Imagine this scene: A man is driving his truck on a rural unpaved road, in an inhospitable and distant region, in the middle of the forest. There is no other vehicle on the horizon, only the burning heat, the dust raised by his tires and two countrymen walking in the distance.
The driver approaches both individuals who are talking. The man in the truck finally recognizes them. He is astonished.
What have I seen?, he thinks to himself. Can I believe my eyes? Were those two men on the road – one of them dressed in camouflage – really the President of Colombia and the legendary “Tirofijo,” head of the oldest and most dangerous guerrilla organization in South America?
I am sure his wife, family and his neighbors must not have believed the driver’s story when he told them who he encountered on his way home. Nevertheless, his version was completely real, as much as things can be that happen in the country which gave birth to the magic realism of Gabriel García Marquez.
Unusual episodes like this one are part of a complex history I carried out, as President of Colombia, in the dawn of the new century. My nation continues today to be one of the most exciting examples of contemporary history.
This is a story where efforts to reach peace, after three decades of conflict, are mixed with the continuous threat of drug trafficking and terrorism – the most dangerous enemies of present times. This is a story I want to share with you today, so you can appreciate these two problems and their impact in Colombia and the larger world.
As is well known, after September 11, 2001, the fight against terrorism became one of the highest priorities, perhaps the most critical one, of the international community.
Regrettably, before 9-11, things were different. Many nations were uncertain how to address the challenge it presented. Some hid behind an ambiguous theory that pretended to guarantee internal security through protection or tolerance of groups engaged in these acts. They acted as if the threat of terrorism was a problem concerning solely those countries which suffered from it, and was not a priority for all nations.
Before 9-11, terrorism was present in countries like Colombia. We lived with it every day. It impacted every aspect of our political and social life. Unfortunately, the rest of the world did not express solidarity to prevent it, and did not give a global priority to it.
Terrorism has many faces. It is present in the terrible acts of September 11, but also in bombs which have exploded in Ireland, Bali, Colombia, Spain, United Kingdom, Jordan, Turkey, Morocco, Iraq, Israel and other countries where innocent civilians have died. This includes not just attacks against civilians, but selective acts of murder against journalists, judges, politicians and labor leaders who have condemned terror, as is the case of Colombia.
We also know a terrorist is not just the person who pulls the trigger to murder or one who triggers a bomb’s detonator. A terrorist is also someone who plans an attack or finances it, who makes the bomb which explodes, and even the individual who sells the explosives. Those who plan and finance, those who sell weapons or explosives, those who protect or help them accomplish these acts, are also agents of terror.
This is a new form of war, one which does not require an army. On the contrary, terrorists need very few men but great quantities of money. In Colombia, drug trafficking has been the source of financing terror.
With terrorism and drug trafficking, we are really facing two monsters, each of them with many heads and with its feet rooted in many nations.
THE COLOMBIAN CASE
Permit me to go deeper in the case of Colombia, my country, which I had the honor of ruling for four years and which today I represent before the government of the United States.
Colombians have been the victims of violence like very few countries in the world. Drug trafficking and terrorism have, in the past, attacked us without mercy. We suffer a 40-year old conflict. We lost, in the eighties, an entire generation of many of Colombia’s “best and brightest” citizens. But, on the other hand, the Colombian people stepped up to the challenge. We have defeated powerful drug cartels. We have resisted heroically and, against all odds, we have maintained and even enhanced our democracy. We are very proud of this achievement.
Colombia is the oldest democracy in Latin America. Except for a short period of military dictatorship between 1953 and 1957, the country has developed democratic institutions and elected its Presidents through popular election.
There were many people – fortunately fewer now – who used to justify the existence of guerrillas in Colombia with the excuse that our democracy was weak or imperfect, and that there existed no democratic “space” for an alternative political expression.
There is nothing further from the truth. In Colombia, despite terrorist violence and problems derived from drug trafficking, we live and maintain one of the strongest democracies in the world. The fact it survives these difficulties is undeniable, living proof.
In Colombia, we elect not only the President, Senators, Representatives, Deputies to the Department Assemblies and Municipal Council people by popular vote, but also, since the eighties and the early nineties, Mayors and Governors. Next year, presidential elections will be held, as well as elections for Congress, as we have for almost two centuries without interruption.
Many former guerrillas have been demobilized and today contribute to public life as Congressmen and Mayors. They have even reached high positions such as Ministers and Presidents of the National Constituent Assembly.
