Colombia and Its Neighbours: The Tentacles Of Instability
Colombia and Its Neighbours: The Tentacles Of Instability
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  1. Executive Summary
Report 3 / Latin America & Caribbean 3 minutes

Colombia and Its Neighbours: The Tentacles Of Instability

While the Colombian armed conflict has deep roots in history, increasingly it is fuelled by the inflow of weapons, explosives and chemical precursors and financed by an outflow of drugs.

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Executive Summary

While the Colombian armed conflict has deep roots in history, increasingly it is fuelled by the inflow of weapons, explosives and chemical precursors and financed by an outflow of drugs. The tentacles of instability criss-cross the 9000 kilometres of land and water that separate Colombia from and link it to its five neighbours, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Venezuela and Panama. Those borders are largely uncontrolled, and the Colombian government has stepped up its demands for fuller regional cooperation. The neighbours are greatly reluctant, partly because of internal crises and partly because of their view of the conflict. Yet, Colombia needs more help from them to make progress in ending that conflict, while peace in Colombia would give them a better chance to solve their own serious domestic problems.

The first months of 2003 witnessed a marked surge in violence. The FARC tried to assassinate President Álvaro Uribe, a paramilitary unit made a foray across the border into Panama, and both the FARC and ELN have made a determined effort to counter the upgrading of the Colombian military, assisted by the U.S., to protect the major oil pipeline that runs through the provinces bordering Venezuela. The killing of two crew members after a U.S. spotter plane crash-landed while under FARC gunfire, and the kidnapping by the insurgents of the three American survivors raised the level of U.S. military involvement, at least in rescue operations, as well as the intensity of the hemisphere’s focus on the conflict.

President Uribe challenged his neighbours to formally declare FARC a terrorist organisation and give substantive intelligence, counter-drug and counter-insurgency support. Although he received encouraging resolutions from a Central American presidential summit, the OAS Permanent Council and the United Nations Security Council, only Panama fully met the request on FARC, and overall there is insufficient new concrete cooperation.

Relations between Colombia and the Chávez government in Venezuela have been strained for some time by the latter’s at least tacit tolerance of the insurgents, who move nearly freely on either side of the Venezuelan border, and the significant flow of drugs through that country. Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama each feel vulnerable to the impact of their neighbour’s internal conflict, not least because their exposed border areas are poor and structurally underdeveloped. They blame Colombia for not doing enough to contain the conflict and subjecting them to incursions of irregular armed groups and drug and arms traffickers, as well as refugees. While Peru and Brazil are confident they can manage any direct spillover, largely because of forbidding geography, they worry about drug trafficking and the side effects of Colombian and U.S. counter-drug policy. Peru’s apprehension relates to a sudden rise in coca cultivation that may be negating Colombia’s recent eradication gains. Brazil knows that the rising crime and drug problem in its main cities has direct links to Colombia but the new government is still reviewing its policy and is clearly uncomfortable with Washington’s Plan Colombia approach.

The reactions of Colombia’s neighbours depend substantially on their own domestic political dynamics. All five have deep economic and social problems. Brazil and Ecuador inaugurated new presidents early in 2003 and are still edging into their policies toward Colombia. Venezuela’s Chávez withstood a crippling two-month general strike but the survival of his government and the stability of the country are far from assured. Peru’s President Alejandro Toledo has seen his approval rating plummet, and his signature political reform project endangered. Colombia’s conflict presents Panama with a serious security threat.

This report examines the armed conflict’s impact on Colombia’s neighbours. Nothing has altered Colombia’s basic responsibility to manage the conflict. It needs to move toward a negotiated solution by pursuing a broad, integrated security strategy that combines strengthening the security forces while respecting human rights, extending the rule of law, and implementing credible political and economic reforms. But more effective regional security cooperation, an end to mutual recriminations, and establishment of a political consensus would do much to help the Uribe administration. Operationally, Colombia and its neighbours should give priority to enhanced joint border control and development, more effective intelligence sharing and judicial cooperation, confidence building between the military and police and more concerted action against drugs.

Bogotá/Brussels, 8 April 2003

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