Since the Colombian Constitutional Court denied Álvaro Uribe a third presidential term in February, several candidates have stepped forward, the most competitive of whom are the former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos and Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus. All candidates have predictably campaigned on a more or less similar platform of continuing Uribe’s hard line policy cracking down on crimes and violence in the urban areas; after all, this policy has been successful and has earned Uribe a wild 70 percent approval rating by the public. However, Colombia’s new president must expand the scope of Uribe’s security policy from the cities to include the countryside. The new administration cannot afford to neglect any longer the issues of growing violence in the rural areas, as the left-wing guerillas and right-wing paramilitias reestablish their power centers in the countryside along Colombian border.
Colombia has been suffering from an armed conflict since the 1960s, and the resilience of violence is in large part due to the fact that the militant groups involved are fighting for control of the narcotics trade, especially of cocaine. Colombia supplies about 90 percent of all cocaine traded in the United States and 70 percent of all world trade of cocaine originates from Colombia. Left-wing guerilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) use profits from the drug trade to undermine the Colombian government, and right-wing paramilitary groups that were originally set up to combat the insurgency groups have increasingly become violent themselves. Recognizing that the Colombian civil conflict has repercussions outside the country’s borders, the United States has poured over US$ 5 billion to the Andean country through Plan Colombia, an aid program aimed at security and antinarcotics efforts.
There was a significant reduction in crime and violence from 2002 to 2010, the two terms during which President Uribe has successfully instituted a hard line policy on urban security. No longer is the capital city of Bogota overrun by FARC, ELN, or a right-wing paramilitia. One of Uribe’s major feats was the official demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a coalition of 37 paramilitary groups, in 2006. Reduced violence in the capital has inspired the country with a new life, renewing people’s confidence in the country’s potential. As a result, foreign direct investment in the growing Colombian economy is expected to rise to US$10 billion in 2010 from US$ 7.5 billion in 2009.
However, success in the cities has not translated into success across the country. US aid and the Uribe administration’s efforts at combating terror groups like FARC with counterinsurgency troops and antinarcotics effort have only moved these criminal groups from the cities to more remote rural areas. The armed civil war continues in the countryside. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates that 3.3 million of Colombia’s 46 million people have been displaced by the civil strife. Extra-judicial killings and sexual violence run rampant. In March 2010, at least six people were wounded and over 30 injured in a car bomb accident suspected to be by the FARC guerillas in the port city of Buenaventura, a major cocaine smuggling point. Last year alone, the ICRC reported about 800 alleged human rights violations. According to the Colombian Defense Ministry, during the eight years of Uribe—even when the crime rates have decreased—a total of 20,915 people were killed in combat only. This statistic does not include the civilian deaths, displacements, or other forms of violence stemming from the strife. Clearly, Colombia still has a long way to go to reach stability.
Furthermore, the militant groups are regaining strength in the countryside, perpetrating crimes as necessary to smooth their drug deals. Even the local farmers have become a part of the drug chain, as cultivating and supplying coca to these groups has become a source of the farmers’ livelihood. This is a huge security issue, especially considering the weak police presence and tolerance of criminal armies by public forces in rural areas. Moreover, an increasing number of militant groups are forming drug trafficking alliances linked with private armies in rural areas. Colombia’s government estimates that there are about 4,000 members in these criminal armies, but nongovernmental groups paint a more gruesome picture at about 10,200 members.
What makes the growing influence of the terrorist groups in the rural areas so alarming is that these areas are very close to Colombia’s borders, and hence it is easier for the terrorist groups to establish transnational drug routes. Some groups are believed to have bases in neighboring countries already. In fact, in March of 2008, Colombian security forces raided a FARC rebel base in Ecuador, killing some of the top commanders. At this time, Colombia also publicly accused Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez of supporting the leftist insurgent guerillas. This incident intensified Colombia’s already tense relations with its two Latin American neighbors.
Colombia’s relations with Venezuela and Ecuador have been rocky at best, especially since Colombia became the number one ally of the United States in Latin America during the Uribe years. Although its relationship with America, which supplies massive aid to fight off guerillas and paramilitias, is extremely vital to Colombian security, the next president must also put more effort in improving relations with Venezuela and Ecuador because they can foster the growth of Colombian rebel groups in the countryside. Uribe largely ignored this. The United States also needs to recognize and appreciate Colombia’s possible diplomatic softening toward its neighbors.