Colombia has emerged from anarchy. Nation-builders elsewhere should be taking noteby Tom Streithorst / August 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
The government now has a presence in the country’s isolated areas, like the Sierra Nevada
In the gloom of the night, a man with a gun waved our car down and told us to stop. Ten years ago the sight of him would have made me step on the gas pedal. But ten years ago, I would never have dared drive down this road. Back then, left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries set up checkpoints like this and kidnapped passengers for ransom. The practice was called pesca milagrosa (miraculous fishing). Now the roadblocks are set by the police and army. The soldier asked where we were going and waved us on, wishing us a good journey. Colombia is no longer the most dangerous country in the Americas.
I was on my way to see Luis, whose story is that of his country in microcosm. Luis used to grow coca leaves and turn them into cocaine for a paramilitary drug lord. But a few years ago, government grants enabled him to set up a small, eco-friendly hotel on the coast. He, like over 100,000 other Colombians, receives $400 every two months in an initiative that woos farmers away from illegal agriculture.
Luis’s father grew coffee on a farm in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in north Colombia. The area was too remote for police and in the 1980s the Farc, the country’s largest guerrilla group, moved in. Founded in 1964 as a Marxist peasant movement, the Farc began to fund itself through the drug trade and is now Colombia’s largest cocaine cartel, if one that still uses the language of revolution. The Farc was the strongest armed force in the area and so could demand whatever it wanted: crops, farms, labour. As in much of the country, locals reacted by forming paramilitary groups, funded by rich landowners.
In this region, the paramilitary leader was Hernan Giraldo, now serving a prison sentence in the US for drug trafficking. He and his gang committed dozens, perhaps hundreds, of murders as they took control and, like the Farc, turned into a drugs cartel. Today, many Colombians use the exact same phrase to describe the paramilitaries: “the cure was worse than the disease.”
Yet, somehow, in the decade in which Iraq and Afghanistan fell into anarchy, Colombia emerged out of it. It is the one success story of the “war on terror.” Alvaro Uribe, who in August stepped down as president after eight years in office, is probably the most popular man in the country.
Short, bespectacled and uncharismatic, Uribe is an unlikely saviour. The scion of a wealthy family, his father was murdered by left-wing guerrillas. When he took office in 2002, much of the country was outside government control and millions of rural Colombians had been forced from their homes. On his inauguration day, the Farc mortared the presidential palace in the capital, Bogota—killing 20 civilians—just to show they could. But by the time Uribe stepped down, the Farc had been driven into the jungle, other left-wing groups eradicated and most paramilitary groups disbanded. How did this come about?
For a start, Uribe was able to draw on the unpopularity of both the Farc and the paramilitaries. Support for the Farc is estimated at less than 1 per cent of Colombians—incidents like the murder of indigenous rights activists in 1999 showed how far it had fallen from its professed ideals. The paramilitaries were also despised for their brutality and greed.
But what made the real difference was that, from 2000, the Bush administration poured billions of dollars into the Colombian military, transforming it into an effective fighting force which adopted counterinsurgency as its doctrine. These days attributed to General David Petraeus, counterinsurgency was the intellectual basis for the surge in Iraq. But the Colombian military did it first and better. Its first principle is that killing bad guys isn’t enough. The government must provide security and improve people’s lives to gain their allegiance. It wasn’t easy—Colombians had little faith in the army initially. But today the government can boast of its expansion of services into rural areas, and the economic growth that has come with better security. And finally, though Colombian officials are loath to admit it, the paramilitaries did much of the dirty work, by decimating the Farc and its supporters.
Kidnappings are now down 90 per cent and murders have halved since 2002. The mayors of all the country’s municipalities now live in the towns they administer—just a few years ago, that could have been a death sentence. Things aren’t perfect. In the past six months 29,000 Colombians were driven from their homes by violence—but in 2002, almost 500,000 were. Human rights groups still accuse the military of killing civilians; officials admit “shameful” mistakes but vow not to repeat them. As Uribe told me before he left office: “We have not won yet, but we are winning.”
Those hoping to pacify Afghanistan could do worse than study Colombia. Both countries suffer from a huge illegal drug sector, a weak government and a geography that grants sanctuary to armed gangs. The Taliban today is barely more popular than the Farc was in 2002. The key difference is probably that the Colombians fought their own battle. But the country shows that no matter how bleak the situation, a government with will and determination can regain control of its national territory.