This article was last modified on February 22, 2008.

The Empire Strikes First: Colombia

The following is my submission for The Scene alternative newspaper… submitted February 22, 2008.

ESF: Colombia

On February 4, over one million people marched in the streets of Bogotá to protest the Colombian terror organization known as the FARC. “The FARC made themselves into criminals a long time ago. We are simply tired of this,” said one of the protesters, Martín Orozco, a 32-year old surgeon. Giant banners draped the citizens, reading “No mas secuestros, no mas mentiras, no mas muertes” (“No more kidnappings, no more lies, no more deaths”). While a million people doing anything ought to catch our attention, Appleton’s local newspaper offered only two vague paragraphs to sum up the day’s events.

The FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, are a Marxist revolutionary group rejected from the Colombian Communist Party in the 1980s for their radicalism. The militia, which is considered a terror organization almost universally, has been causing mayhem in Colombia for decades. Estimated to have 8,000-15,000 guerrillas, they have kidnapped and killed hundreds of people, both natives and foreigners. Their funding comes primarily from offering protection to the notorious Colombian drug cartels, making them not just a local problem but a concern for anyone who considers the drug trade a serious issue. While many of the FARC’s goals are noble — fighting the privatization of water, for example — their methods clearly are not. Salvador Zapata, 37, a restaurant worker from Caldas, sums up the country’s thoughts. “They say that they represent the people. This is a lie.”

Colombia’s president, Alvaro Uribe, is no fan of the FARC; in fact, his father was killed by one of their members. Uribe has made their destruction a key aspect of his domestic policy. But his record is mixed and his intentions are questionable. On one hand, he has mounted strong military forces to counter the revolutionary group and has been successful, with America’s assistance, in reducing the quantity of cocaine being produced in Colombia (from 2,671 square kilometers in 2002 down to an estimated 360 square kilometers in 2007 according to the Congressional Research Service).

But on the other hand, he has employed violent paramilitary groups to assist in official military actions. Some of these groups have human rights records as tarnished as the FARC (with only their political ideologies differing). Is Uribe simply replacing one terrorist organization with another? And coca fumigation has the unfortunate side effect of making the product even more valuable (as the law of supply and demand dictates). As cocaine becomes a riskier crop, the FARC’s services become all the more crucial.

Regardless, Uribe’s dedication to drug eradication is debatable. Virginia Vallejo, former mistress of the infamous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, alleges Uribe provided Escobar with airstrips for drug smuggling in the 1980s. Even the Defense Intelligence Agency calls them “close personal friends” and says Uribe was an important trafficker in his own right. In his own defense, Uribe says he had “no political relations” and “no business dealings” with Escobar.

With Uribe’s success mixed, the best hope for Colombia lies across the border in Venezuela, with controversial President Hugo Chavez. He has taken John F. Kennedy’s words to heart, embracing the idea that we must “never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” Through the mediation of Chavez, the FARC have begun releasing some of their prisoners back to their homes. The Economist has quoted Leon Valencia, a guerrilla-turned analyst, as saying, “The families keep their eyes on the only thing that has worked so far — Caracas.”

Over the past six years, Uribe’s administration has not met with the FARC a single time. The terror group blames Uribe for “inhuman intransigence” and accuses him of stifling any hostage releases. The previous government, led by Andres Pastrana, attempted talks for three years and even temporarily allowed the group a “Switzerland-sized” area (16,200 square miles)where they would be protected. Currently, other nations willing to negotiate include France, Spain and Switzerland.

Conventional wisdom decrees that negotiating with terrorists will only encourage them to continue their methods, with the negotiations being an affirmation of their utility. However, the FARC have between four and seven hundred prisoners, with no clear signs of stopping regardless of negotiations. So the question then becomes: negotiate and save lives or stand firm and risk more unnecessary killings?

Where does the United States fit in? A military intervention from America would be a mistake, only escalating the violence in what has already become too much of a military matter that ought to have been strictly a criminal case. But options are available. Like Chavez, America would be wise to begin negotiations with the FARC — we have a mere three prisoners: Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves and Keith Stansell (military contractors whose plane crashed in the jungle in 2003), and their release seems feasible. Likewise, we could put pressure on companies known to aid the FARC or the drug trade, such as Chiquita (see below). Sending money directly to terrorist organizations or through Middle Eastern “charity” front groups is illegal; there is no reason business deals favoring the FARC should be any less deplorable.

What can those outside the government do? As American citizens, there is precious little we can do about Colombia’s domestic problems. Putting pressure on our lawmakers is important, but they have limits, as well. One thing we can do is cut support for businesses that support terror. Last year, Chiquita’s connections to terror were made widely known — millions of dollars were given to terror groups and prosecutors even allege that a Chiquita boat was used to smuggle in weapons. Despite this bad publicity, Chiquita ended its fourth quarter of 2007 with very strong sales. We should not be giving money to a corporation that funds terror — even though Chiquita has since cut ties, the weapons they paid for willing be killing innocent civilians for years to come.

Like most international issues, the FARC and the Colombian drug trade is a complex and messy one. But the key to handling any large problem is to take things one step at a time. Solutions exist, and in some cases progress has already been made. America and President Uribe need to take a cue from those who have been successful in the past — violence begets violence, only honest dialogue can produce lasting results.

Also try another article under Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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