As another example, the current Mayor of Bogotá is the former head of a labor union, and he reached that position with the support of the majority of the citizens of Bogotá.
The press is absolutely free in Colombia, without censorship of any kind. Any coercion it suffers comes from the illegal groups, not by the government.
Ours is, without a doubt, an open and active democracy. It is not, of course, a perfect one. We have to strengthen and defend it every day. But it is not a weak democracy. Any alleged weakness can justify now the armed fight of the guerrilla groups.
Colombia also has one of the more stable economies in Latin America. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, Colombia has had a GDP growth rate of 3.2% over the past 75 years, with only a single year of recession – in 1999. During the last 25 years, Colombia grew at a rate of 3.1%, compared with a 2.5% annual average in Latin America. We have never defaulted on our international obligations and never experienced the hyperinflation characteristic of other countries in the region.
However, and in spite of all the advantages of Colombia, our internal conflict has been going on for four decades without a solution. It is the only conflict of its kind left in the hemisphere, despite many bold efforts to realize peace, especially during my term.
The characteristics that the Colombian conflict presents today could be summarized as follows:
- It is a conflict involving two different illegal actors: Guerrillas and paramilitary forces. Both of them have been financed by drug trafficking since the late eighties.
- It is not a civil war: It is a war AGAINST the civilian population. Our society is not divided over this confrontation. On the contrary, Colombians are unified about finding an end to it. The nation’s sovereignty remains intact. The armed illegal actors do not have the support of even 1% of the population.
- It is not a conflict over territory. It is not caused by ethnic or religious hatred. Neither is it a social confrontation between rich and poor. Political motivations that existed decades ago have disappeared.
- Although for many years the conflict was centered in Colombia’s vast rural regions, it has become “urbanized” in recent years. This is due to a change in strategy by the guerrilla groups to spread terror in Colombia’s cities.
- It is one of the longest running conflicts in the world, but it cannot be branded as a high intensity one. The majority of homicides are caused by the drug trafficking that finances the conflict.
- The illegal armed groups have been internationally recognized as terrorists, and their acts are geared towards this type of activity, but we cannot exclusively call it a terrorist conflict.
- It is a conflict which takes place amid very complicated geography – Colombia’s rugged Andean mountains and its vast Amazon forests. These are ideal conditions for guerrilla and paramilitary activity. And difficult ones for traditional armies and law enforcement to counter.
THE SOLUTIONS TO THE PROBLEM
With such a complex situation, what can be done to reach a solution?
When I took office as President of Colombia in 1998, I decided to apply an integrated strategy to attack the root of the problem: both a search for peace and a fight against drug trafficking.
To begin, we needed to improve the image of the country before the world, because it was clear Colombia could not resolve its conflict without strong international support.
Our goals were precise: Normalize our relationships with other countries, obtain international involvement and “burden sharing” in the fight against drugs, and interest others in helping Colombia without internationalizing the conflict.
To this effect, I decided to personally lead a diplomatic international offense. I believe that in the modern world, despite advances in modern communications, there is no better means to handle relations between States than personal contact between Heads of State.
First, I met with leaders from around the world, either one-on-one or at different international forums. I presented Colombia’s case, requested solidarity with our people and co-responsibility in fighting a global drug problem. I also offered permanent support for my country against terrorism and explained our strategy for peace. As a result, Colombia received not only the support of the international community but an acceptance from other countries that they, too, shared responsibility in the fight against drugs and against the violence caused by the drug trade.
Second, we made a commitment to strengthen our Armed Forces. Our goal was to professionalize our military and provide them with better training and equipment. We sought improved air mobility to achieve a military presence across Colombia’s vast territory. We improved our intelligence capabilities. In addition, we improved the military’s human rights performance, so the armed forces would better be respected by both domestic and international audiences. In this area of human rights it became clear that, as the military gain strength and presence with professionalism, their respect for human rights also strengthen.
Above all else, we sought to improve personal conditions for our troops. I am convinced the best arms and equipment are worth nothing if you cannot count on the morale of your men. When I took office, I was saddened that our soldiers did not have the proper tools and training to go into battle. On one occasion, while visiting troops, I saw soldiers wearing boots held together with pieces of truck tires, because their boots had no soles. If we were to have an army expected to produce results, the first thing that we had to do was treat our men with dignity and equip them with the necessary tools they needed for their mission.
The professionalization of both the military and the police forces, built public support for our security forces. When I became President, only 34% of the population believed they could defeat the guerrillas. By the end of my term, more than 65% of the population believed our Military Forces had the capacity to win. The armed forces are today the most highly regarded institution in Colombia and the population increasingly show signs of feeling better protected.
