Columbia: Moving toward more stability

The following is the official statement submitted by Nancy Menges, director of the Menges Hemispheric Security Project, to the House Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.  The statment was submitted on April 24, 2007.

Colombia, a country which was starting to look like a failed state during the late 1990s, is generally moving in the right direction under the current government.

The Uribe administration is under attack because the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and the resulting peace process has led to the opening of old and new wounds, revealing links between the paramilitary and the political establishment.

We believe however, that the Uribe administration deserves US assistance and the ratification of a mutually beneficial FTA, sustaining the country’s rebounding economy. The peace process is messy and full of imperfections. It is however gaining momentum and providing a window of opportunity for a better future for the people of Colombia.

We further believe that US assistance at this moment can contribute to creating an environment of greater individual security that is less prone to lawlessness and organized crime. It is this environment, if sustained that will help curtail drug smuggling into the United States.

The recent "parapolitics" scandals need to be put into context: they are the symptoms of a consolidating democracy which has created a political climate where these things come to light. The investigations have started a judicial process unprecedented in Colombia’s history. The Justice and Peace Law offers only limited amnesty to all those laying down their arms. An estimated 30,000 troops of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) have laid down their arms and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) are severely diminished. The country deserves military assistance to close the security gap and create the conditions for greater respect of human rights and lower criminality.

The advantages of a generous FTA will outweigh the competitive disadvantages for small farmers and foster agricultural diversification away from Coca planting. It will help sustain the rebounding Colombian economy and promote a consolidating democracy. Continued assistance under "Plan Colombia" will help strengthen central security. It could also send a powerful message to both the supporters and opponents of the US economic and democratic model.

Stepped up Security

The Uribe Administration is making some headway in reducing crime and violence. The issue of personal security is of great importance to the citizens of Colombia and the positive track record of the Uribe administration, in this regard, is largely responsible for the overwhelming popular support of his government, despite the recent scandals. Colombian investment in the military and security forces have lead to an overall reduction in crime and terror.

The FARC has been expelled from the populated Bogotá – Medellín – Cali triangle in central Colombia. For the first time in years, Colombians can drive between most of the country’s cities without risk of abduction or extortion. However, the FARC is diminished but not defeated. There is evidence that its members enjoy safe haven in neighboring Venezuela.

Colombia’s murder rate has dropped from 68 people per 100,000 inhabitants in 2002 to 38 people per 100,000 inhabitants in 2006. Some CAFTA members show worse statistics. Killings by right-wing paramilitary squads are on a massive decline and some top paramilitary leaders are in jail.

The Justice and Peace Law: The Disarmament of an Undefeated Military Group.

Embarking on a peace process, the paramilitaries needed an incentive to lay down their arms. The Justice and Peace Law was a necessary compromise albeit its implementation could have been more stringent. The Uribe administration has managed, however, to disarm an undefeated military group without having to offer full amnesty. The Supreme Court stiffened the law which shows that the administration is respecting the legal branch as compared to Venezuela which had the majority of Supreme Court judges resign in the first year of Chavez’s rule.

Ensuring peace could become a major achievement of Uribe’s administration. Continued US support is crucial, now that the process is gaining momentum. There is good reason to fear that the paramilitary will return to violence. An estimated number of 2,500 to 3,600 have joined "second-generation" paramilitary groups, with purely criminal motivations. This danger is likely to escalate if the military is not given adequate support and is therefore unable to counteract these various threats. If mafia structures believe that the military is a) not able to contain the FARC and ELN and b) might not be able to implement stepped up security measures all over the country, criminal elements will have an easier time resuming armed activities against a weakened Uribe government.

The Administration Entrenched in a Scandal

Uribe’s administration is under attack for alleged links to AUC. But Uribe’s current problems are, paradoxically, the result of his successful transformation of the conflict. These revelations are a byproduct of the successful disarmament of AUC. The consolidation of democracy has created a climate where prior connections can come to light. Witnesses are coming forward now that they can speak out with less fear. The scandals also present evidence for the slow return of trust in democratic and judicial institutions. It highlights the declining power of the paramilitary who have lost a lot of their leverage over a strengthened democratic apparatus. The recent scandal investigations have to be seen for what they are: a judicial process, unprecedented in Colombia’s history.

So far, there is no evidence that Uribe has had any direct contact with the paramilitary leadership. Two members of the Uribe Cabinet that were identified as having connections to the paramilitaries were asked to resign. Admittedly, most of the arrested representatives were his supporters. But it should be noted that most of the allegations against them date from 2002, when they backed the official Liberal candidate against Uribe, who then ran as an independent.

