Serpa, even accused him of supporting the right-wing paramilitaries. While the AUC clearly supported Uribe, there is no evidence of any links between them, and Uribe has pledged to punish any military involvement with the paramilitaries. Nevertheless, the allegations are an indication that he is likely to face considerable pressure on this issue.

To help finance the expansion of Colombia's combat forces, Uribe has asked the United States to extend its military aid program. Despite being the third largest recipient of US military aid, the Colombian army's 55,000 combat troops are in no position to dominate the FARC's 17,000 fighters, the ELN's 3,500 and 8-10,000 AUC. Much of Colombia's territory is simply out of the state's control. However, Capitol Hill, concerned about the armed forces' ties to the paramilitaries and preoccupied with the drug war has, until now, only permitted the use of US-trained forces and US-funded equipment to fight drug trafficking.

The Bush Administration, which has added the AUC to its list of terrorist organisations along with the ELN and the FARC, wants Congress to approve dual-use of these forces to fight terrorism as well as drugs trafficking. This is not unreasonable, but the restrictions should only be lifted once the Colombian military makes significant progress on accountability for human rights violations and severs all links with paramilitaries. The Colombian government should also establish special units to prosecute paramilitary leaders and their military and financial backers. Legislation to finance these activities is part of an anti-terrorism appropriations bill, which was expected to pass the U.S. Senate this week.

A weak economy compounds the political and security crisis in Colombia. GDP is falling and unemployment is rising. President Uribe has been warning Colombians that there are tough times ahead. He wants to raise taxes to expand and professionalise the military and police and so far he has rallied a broad coalition behind him. But his political support may wane as he presses ahead with proposals to close loopholes in the military draft, fight corruption and abolish the upper chamber of parliament.

While the US currently dominates international action on Colombia, the United Nations and the European Union must also become more actively involved if the war is to have a realistic chance of resolution. Spain and the UK, both major investors in Colombia, are well placed to lead a multilateral political and economic support effort. The UN should also play a special role in assisting the peace process.

Uribe has called for greater United Nations involvement in a revived negotiation, but has set tough terms prior to accepting a renewed peace process, including a total cease fire and the release of all kidnap victims. FARC in turn refuses to take part in a process that includes the paramilitaries. For the time being there appears to be a risk of more violence, not less.

While Colombia deserves support in confronting the FARC and other groups, the only long-term resolution lies in a negotiated settlement. The unanswered question is at what point the FARC will accept that there is no military solution to the conflict and opt to enter serious peace negotiations. The UN should already be exploring ways to hasten that process and ensure that the next effort at negotiations is more successful than the last.

The most promising avenue to restart talks under the new government may well be with the ELN. Recent Cuban-backed efforts to broker a peace deal with the ELN failed, but efforts may resume in Costa Rica, which should more easily secure US participation.

The regional impact of Colombia's war is rarely discussed, but is also of increasing concern. It is clear that the FARC is using neighbouring countries as bases and transit points for their operations. The Colombian government recently made an official complaint to Venezuela about its tolerance of FARC activities on its territory. Venezuela has in turn expressed its concerns about some Colombian officials who welcomed the recent abortive coup attempt against President Hugo Chavez. These events underline the fragility of regional political structures. Panama, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador also find themselves being used as conduits for drugs, arms and cash as Colombia's ills spread into their political and economic systems.

The conflict in Colombia has changed in the past decade from an ideological war to a foul mixture of international drugs trafficking, weapons, money-laundering, criminality and terrorism. With implications that stretch well beyond his country's borders, èlvaro Uribe's government will need more help from a wider circle of friends if Colombia is ever to find real and lasting peace.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002



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