- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004

It is clearly now or never for peace in Colombia — and perhaps for the Andean region.

A task force report of the Council on Foreign Relations released earlier this year on the problems of the five democracies of the Andes — Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia — stresses that the region, where per capita growth has been zero for two decades, “is in peril.” The report says Colombia, essentially an armed camp, is the “linchpin” in achieving U.S. goals of stamping out narcoterrorism, shoring up democracy and achieving peace.

Last month, the Colombian government of President Alvaro Uribe, whose term expires in two years, opened negotiations with the terrorist AUC paramilitaries aimed at disarmament and ending conflict.

The negotiations rest on a fragile foundation. The ultra-right AUC’s ties to drug trafficking and human-rights violations are well-known and well-documented. In April 2004, AUC leader Carlos Castano vanished without a trace — probably murdered by his partners in crime. His successor, Salvatore Mancuso, has said he will not accept a settlement unless there is amnesty for war crimes and nonextradition of his colleagues to the U.S. on drug charges. When he and two members of his parajunta appeared before the Colombian Congress on July 28, they insisted on a “counterinsurgency” role after demobilization.

Counterinsurgency is a euphemism coined in Medellin for AUC control over vast regions of the country where the cartel would be able to cultivate thousands of hectares of coca plantings and continue plying the lucrative drug trade. Essentially, Mr. Mancuso sought absolution for AUC crimes to date and a government-created balanced terrarium where he could continue them. His proposals got a cold shoulder in Bogota.

The last time Colombia made a stab at demobilization and reintegration of AUC fighters, the result was disaster. Between December 2002 and December 2003, the AUC committed 362 homicides, 16 massacres and 180 kidnappings. This year, AUC has a better record: It is said to have committed only three massacres and 25 homicides, some against the indigenous Wayuu people in the north who also are in the drug business.

The “demobilized” paramilitaries, who had committed crimes against humanity, were allowed to reintegrate into Colombian civil society or, believe it or not, the regular armed forces, with practical impunity. Many stayed in the drug trade and maintained relationships with nondemobilized AUC members — much like the situation in Russia where the present “mafia” is populated by the former KGB.

The Bush administration, though ostensibly dedicated to eradicating the Andes drug trade, has been conspicuously absent from the peace process. Perhaps the administration does not want to sully its hands in negotiations with AUC. But U.S. engagement is essential to a sensible solution. Otherwise, we are likely to be exfoliating Colombian coca for generations after 2005 when Plan Colombia, Congress’ $3.3 billion solution to regional narcoterrorism, expires by its terms.

Plan Colombia has failed. White House drug czar John Walters who flew over the coca fields earlier this month, conceded to reporters that seizing cocaine, destroying coca crops and arresting traffickers has little affected the flow of drugs on U.S. streets where demand is constant, and prices remain stable.

The entire international community, notably the United Nations and the European Union, has kept a distance from the peace process that began with the Ralito II agreement last May. Only the Organization of American States has indicated limited interest by offering to monitor and provide information on the uneasy truce. But the OAS is notoriously limited by lack of funding and effectiveness.

The muscle, necessary to establish the rule of law and end the prolonged conflict, must come from the Colombian government or the United States if the negotiations are to work at all.

Of course, AUC is not the only paramilitary organization in Colombia that must be disarmed. There is the principal insurgent organization, FARC, and its little sister, ELN — also terrorist organizations with which the government would like to make peace. Both groups are said to be sworn enemies of AUC, but both often coordinate with AUC in drugs.

Obviously, Afghanistan is not the only failed state in the world.

Colombia has come to a critical turn. Its government’s efforts to disarm the thugs and restore stability cannot succeed without the U.S. and the international community.

The United States, particularly, in light of its hemispheric obligations, must engage in the Colombian peace process and thereafter to solve the truly regional problems of rule of law, security and economic development.

James D. Zirin is a lawyer in New York. He was a member of the independent commission of the Council on Foreign Relations on a new U.S. strategy for the Andean region.

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