RealClearPolitics.com - September 30th 2005
By Charles Tannock and Francisco Santos Calderón
Chaos and violence in Iraq has strengthened the notion that insurgencies cannot be defeated and so must be appeased. Colombia’s experience shows that this is not the case. A combination of military force, political incentives, and economic growth that benefits the wider population can begin to bring an insurgency to heel.
Despite a democratic tradition dating to 1830, Colombia has suffered a bloody 40-year insurgency by the narco-terrorists of the so-called Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Over the last eight years, these narco-terrorists have murdered thousands of persons and kidnapped more than 6,000 hostages, including 140 foreigners. These innocents are often kept in grossly inhumane conditions without access to medical care.
This criminal insurgency is fueled not by popular support, but by the spoils of the cocaine trade. Yet, while some rural areas are under guerrilla influence, and despite the wealth that drug trafficking has brought them, FARC and the ELN have proven too weak and unpopular to mount a serious threat to bring down Colombia’s government. Theirs is not a revolution; it is cocaine-crazed nihilism.
Given the murderousness of the FARC and ELN campaigns, it is no surprise that sinister forces arose to counter them. Some 13,000 paramilitaries such as the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC), Bloque Central Bolivar, Alianza Oriente, and Vencedores de Arauca now challenge the cocaine Marxists for political control of rural areas. On the principle that you become what you hate, these paramilitary groups have also captured a slice of the lucrative drug trade.
Yet, despite countless atrocities committed by both sides, Colombia’s government has entered into dialogue – aided by the Mexican and French governments, as well as the UN – with all of these illegal groups in the cause of peace. Since December 2002, the paramilitaries have mostly adhered to a cease-fire, and are in talks with the government under the mediation of the Catholic Church and with the support and monitoring of the Organization of American States (OAS). A written agreement to demobilize more than ten thousand paramilitaries by 2006 has been agreed, and plans are being laid – including a transitional period of limited immunity from arrest so long as the cease-fire holds and the time spent under this agreement will be counted against any eventual prison sentences imposed – to reintegrate them into civilian life.
Partly as a result of this demobilization, but mostly due to the strengthening of the security and justice apparatus, there has been a 50% reduction in Colombia’s homicide rate and a 70% drop in kidnapping in the country, making Colombia’s major crime rate equal to that of peaceful Brazil.
But for rebels to be reintegrated into society, jobs are needed. So Colombia has focused on strengthening its economy. President Alvaro Uribe’s administration has committed itself to reducing the public-sector deficit to below 2.5% of GDP and pursues an export-led recovery which has received widespread acclaim internationally and from business leaders. Although unemployment remains too high, ordinary Colombians are seeing real signs of change and hope for the future. These new signs of economic vigor have strengthened Uribe’s popularity. After three years of bold reform, the government’s approval rating is over 70%, which helps President Uribe both in confronting the rebels and in negotiating with them.
Colombia’s government has gone as far as it can, in the face of much criticism from its own supporters, in not insisting on immediate disarmament or surrender, but instead offering a cease-fire and the rebels the possibility of reintegration into civil society under international observation. What little public support once existed for the FARC and the ELN is evaporating, and both groups know it. By combining staunch military resistance to rebellion with a political program designed to entice rebels back to normal life, the Uribe government has demonstrated that insurgencies can be curtailed.
Francisco Santos Calderón is Vice President of the Republic of Colombia; Charles Tannock is Vice-President of the Human Rights Subcommittee of the European Parliament.