A Complex Colombia

Colombia's President, Alvaro Uribe, will be inaugurated for his second term this week after his landslide reelection, yet the country's 40-year civil conflict still rages, secret police appear embroiled with paramilitary killers, and 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States is produced there.

So why is Uribe President George W. Bush's favorite Latin American leader? The answer speaks to the complexity and contrasts of Colombia, a country twice the size of France with Amazon jungles, Caribbean and Pacific coastlines, and three parallel Andean mountain ranges that complicate governance and security. Colombia has democratic institutions. However, elites dominate economic and political power and have excluded the country's indigenous Afro-Colombian and rural poor. The top 10 percent of Colombians receive 61 percent of the nation's income compared to less than 1 percent for the bottom 10 percent of the population.

Uribe, a former mayor and governor whose father was assassinated by the leftist guerrilla group FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), came to office with a pledge to stop FARC's rising power.

When I was in Bogotá four years ago, friends and diplomats warned me against making unnecessary trips, because the 17,000-strong FARC had made traveling on the country's highways a life-and-death gamble. The threat was punctuated by mortar attacks accompanying Uribe's inauguration. When I met with his vice president one day, a bomb exploded close enough to send us bouncing off our chairs.

However, each succeeding visit, including one just before Uribe's reelection, showed a lessening of Bogotá's siege mentality. With about 80 percent of US aid going to the military and police under the counter-drug/counterinsurgency Plan Colombia, Uribe made good on his promise to strengthen security. The guerrillas, now more intent on power than policy and showing little regard for human life as they seek to control cocaine profits, were forced deep into Colombia's hinterlands. Increased security also enabled Colombia's entrepreneurs, with the help of $10 billion in foreign direct investment last year, to reach 4 percent gross domestic product growth in consecutive years. Uribe's scheme to demobilize some 32,000 right-wing paramilitary members , many linked to the lucrative cocaine trade and to massive atrocities, helped the government reduce kidnappings, killings, and land occupations.

Those are the reasons Uribe won a first-round 62 percent victory. The reason that he is the White House favorite, though, is his counternarcotics cooperation and the extradition of more than 300 drug traffickers.

But the counternarcotics part of Plan Colombia is failing. Despite the rhetoric and $4.7 billion in US aid, 70 percent more coca was planted in 2005 than in 2000. Fields were sprayed and eradicated but more were planted. In 2005, about 356,000 acres of coca were harvested, identical to 2002, according to the White House Office of Drug Control. The office virtually admitted its disappointment with this year's cultivation numbers - 26 percent higher than last year - by releasing the data late on Good Friday - not exactly prime time. Its explanation that the increase resulted from wider photographing sounded lame.

The counterinsurgency policy has clear weaknesses. It has not eliminated the FARC, whose forces stepped up attacks this year. About 5,400 kidnap victims of all armed groups are still unaccounted for. Extrajudicial executions rose last year and the State Department reported again that Colombian armed forces were guilty of human rights abuses. In June, army units were charged with killing 10 US-trained Colombian police to protect drug dealers.

The paramilitary demobilization is in crisis. Barely a handful of the thousands pardoned have reinserted into useful endeavors, and others have rearmed. The depth of the threat to democratic institutions is shown by reports that some recently elected national legislators as well as state and local officials were secretly financed by paramilitary groups. Top officials of the country's secret police are suspected of targeting labor leaders and human rights activists for the paramilitary hit-men.

Among the 2,180 paramilitary leaders being promised reduced sentences under Uribe's Justice and Peace Law, many have been indicted by the United States for drug trafficking. None have been required to disclose fully the crimes they committed, the location of people they kidnapped or killed, or the properties they stole from some of Colombia's more than 2 million displaced citizens. The country's constitutional court objected to Uribe's plan by altering a series of unconstitutional provisions in July to protect victims' rights.

Without key policy changes, the higher expectations for Uribe's second term to end the conflict and strengthen democracy are likely to be frustrated. He needs to replace the one-note military strategy that characterized his first term with a broader peace, development, and defense strategy. It needs to emphasize rule of law, rural governance, and poverty reduction, and, without easing military pressure on the FARC, pursue a humanitarian accord and peace negotiations. Finally, Uribe needs to obey the constitutional court mandate to require paramilitary and guerrillas to reveal where their victims are buried and their ill-gotten assets hidden. Otherwise the Justice and Peace law will produce neither justice nor peace.

The United States also needs to shift drastically the balance of military to economic aid, which now is 80 percent to 20 percent, to support a broader strategy to end impunity and end the conflict. It also is time for both presidents to rethink a flawed counternarcotics strategy and name independent commissions in both countries to ask fundamental questions about reducing supply there and demand here.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.