- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 30, 2000

U.S. officials who fight the flow of illegal drugs into our country are holding their breath. President Clinton has just authorized the release of $1.3 billion in emergency aid to help Colombia battle its coca industry the source of 90 percent of all cocaine entering the United States. Today he heads to the Colombian city of Cartegena to meet with President Andres Pastrana to discuss ways to bolster this anti-drug offensive.

But those who think this is anything more than a down payment on ending Colombia's drug trade are unaware of the deeper crises facing this troubled nation.

The problem with the U.S.-Colombia strategy is its narrow focus. It wages war on drug traffickers while ignoring Colombia's crumbling democracy and the free pass its leaders have long given the drug lords and paramilitary groups that roam the countryside.

This state of affairs can be traced to the 1940s, when rival politicians began assassinating one another. Throughout the 1950s, partisan vendettas turned into mass mayhem, claiming some 300,000 lives mostly rural dwellers living beyond the reach of sparse police or army units.

In the wake of this conflict, Marxist guerrilla movements sprang up and accelerated the pace of decline. Responsible to no one, they extorted landowners and kidnapped local officials in the name of a more "just" society. Caught in the cross-fire, farm workers and small landowners helped organize paramilitary groups for self-defense. It didn't take long for a real-life "Wild West" scenario to develop.

In the midst of this disorder, drug traffickers invaded the neglected countryside, assassinating or bribing politicians to look the other way. But since the government could never be entirely subverted, the drug lords joined forces with the guerrillas and to a lesser extent with the paramilitaries. By 1995, the guerrillas were protecting the drug lords in return for an estimated $500 million a year. Well-financed and better-armed than the Colombian military, they soon expanded operations until they covered nearly half the nation's territory.

While struggling to reduce drug trafficking, government officials have deferred to the guerrillas' growing strength. Both 1998 presidential candidates proposed negotiations with the insurgents to end their violence. Soon after taking office, President Pastrana even ceded authority over an area the size of Switzerland to appease one of the factions, and he recently proposed doing the same with another.

Fearing a guerrilla confrontation would create another Vietnam, U.S. policy-makers supported this approach. They even prodded Mr. Pastrana to codify peace talks with the insurgents in his 1999 "Plan Colombia," a blueprint for rebuilding the country. This explains why the current U.S. aid package gives Colombia's security forces military equipment to apprehend drug lords, but prohibits them from using it to nab guerrilla allies. (An exception is made for insurgents actively engaged in drug trafficking. But who can make that distinction in a firefight?)

While making marginal progress against drug trafficking, this "compromise" strategy has failed against the guerrillas. Facing limited punishment for their violent tactics, they have consistently refused to cooperate on a lasting cease-fire or even to discuss the possibility of trading bullets for ballots. Worse, by tolerating some criminal acts while prosecuting others, the strategy legitimizes corruption. It makes Colombia's government even more accountable to the wrong crowd, while trampling the interests of a public that now overwhelmingly disapproves of the guerrillas and the peace process.

During his trip, Mr. Clinton should look beyond the immediate goal of stopping drug trafficking and consider ways that U.S. policy might reinforce Colombia's fragile democracy. We should be helping Colombia assert its national authority, improve and expand government services, secure the rights of all Colombians, mete out justice fairly and allow all political factions to compete openly.

Lastly, the United States should urge Mr. Pastrana to put a limit on fruitless peace talks with the guerrillas. Instead, he should promote a single standard to halt all outlaw activity, including drug trafficking, vigilantism and guerrilla violence. Without a consistent policy, alliances between unaccountable actors will only grow stronger. A weak government unable to control its bullies either will fall or be subverted. Without the right kind of help, Colombia may become the world's first narco-state just three hours from the United States.

Stephen Johnson is a policy analyst for Latin America at the Heritage Foundation.

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