Sick of Violence
By Bernard Aronson
The election Sunday of Alvaro Uribe Velez as Colombia's next president
represents not just a change in political leadership but a major turning
point in how both
Colombia and the United States confront that nation's escalating guerrilla violence.
Sick of violence, disillusioned by failed peace negotiations, and frightened
by increasing attacks by the rural-based FARC guerrillas on Colombia's
infrastructure, Colombians gave Uribe, former governor of Antioquia province, an unprecedented first-ballot mandate to take the war to the guerrillas with an
expanded military campaign and restore "democratic security." At the same time, the Bush administration is asking Congress to allow Colombia for the first time to
use U.S. military hardware, intelligence and training to combat the guerrillas directly, not merely in counternarcotics campaigns.
U.S. support for Colombia, now the third-largest recipient of U.S. military
assistance in the world, has been sustained by a bipartisan consensus built
on concern for
the stability of the Andean region, the need to combat Colombian cocaine and heroin production, and confidence in outgoing President Andres Pastrana's integrity
and leadership. That consensus now needs to be redefined and re-established. Otherwise, our domestic debate may begin to polarize along partisan lines, as it did
over Central America.
Already, Uribe is being accused by critics, without much specific evidence,
of being "soft" on Colombia's outlawed paramilitary force, the AUC, which
widely condemned for massacres against the civilian population. Similar accusations were made when Alfredo Cristiani was elected president of El Salvador in 1989.
Cristiani went on to negotiate historic peace accords that disarmed guerrilla armies and made fundamental advances in human rights.
Uribe, whose father was kidnapped and murdered by the FARC and who survived
FARC assassination attempts during the campaign, should be given a fair
to define his policies toward the paramilitaries. But the threat posed by both the AUC and the FARC must be addressed in U.S. policy discussions with his new
That is because, increasingly, the most vicious confrontations of the
war are between FARC and AUC forces for control of strategic drug and arms
A May 9th FARC-AUC battle for the town of Bellavista, near Colombia's Caribbean coast, ended with a FARC mortar attack on a church in which panicked
civilians sought refuge, killing 113 civilians, one-third of them children.
The AUC, whose forces number 10,000, is loathed and feared by its victims,
who include human rights workers, journalists and labor leaders. But the
quietly cheered on by many war-weary Colombians, on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The paramilitaries are arguably the fastest-growing
political-military force in the country, and AUC supporters scored impressive victories in recent congressional and municipal elections.
The political and military space the AUC occupies is the vacuum created
by the inability of the Colombian government and military to protect its
citizens. Any U.S.
policy that seeks to diminish the power of the AUC must fill that space with greater, lawful security for ordinary Colombians.
To do so, the Bush administration and Congress should come together
to strike a deal with President-elect Uribe defining a new, common strategy.
As part of that
deal, the United States should commit itself to continuing and expanding economic and military assistance, training, intelligence and hardware for Colombia --
including for a new rapid-reaction battalion to defend the country's oil pipelines against guerrilla sabotage.
Washington also ought to stop limiting use of U.S. equipment and training
to counternarcotics operations -- but keep existing requirements that Colombian
vetted for human rights.
In addition, this country can play a role in mobilizing military and
economic assistance for Colombia from other countries and from multilateral
And it should actively support ongoing negotiations with the smaller force of guerrillas in Colombia -- the ELN -- an effort that, if successful, would both reduce the
military threat and further isolate the FARC politically.
Colombia, for its part needs to steadily increase the percentage of
its GDP committed to defense, and to spread the burden more evenly among
its people by closing
loopholes that permit better-educated, more prosperous Colombians to escape military service or combat duty.
With international assistance, Colombia should also staff and train
a new, uniformed local security force under the authority of the National
Police, whose ranks have
been purged successfully in recent years of corrupt and abusive personnel. This force would provide security in remote and isolated regions of Colombia as the army
Finally, and most important, Colombia's new president must commit to
make a clean break with the paramilitaries. The model for doing so would
be the successful
demobilization of guerrilla armies elsewhere in Latin America.
Uribe could give those in the ranks of the paramilitaries who have not
been accused of human rights violations the opportunity to demobilize peacefully
defined period and then get relocation and retraining assistance, as was provided demobilizing guerrillas in El Salvador. An amnesty would follow. Security
guarantees, including an international force, might be needed to give confidence to the process. Paramilitary leaders wanted for past atrocities would have to submit
to Colombian justice.
After the demobilization period, the AUC would be pursued by the Colombian
armed forces and police the same as any other armed force operating outside
authority of the state. Army or police personnel who refused to do so would be dismissed.
To confront the paramilitaries decisively, Uribe must be able to point
to a credible, increasing level of U.S support and engagement that will
reassure the civilian
population and the armed forces that the net effect of the bargain means increased security. And Southcom, the U.S. Southern Command, must deliver a clear
message to its Colombian counterparts: you can be allied with the United States or with the paramilitaries, but you cannot be allied with both.
The writer was assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs from 1989 to 1993.