Imagine this scenario: 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 real as things can be that happen in the country which gave birth to the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez.
Unusual episodes like this one are part of a complex history I lived, as President of Colombia, in the dawn of this new century. My nation continues today to be one of the most exciting examples of contrasts in contemporary history.
Today I want to share with you this “history” and tell it to you like a “story”. A story where efforts to reach peace, after four decades of conflict, are mixed with the continuous threat of drug trafficking and terrorism – the most dangerous enemies of present times. A story of challenges and hard work that has turned into a true success model.
A success story.
Let me tell you how it happened, because I suppose this must be particularly interesting for you who are studying international affairs in such a prestigious university like Johns Hopkins is.
Colombia is a country full of possibilities that has struggled – and is still struggling – to achieve the future that it deserves. However, and despite the natural, cultural and historical strengths we have, we are still in the midst of the internal conflict that has been present for four decades. It is the only conflict of its kind left in the hemisphere, despite many bold efforts to achieve peace.
The characteristics of Colombia’s conflict today could be summarized as follows:
It is a conflict involving two different illegal actors: Guerrillas and paramilitary forces. Even though these groups had political beginnings, they have been financed by the drug business for more than ten years, and are now internationally recognized as terrorists.
Our conflict is not a civil war: It is a war AGAINST civil society! Furthermore, 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. It is not a social confrontation between rich and poor. The political motivations that existed decades ago have disappeared.
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.
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.
When I took office as President of Colombia in 1998, I decided to apply an integral strategy to attack the root of the problem: both a search for peace and a fight against drug trafficking. That strategy was called Plan Colombia.
Plan Colombia, which has been enthusiastically continued by President Uribe, included an international effort to talk to the world about the concept of shared responsibility in the war against drugs. Its most significant component was a commitment to institution strengthening, and in many cases institution building in Colombia; this meant creating a strong and professional armed forces and national police, an effective justice system, complemented by essential social improvement programs and sound economic management.
On the international field, our goals were precise: Normalize our relationships with other countries, achieve international involvement and “burden sharing” in the fight against drugs, and motivate others toward helping Colombia without internationalizing the conflict. It was clear to us that Colombia could not, and cannot resolve this conflict without strong international support.
With these ambitious goals in mind, I personally lead a diplomatic international effort. I met with leaders from around the world, either one-on-one or at different international forums. I always insisted in presenting Colombia’s case, asked for solidarity with our people and joint responsibility in fighting a global drug problem. I also explained our strategy for peace. As a result, Colombia received not only the support of the international community but a growing acceptance from other countries that they, too, shared responsibility in the fight against drugs and the violence resulting from the drug trade.
With regard to security, we made a firm commitment to strengthen our Armed Forces. Our goal was to professionalize our military and provide it 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, and largely increased our troops. Today, our army has 133 percent more combat- ready soldiers than 7 years ago! They have increased from 82,000 soldiers in 1998 to 191,000 in December of 2005.
In addition, we reinforced our commitment to improving the military’s human rights performance, so that the armed forces would gain the respect of both domestic and international audiences. In this area of human rights it is clear that, as the military gains strength and presence with professionalization, their respect for human rights also improves.
The professionalization of both the military and the police forces, built public support and confidence in 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 successfully face this conflict. The armed forces today are the most highly regarded institution in Colombia and the population increasingly shows signs of feeling better protected.
The security indicators are now very positive. In 2005 homicides decreased by 13 percent, kidnappings were down by 51 percent, and overall terrorist attacks decreased 21 percent. People are living in a safer environment and domestic and international tourists are rediscovering the marvelous treasures of Colombia. Articles such as the recent New York Times travel piece on Colombia are testimony of the rebirth of this industry.
We also implemented a constitutionally-mandated transition from an inquisitorial to an accusatorial criminal justice system. Thanks to this transformation, criminal justice is more efficient and accurate in our country.
As the third and most significant component of Plan Colombia, we designed a strategy to combat 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 assets. This was important because drug trafficking fuels corruption and terrorism. Since 1998, Colombia has extradited more than 400 individuals to the United States to stand trial. Back then, we used a sentence to describe our actions: “For drug dealers, criminal action; for peasants, social action”.
Our tactics include eradication of illegal coca and poppy plantations, through aerial fumigation, manual eradication and alternative development. Alternate development is key because we have to give poor peasants a lucrative alternative to growing illegal crops, and a means to survive. But it is not sufficient. The best way to persuade peasants to incorporate themselves into the formal economy is by giving them more opportunities to sell legal crops. This is precisely the reason why a fair Free Trade Agreement is a crucial step towards achieving pace and eradicating drugs in Colombia.
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.
As the “International Narcotics Control Strategy Reports”, recently launched by Department of State, says, (I am quoting) “Colombia had a record year in 2005 for eradication, interdiction, and extradition. The country’s public security forces prevented hundreds of tons of illicit drugs from reaching the world market through interdiction and eradication of coca and poppy crops. (…) According to preliminary reports these efforts may have led to an increase in the U.S. street price of cocaine and heroin and a reduction in purity for both.” (End of quote).
Ambassador Anne Patterson, former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, now the Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, said during the release of the report that “Plan Colombia has been nothing short of a dramatic success, more than I ever would have anticipated when I went there in 2000”.
