Originally created 09/16/99

Sen. Coverdell: Crisis requires international attention



(Editor's note: The author is U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga.)

TODAY, U.S. foreign policy has been consumed by the crisis in Kosovo, yet another compelling foreign policy challenge is taking place in our own hemisphere. Like Kosovo, this crisis has displaced hundreds of thousands of people -- more than 800,000 since 1995. And instead of a small province being ethically cleansed by its own government, an entire country is fighting multiple wars at once: wars against two competing guerrilla groups; a war against paramilitary organizations; and a war against drug lords who traffic deadly cocaine and heroin into the United States. These are the four wars of Colombia.

Much like the former Yugoslavia, Colombia is at risk of disintegrating into politically and socially unstable mini-states, which would pose a significant threat to South America. Colombia could be the Balkan problem of the Americas.

MORE THAN 35,000 Colombians have been killed in the last decade, and more than 308,000 Colombians were internally displaced in 1998 alone. Like the Albanian Kosovars, Colombians are fleeing their country in large numbers.

Colombia is home to more than one-third of all terrorists acts worldwide. It is the world's third most politically violent country, and it is the global kidnapping capital -- more than 2,600 people in 1998. And while our nation rightfully sought the release of U.S. soldiers in Kosovo, more than a dozen Americans have been abducted in Colombia since the first of the year -- twice as many as last year. Finally, our government took no action when three American missioners were executed by the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (known as the FARC).

For more than three decades, the FARC -- and the National Liberation Army (the ELN) -- have waged the longest-running insurgency in Latin America. With a combined strength of between 10,000 and 20,000 full-time guerrillas, they present a serious threat to the country and the region.

The Colombian military might not be up to this challenge. Operational mobility is weak. Colombia's army has barely 40 helicopters to protect a country the size of Texas and Mexico combined. By comparison, El Salvador, one-fiftieth the size of Colombia, had 80 such helicopters during its civil war.

ALTHOUGH THE Colombian Army has 122,000 soldiers, only 20,000 soldiers are dedicated for offensive combat operations. When you do the math, the Army is at best a one-to-one match with the guerrillas. How can a military with limited resources fight two guerrilla movements with superior resources through illicit means?

A Colombian Army study found that the two guerrilla groups raised $5.3 billion from 1991 to 1998 from drugs, abductions, and extortions. This drug money dependency is a post-Cold War phenomenon. During the 1970s and 1980s, Communist-inspired guerrillas received funding from the Cuban and Soviet governments. With the demise of communism, other income sources were needed. Enter the drug traffickers. Think of it -- American drug pushers and users are supporting anti-democratic guerrillas in Colombia.

Rebels now have initiated armed action in nearly 700 of the country's 1,073 municipalities, and control or influence up to 60 percent of rural Colombia.

Colombian President Andres Pastrana is trying to make peace at all costs with FARC rebels who have little incentive to agree to any terms. One of the FARC conditions was the creation of a temporary, demilitarized zone the size of Switzerland. Despite this enormous concession on the part of the Colombian government, the FARC has made no concessions, including a cease-fire.

THROUGHOUT THESE negotiations, which have even provoked the resignation of Colombian Defense Minister Ricardo Lloreda, the FARC has assaulted and killed dozens of Colombian military personnel and police, including the murders of approximately 40 Colombian soldiers in a single day.

"Farclandia" (population 90,000) is the name some local residents have given to this state-within-a-state. The FARC appear to be cementing control and taking steps to ensure that expulsion from the zone will be extremely difficult. The FARC is violating human rights, usurping the elected government and gaining power every day.

Colombia is waging another paramilitary war against an umbrella organization of about 5,000 armed combatants with a mission to counter the grip of leftist guerrillas. These groups have worked to stall the peace talks because the FARC leadership refuses to negotiate as long as the right-wing gunmen remain a threat.

The deteriorating situation in Colombia has provoked border security concerns in neighboring countries like Venezuela and Panama, both of vital interest to the United States.

Finally, there is the drug war. Colombia remains the world's leading producer of cocaine and a growing producer of heroin.

U.S. LEADERSHIP in the Colombian crisis is needed. This is no time to turn our backs. Continued inattention will only contribute to continued instability. As we did in Kosovo, the United States should mobilize the international community to play a role in resolving the Colombian conflict. Certainly, the United States should pledge its support for the democratically-elected government.