Uribe has given full support to the investigations against AUC members and affiliates. It is their testifying leaders who reveal the connections between them and political representatives; a sad reality of Colombia’s politics during the nineties. It is fair to say, however, that neither FARC nor ELN have surrendered to the peace and justice act provisions. To believe that their leader’s confessions would not reveal links to left leaning politicians is somewhat illusionary.

While the demobilization has been full of imperfections the process has acquired a momentum of its own that offers a chance for more peace and the strengthening of the rule of law.

Promoting Prosperity through Free Market Mechanisms

A generous free trade agreement is consistent with the interests of the United States. Declining the FTA would hamper the free movement of goods and damage the Colombian economy in a time of rebound. It would discourage those Colombian farmers who are willing to diversify away from coca into legal crops. The success story of Latin countries like Chile show that free trade and US-market access can help strengthen sustainable development and alleviate poverty. Illegal narcotics, on the other hand, do not face tariffs. Though the trade agreement will put competitive pressure on the Colombian agricultural sector the disadvantages posed by US competition are outweighed by the advantages of easier access to the market of Colombia’s largest trade partner.

As a result of enhanced security, the economy has rebounded as businesses ramp up investment to $10 billion last year. Colombia’s GDP has been stable under the current administration. However, during a period of economic recovery, Colombia will face competitive disadvantages without the trade agreement. The United States represents the most important market for the sale of Colombian goods. The decline in US-Colombian trade would make the country more dependent on its US-critical neighbors, Venezuela and Ecuador.

Free trade inherently creates win-win situations, meaning that an agreement would benefit the Unite States as well. Preferred access to a market comprising the second largest population of the Southern Cone (45.3 million inhabitants) will give US business a head start as the Colombian economy is likely to expand in the coming years.

Plan Colombia – a Link Between the Drug Trade and Security

Plan Colombia was started under the Clinton administration and passed by the Congress in order to combat the major drug cartels then thriving in Colombia. A rise in military expenses was crucial for combating drug production and trade. Plan Colombia has stopped the huge drug cartels from creating a criminal element that competes with the legitimate government. The smaller cartels no longer have the same concentration of power that single "drug lords" had before. Estimates are that Plan Colombia has contained the explosion of drug production despite better extraction techniques. Plan Colombia provided for the introduction of more permanent security checkpoints as well as the flexible intervention of security squads through increased use of helicopters.

Plan Colombia has helped to equip the security forces and transform them into a more effective force within the country. US assistance has been essential for that purpose, be it the delivery of hardware or training. While spraying has had negative impacts on the environment it has lead to a decrease in long standing coca plantations. It is likely that the transportation and shipping of the drugs as well as the maintenance of clandestine drug laboratories is becoming more difficult as the security situation tightens.

US-Colombia Relations in a Regional Context

In making decisions about Colombia, it is important to consider the wider political context in the Andean region. The recent trend towards left wing governments which happen to have a strong anti-American rhetoric in common leaves Colombia as one of the few remaining examples which can prove that friendship with the United States is beneficial. While two of its neighbors, Venezuela and Ecuador are rapidly moving towards a "Bolivarian Revolution", Colombia’s democracy is healthy but fragile. Colombia has fought a narco-guerilla insurgency in the form of the FARC for the past thirty years. The FARC gave rise to the paramilitaries. Now that the paramilitaries have been disbanded, and the economy is rebounding, is this the time to abandon our ally? Should Colombia falter, the balance of power in the region would change for the worse and the consequences in terms of the increase in drug shipments alone would be contrary to US interests. In that regard, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador has already said that he will not renew the lease of our base at Manta which expires in 2009, from which the majority of our planes leave on drug related missions.

With its commitment to free trade and to the United States, Colombia has accepted the de facto collapse of the Andean Community of Nations. The departure of Venezuela for MERCOSUR marked the demise of a major trade partner. Now that the tide is turning in Ecuador too, Colombia is in need of trade partners. The FARC are diminished but unbeaten. They think history is going their way: Chávez in Venezuela has expressed sympathy for them in the past; so has Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s new president. The ratification of the FTA must send a powerful message to an ascending Colombia and to its neighbors. The failure to ratify FTA would play into the hands of those Latin American leaders who advocate giving up on the United States and would shift to more colorful aid offers by populists like Hugo Chávez.

Suffice it to say, that US support has helped to stabilize Colombia so far. Continued US support is needed to help an ally that has accomplished much but requires our assistance to meet the challenges ahead.

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