Fourth: the social component. We all know that it is absolutely necessary to address social conditions that exacerbate problems in our country. In that direction, Plan Colombia has improved access to government services in areas of the country where these did not exist. The Plan, in its first stage, involved an investment of more than $7.5 billon, more than a half of which were Colombian resources. Well, many people are not aware of this, but 75% of the Plan was dedicated to social development in the country’s 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.
Thanks to Plan Colombia and the sustained efforts of the Colombian government, almost 95% of our children, grades “K” through 10th, are currently attending classes in schools.
Finally, we looked for a political solution through negotiations. This parallel 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 successfully 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. 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 politically and ideologically motivated members of these groups.
It was not possible to reach an agreement and the process was interrupted after a series of deadly bombings by the FARC. 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 the enemy its hand and come out stronger even if that hand is rejected. The peace process exposed the guerrillas and their true intentions to the country and the world. More importantly, by rejecting the opportunity of peace, the guerrillas suffered their greatest political defeat.
Today, President Uribe’s government is leading, with firm determination, a peace process with the illegal paramilitary groups that has already resulted in the demobilization of close to 15,000 men. Last year the U.S. Congress approved $20 million in funding to support this process.
I remember that, at the beginning, there was a lot of all-around skepticism about Plan Colombia because it was the first time that Colombia, with international support, mainly from the United States, attempted such large-scale strategy to achieve peace, fight against illicit drugs and improve social and economic conditions. In other words, to build strong institutions.
Some were afraid that the United States was going to be involved in another Vietnam. Others said that Colombian conflict would be exacerbated. Today we can see that Plan Colombia is a success story with concrete, measurable results that deserves support in its new second stage. The skeptics, as it happens many times, were wrong this time.
The same is happening now with the peace process that our government is leading with the illegal paramilitary groups. Today there is a certain degree of skepticism, but what critics don’t see is that this peace process is only the continuation of a larger and more integrated effort for peace, that, sooner or later, will have to include all the illegal armed groups in Colombia.
We are trying to achieve the delicate balance between justice and peace, like many other countries in the world have attempted, with varying degrees of success. I am confident that our efforts and commitment will result in a lasting and sustainable peace for Colombia.
The Colombian democracy.
Before ending, let’s talk briefly about democracy and economics in my country. As many of you must know, Colombia is the oldest and historically the most stable 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 was 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 that democracy prevails despite these challenges confirms this point.
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. This year, Presidential elections will be held, as well as elections for Congress, and a transition of power will ensue, as has occurred for almost two centuries without interruption.
Many former guerrillas have been demobilized and today contribute to public life as members of Congress and Mayors. They have even reached high positions such as Ministers and Presidents of the National Constituent Assembly.
As other examples of this trend, the current Mayor of Bogotá and the current Governor of Valle del Cauca, one of the largest states in Colombia, are the former heads or labor unions. They were both elected with the support of the majority of the citizens of their respective regions.
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, nor is it a new one.
The Colombian economy.
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 –1999. During the last 25 years, Colombia grew at a rate of 3.1%, compared with a 2.5% annual average in Latin America. Last year our GDP grew more than 4%.
We have never defaulted on our international obligations and never experienced the hyperinflation characteristic of other countries in the region. Additionally, last year, our public finances showed a perfect balance and we had no fiscal deficit. It means there was no difference between the government’s total expenditure and its total receipts.
If there is a country eager and ready for development that one is Colombia. I have always said: “We don’t need aid, but trade”. I am very pleased to share with you that the United States and Colombia, after almost 2 years of negotiations, were able 10 days ago, to reach a consensus about a Free Trade Agreement. I hope this Agreement will be approved by American and Colombian congresses and will help my country to further develop its industry and its agricultural potential to successfully compete in the global marketplace.
The fight against terrorism and drug trafficking is not easy. It requires time, 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. 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.
Plan Colombia has not only been a policy of one government but a bipartisan national commitment. That is why I, who as a former President of Colombia began and designed this Plan, am now here before you as Ambassador of my country to the United States, under a different government. President Uribe and I may not share every political belief, but we both are committed with the future of Colombia, and are certain that this path is the way to achieve lasting peace and prosperity. We are working together today on behalf of these goals, bearing testimony to the fact that our programs and our vision are more important than any short term political debate.
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 until similar significant efforts are made to reduce illegal drug consumption, here in the United States and in Europe, we will never be completely successful.
While some 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 vain.
International cooperation has to encompass all stages of the drug business, including precursor chemicals; cultivation and production, transport, sale and drug consumption; money laundering and arms and explosives trafficking.
Fortunately, our consistent message about shared responsibility has reached world audiences. As Ambassador Patterson stated last week, “no country now says that drugs are somebody else’s problem”.
My dear friends of SAIS, I hope you may now better appreciate the struggle we are all engaged in. You have more elements to understand how my country is committed to achieving a more peaceful and prosperous future, and a better life for our children.
Colombia, the always surprising Colombia, with strongest institutions and economy than never before, is becoming a success story that is worth telling. With our efforts, and with your help, we are becoming one of those stories in which democracy triumphs over terrorism and drug trafficking gives way to progress. Personally, it is a story I am very proud to be a part of.