- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2001

Although Cuba is largely recognized as the only dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere, there is an area in the Americas, the size of Switzerland, where a ruthless regime that murders and enslaves its people has run of the land. This region is the demilitarized zone on Colombia, controlled by one of the most powerful and wealthy guerrilla groups in the world, known as the FARC.

On Sept. 11 to 12, Secretary of State Colin Powell will be visiting Colombia, and will be stressing America's support for the country's efforts to combat narco-trafficking and strengthen democratic institutions. Indeed, Colombia's ability to fortify its democratic institutions and consolidate the rule of law will be crucial to overcoming its humanitarian crisis. Therefore, establishing a lawless, undemocratic, narco-terrorist region was predestined to be rampantly counterproductive. Mr. Powell should raise concerns regarding the demilitarized zone during his visit, since Colombian President Andres Pastrana will decide next month whether to renew it in October. More importantly, the Bush administration should use the momentum of Mr. Powell's visit to give Colombia the attention it demands.

Mr. Pastrana gave the FARC control over this region in November 1998 as a goodwill gesture to jump start stalled peace talks. Unfortunately, talks remain as stagnant as ever, and the FARC has consistently demonstrated it's obliviousness of, and disinterest in, the hopes and priorities of the Colombian people. At the same time, the FARC is eager to reap the profits of narco-trafficking while it terrorizes innocents.

And human rights groups, many of which were hesitant to criticize the FARC and other guerrilla organizations, have begun to highlight their gross violations. "International attention has focused primarily on human rights abuses committed by right-wing paramilitaries, which operate with the tolerance and even open support of units in Colombia's military. But guerrillas also deserve condemnation for the barbarity that is sweeping Colombia," wrote Jose Miguel Vivanco, the executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. Indeed, paramilitaries are a terrorist scourge on Colombia, and seldom combat guerrilla groups. Instead, they attacked unarmed civilians in rural areas which they have targeted as rebel sympathizers, even though these civilians have usually been coerced by guerrillas into showing such "sympathy." Colombians, therefore, are subject to intermittent waves of both guerrilla and paramilitary brutality.

But the government's complicity in the FARC's violence shouldn't be downplayed, since the Pastrana administration gave the guerrillas control of the demilitarized zone and the people who live there. It is difficult to fathom a greater affront to the democratic rights of civilians. "During a mission to the zone in May and June of 2000, Human Rights Watch gathered evidence showing that the FARC has abducted and threatened residents, committed extrajudicial executions and recruited children for combat," wrote Mr. Vivanco. This forced "recruitment" by the FARC of children amounts to nothing less than slavery.

But, now that this zone outside the protection of the state has been created, it will be difficult to dismantle. Its existence is a testament to the FARC's power and the government's policy of appeasement. However, providing the people of the zone the protection of the democratic state can't conceivably be achieved without bloodshed.

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