Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Washington is closer to Bogota than to San Francisco, yet Colombia’s struggle against terrorist violence rarely makes headlines in the United States. For nearly 50 years, terrorist organizations have attacked Colombia, the second-oldest democracy in the Western Hemisphere, using narcotics trafficking, extortion and kidnapping to fund their activities.

How many in the United States know that thousands of children have been forcibly abducted or duped into becoming part of the terrorists’ expendable first line of combat? Last year, FARC terrorists gave an innocent 10-year-old boy a bicycle and 35 cents. As the unsuspecting, excited boy rode past a police station, they detonated explosives rigged to the bicycle, blowing him apart. In another incident, a FARC car bomb exploded outside a Bogota social club, shattering a birthday party, killing six innocent children.

Nor do the terrorists limit their attacks on the citizens of Colombia. Environmental damage to Colombia’s once-pristine jungles has been devastating. Sabotaged pipelines have soaked the soil in oil, and narco-terrorists have stripped lush forests to grow their deadly crops. According to the Colombian National Police, more than 240 million acres of jungle — an area 1.5 times the size of Yellowstone National Park — have been clear-cut in the last 15 years to grow coca crops.

The drug trade taints Colombia’s water supply as well. In 2000 alone, at least 250 million gallons and 240 million pounds of toxic chemicals were used to process cocaine. The resulting chemical waste is dumped into Colombia’s rivers, destroying the fragile ecosystem. Sadly, this damage to the environment goes largely unreported by most environmental groups and the media.

Despite a difficult past, there is now growing progress in Colombia’s battle against these terrorist actions.

A recent visit to the United States by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe highlighted the little-known but emerging success story in both the war on terrorism and of American foreign policy — in a country much closer to home than Iraq and Afghanistan.

U.S. Special Forces training has helped the Colombian military re-establish a government presence across the country. For the first time in 40 years, nearly 100 percent of the towns in Columbia have military or police forces providing security and enforcing the law. This reflects a significant element of our own nation’s strategy in the global war on terror: the training and equipping of allied forces in order to build the capacity to establish effective sovereignty over their own territory.

Buoyed by success on the battlefield and an increased government presence, Colombians have significantly increased travel on previously unsafe roadways throughout much of the country for the first time in more than a decade.

The Colombian peoples’ confidence in their government extends beyond security as well. The Colombian military has greatly improved its record on human rights and continues to make progress. Recent polls show 70 percent of Colombians believe their government performs well on the issue of human rights.

The new emphasis on respecting human rights is due to the hands-on leadership of Mr. Uribe and his minister of defense. They, aided by the training provided by U.S. Special Forces, have produced a cadre of rededicated and professional Colombian military committed to protecting the human rights of all Colombians.

This rededication to military professionalism has been effective, as 74 percent of Colombians believe the armed forces are effective and committed to their defense. Gen. “Tom” Hill and the men and women of U.S. Southern Command (including elements of the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group) have much to show for their efforts.

Colombians have responded favorably to Mr. Uribe’s progressive efforts. Independent polls show an optimism never seen before, spurring a revival in the Colombian economy, which grew an impressive 3 percent last year. Colombians who fled to the United States and Europe to escape the violence are now returning and contributing to Colombia’s social and economic recovery.

Our own Congress shares some of the credit for the progress in Colombia as well. Led by Speaker Dennis Hastert and enjoying bipartisan support, Congress continues to fund activities that are making a difference. U.S.-supported counter-narcotics programs to Colombia have resulted in a 33 percent reduction over the last two years of illegal coca cultivation. Continuing these programs is essential to Colombia’s security, since proceeds from the drug trade finance terrorist activities of groups like the FARC.

While Colombia’s fight against terrorism is not yet won, Colombia is approaching a tipping point. With time, effort and continued assistance from America, this may well be the first generation of Colombians who have the opportunity to learn about violence in their country from history books rather than by walking down the street.

Thomas W. O’Connell is the assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide