Colombia: Another Front in War on Terror
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Aug. 14, 2003 The overall impression you get from the government and military in Colombia is the absolute determination to finally crush the narcoterrorists and reclaim the country.
Under President Alvaro Uribe, who took office Aug. 7, 2002, the country has made impressive gains. Joint Chiefs Chairman Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers traveled to the nation Aug. 11. His visit highlighted the successes and road ahead for Colombia and the United States.
"The Colombians really have said enough is enough," said a U.S. Embassy spokesman. "They are working effectively to get rid of this problem, using some of the same tactics the United States uses in the war on terrorism."
And that may be the biggest difference President Uribe brings to the fight. He won the presidency with 54 percent of the vote a year ago. Today, his approval ratings are at 70 percent to 80 percent. Another indication of his success is that the rebel groups have tried to assassinate him 14 times, officials said.
And what happens in Colombia is important to the United States. Narcoterrorists cultivate, process and ship most of the cocaine in the world and are growing opium poppies and refining it to heroin. Colombia is in the Western Hemisphere, mere hours away from the U.S. border. The narcoterrorists already have a smuggling pipeline into the United States, and it is no stretch to imagine other terror groups allying themselves with the narcoterrorists, said U.S. Embassy officials.
And the narcoterrorists have the money and will to take on all comers. The key to Uribe's success, said Colombian officials, is the decision that there is no difference between a drug trafficker and a terrorist. The three main rebel groups -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the United Self-defense Groups of Colombia (AUC) use drug money to finance their operations and buy weapons and supplies. These groups have hundreds of millions of dollars to finance operations against the government.
"Drugs corrode the values of the nation," Foreign Minister Carolina Barco said during an interview. Drug money has fueled the war far past any ideological underpinnings, she said. It is now a simple matter of intimidation and control through terrorism.
Just how much control is illuminated by the repatriation program the Colombian government uses with rebels who come over to the government side. "It's almost like a witness protection program," said Mary Jo Myers, the chairman's wife who was briefed on the program. "These people take their lives in their hands coming over to the government the rebels will kill them and their families."
Mrs. Myers spoke with three rebels in the program. In one case, the man was recruited for the National Liberation Army at age 12. In his village, the ELN was the government, and the group controlled everything about his life, including whom he married and when his wife could have children.
Even the narcoterrorists know the destructive power of drugs, she said. While content to process and ship cocaine, if a rebel soldier uses drugs himself, he is shot.
Mrs. Myers said it was "incredible" that this man and his wife left the rebel group at all. "They became disillusioned with the group," she said. "It had to be a difficult decision because that group is all they have ever known."
The Colombian government gives these former rebels new names and places them in new areas, Mrs. Myers said. The government, churches or nongovernmental organizations help with the emotional and psychological aspects of their situations. And the government provides vocational training or educational opportunities to the former rebels.
And the program is important because there have been more desertions from the rebel ranks since Uribe took office. U.S. Southern Command figures place the number of desertions at about 1,400. The repatriation program gives these former rebels a new lease on life. Many former rebels take further chances by trying to persuade their former comrades to put down their arms, Mrs. Myers said.
Gen. Myers said the Colombian military is taking the fight to the FARC and there is a noticeable shift in the attitude of the Colombian people to the rebel groups. "Colombian officers tell me the trend is toward the government side now," he said. "The people are realizing that there is a viable alternative."
The Colombian government is doing other things as well. The government has sprayed herbicide on 160,000 hectares of coca. Officials said this program must continue because spraying once does not finish the crop. "If a coca grower loses one crop, he can survive," said a U.S. Embassy official. "He may be able to survive two sprayings, but after three he's got to be thinking about going into a new line of work."
On the military side, the army is taking the fight to the rebels. The strategy is changing. In the past, the military was content to defend certain strategic villages, bases and, of course, the major cities. No one questions the competence of the military. It is well-trained, well-led and has an excellent human-rights record, officials said.
It just operated under a different strategy. "Previous governments ceded control of an area the size of Switzerland to rebel groups," said a military official. "And they let it stand and tried to negotiate a settlement. The FARC will negotiate forever because the status quo is profitable for them."
Uribe and Defense Minster Martha Lucia Ramirez charged Myers' counterpart, Gen. Jorge Mora, to develop a new plan that builds off the Colombian National Security Strategy. Under it, the military is becoming more offensive. While units will still defend fixed points, they will go after the FARC, ELN and AUC. "If they break the will of these rebel groups, that's when negotiations will work," said a Colombian military official.
"In your country's Civil War, you couldn't have had Appomattox without Gettysburg," he continued.
American Special Forces personnel have trained 15 regular Colombian battalions and a specialized battalion. The troops, outfitted with U.S. equipment and using U.S. tactics, are having successes against the rebels. The number of attacks against oil pipelines, communications towers and bridges have dropped more than 50 percent with the new tactics. Kidnapping, always a source of easy money to the narcoterrorists also dropped, and Colombian police have been more successful in effecting rescues of those kidnapped.
Colombian forces captured 5,784 rebels from August 2002 to May 2003, compared with 2,790 during the previous period.
These figures indicate the desire and willingness of the Colombian military and government, said officials. U.S. military officials who were briefed on the new Colombian strategy said they were impressed by the plan and the thinking that went in to it. "It's a good plan, and these are professionals," said a senior U.S. military official. "How they execute it remains to be seen."
The senior official said the United States will support Colombia. U.S. troop levels in the region will remain constant and as army training becomes more routine, U.S. trainers may shift to other areas. Officials said the U.S. will help Colombia with the planning process, intelligence exploitation, and reconnaissance and surveillance.
All this mirrors, in a way, the changes the United States went through following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Just as in the United States against global terrorism, the full power of the Colombian government is arrayed against the narcoterrorists.
"This is a struggle we must win," said Foreign Minster Barco. "We cannot allow this chance to slip away."