Columbia’s powder keg
By http://RNW.nl – Jul 2000
How can Colombia be helped to disentangle itself from more than 30 years of guerrilla war and drug trafficking? Representatives from more than 20 European and North American governments are discussing the question in Madrid on Friday. Last week, the United States decided to funnel a billion dollars into helicopters and military equipment to destroy Colombia’s drug crops, which are a key source of financing to left-wing rebels. Now the Colombian government is hoping to get another billion from European countries to take the sting out of the military aid with social and human rights programs. But European governments appear reluctant to buy into the programme.
For the past six months, the Colombian government has been trying to sell its new strategy to the world – a strategy it calls Plan Colombia. It’s supposed to tackle both the country’s need for war and its need for peace. From the US, it’s asked for support on the war side. A military aid package that includes 60 helicopters to destroy Colombia’s drug crops through aerial fumigation as well as fight any left-wing rebels who try to protect the crops. From Europe, it hopes to get money for peace building – to help war victims, to improve the justice system and Human rights protections and find new legal crops for Colombian farmers.
The US View:
But the way things are going Plan Colombia may end up getting all war and no peace aid. The Americans passed the military package with relative ease. US anti-drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey explained it to his congress in simple terms. In his view, the FARC guerrillas “protect the drug crops” and “all that drug money has turned them into an almost unstoppable force that’s destabilising the country […] When you see the video outtakes of the FARC, they’re wearing shiny new uniforms. They have more machine guns than the Colombian infantry battalion have.”
The Americans believe if they can knock out the rebels’ drug financing, the guerrillas will eventually become more flexible in the peace talks. But in the short term – if the military strategy works – it will destroy the livelihood of 35,000 coca farmers. Poor farmers with no other way to survive. That’s where the Europeans are supposed to come in.
Coca Farmers´ Wrath:
At a meeting last week, in a guerrilla-held zone of Colombia, European diplomats came face to face with the wrath of these coca farmers. The farmers demanded that drug production in Colombia be seen as a social problem instead of a military one.
“We’re willing to stop cultivating these drug crops”, said community leader Guillermo Penya, “but only if the government sits down with us to negotiate. Not with helicopters and fumigation hanging over our heads.” This is one of Plan Colombia’s greatest flaws. It was developed without consulting the people or even church or human rights groups. And this worries European governments. Dutch Ambassador to Colombia Gisbert Bos says past attempts to develop peace strategies in Colombia have failed because they’ve always been drawn up behind the people’s backs. “I do hope that this important initiative by President Pastrana will not die the same death. We hope that the process will succeed. But it should not be a dark room, billiard room business, closed to everybody.”
Some foreign diplomats say that European governments want to support programmes like crop substitution to help Colombian farmers break away from drug production. But right now, virtually all Colombian non-government organisations – from church to human right groups to university agencies – are adamantly opposed to Plan Colombia. And that makes it unsellable in Europe.
Jorge Rojas runs CODHES, a Colombian NGO that helps people displaced by the war. He says the social programs are desperately needed, but they won’t cancel out the destruction the military aid is bound to produce.
Making Matters Worse:
This US military aid is going to make the war grow and become more violent, Rojas says. And the illegal drug production will just move deeper into the forest and slide over the borders into neighbouring countries. European and Colombian non-government organisations will be at the Madrid meeting. They’re hoping to convince all the governments there, including the US, to back away from the military approach. They want that money put instead towards social programmes that could help solve the underlying poverty and violence which is driving the drug and guerrilla war in Colombia.