Third, a strategy was designed to fight against drug trafficking. As I mentioned, we sought to engage the international community to convince them of the need to be part of this effort of interdicting drugs, counter money-laundering and enhancing law enforcement in Colombia.
We also reinforced legal mechanisms, such as drug dealers’ extradition and the seizure of their riches. This was important because drug trafficking fuels corruption and terrorism. I never hesitated to fight drug trafficking, applying all the weight of the government. Back then, we used a sentence to describe our actions: “For drug dealers, criminal action; for peasants, social action”.
Our tactics involved eradication of illegal coca and poppy plantations, through aerial fumigation, manual eradication and alternative development. Alternate development is key because we had to give poor peasants an alternative to growing illegal crops, and a means to survive.
At the beginning of my term in 1998, Colombia had about 145,000 hectares of coca. Four years later, this dropped to 103,000, a reduction of 30%. Today, due to the continued efforts by President Uribe’s government, coca hectares have been reduced to 80,000.
Fourth, it was absolutely necessary to address social conditions which contribute to problems in the country. We had to improve access to government services in areas of the country where these did not exist. For this purpose, Plan Colombia was designed, which involved an investment of more than $7.5 billon. 75% of the Plan was dedicated to social development in the most remote regions. This social investment is essential – even if poverty can never justify violence, it is also true that with hunger and poverty it is impossible to achieve peace.
Finally, we looked for a political solution through negotiations. This tool complemented other ones and had the objective of bringing the two guerrilla groups to the negotiating table, so they could exchange their violent lives for political activity as other groups had already done in both Colombia and Central America.
This strategy required the personal leadership of the President. We were able to bring to the negotiating table the leadership of the FARC and ELN. But unfortunately, after three years of talks, the terrorist and drug trafficking factions within the guerrillas showed that they were more powerful than the handful of remaining political guerrillas.
It was not possible to reach an agreement and the process was interrupted after a series of deadly bombings by the FARC. Just between early January and February 20, in 2002, the date when the peace process ended, this guerrilla group committed 117 terrorist attacks. The guerrillas chose terrorism, financed with drug trafficking money. Drug profits were more important to them than peace.
The desired goal was not reached, but we advanced the path of peace, demonstrating with it the strength of our democracy. Only a strong democracy can offer a peace hand and come out stronger even if that hand is rejected by the violent groups. The peace proccess exposed the guerrillas and their true intentions to the country and the world. By rejecting the opportunity of peace, the guerrillas suffered their greatest political defeat.
Today, President Uribe’s government is leading, with audacity, a peace process with the illegal paramilitary groups that has already resulted in the demobilization of close to 10,000 men. The U.S. Congress recently approved $20 million in funding to support this process.
The fight against terrorism and drug trafficking is not easy. It requires time, it perseverance, patience and resolve. Terrorism is an invisible enemy, elusive and volatile. It cannot be faced alone with grand military actions.
But there is something else we must remember. There is a need to address global poverty and underdevelopment. These are conditions which breed violence and terror.
Colombia is a case in point. It is true the conflict we have suffered for four decades is a cancer on our society system. But the underlying disease is poverty. Our challenge, beyond ending violence, lies in meeting the needs and desires of our people. That is why, during my government, 75% of resources from Plan Colombia were destined to fight poverty in the regions most remote, and most affected by the conflict. This is why the current Colombian government is investing 66% of its resources for social development between 2003 and 2005. It is very clear that where there is no effective social policy, security efforts prove useless.
Unfortunately, the solution to drug trafficking does not lie solely in my country. Colombians continue to eradicate more and more hectares of coca and poppy every day, intercept drug planes and boats, chase and extradite drug lords and seize their fortunes. But as long as similar efforts are not made to reduce illegal drug consumption, we will never win.
As long as the international community – and especially developed countries – believes the problem is not theirs, too, our youth will suffer from drugs and the violence it perpetuates.
While investors and banks close their eyes permissively to the flow of immense amounts of money coming from the illegal drug business, our sacrifices will be in vane.
The solution is two-fold: international cooperation which encompasses all stages of the drug business, including the chemicals used to manufacture drugs; cultivation and production, transport, sale and drug consumption; money laundering and arms and explosives trafficking.
You, my dear friends of IFES, you now better understand the fight we are all engaged in. In your hands I leave this diagnosis, so we can all continue contributing to solutions and construct a future worthy of the human being.