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Crisis in the cocaine capital: civil war has torn Colombia for nearly 40 years. Peace talks have failed, and the war is again heating up. With drugs, oil, and security at stake, American involvement may expand beyond fighting the war on drugs. (International).

El Paujil, Colombia--The blackout was an ominous sign. Like most residents of this southern Colombian town, Chiqui, a lanky 16-year-old, tried to sleep after a faraway rebel bomb left the entire province without power. But he stayed awake listening for the explosions he was sure would follow. He got up when one blast, then another, rang out: The police station of this rural town had been hit by the grenades of leftist rebels.

It wasn't the first time that guerrillas had targeted the police outpost in El Paujil. But Chiqui sensed Colombia's brutal conflict had taken a turn for the worse.

The night before, Colombian President Andres Pastrana had lost his patience and broken off peace talks with the most powerful rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Earlier that day, the rebels, known by their Spanish acronym, FARC, had hijacked an airplane and kidnapped a senator on board.

In this nation of 40 million people, half live in poverty. The FARC, which has been fighting the government for nearly 40 years in the name of social justice, advocates redistributing land more equitably and greater government control of the economy. The FARC has evolved from a band of a few hundred fighters to a well-equipped army of about 17,000, financed by an organized system of payoffs from Colombia's drug traffickers, extortion, and huge kidnapping ransom payments.

The FARC is challenged by right-wing paramilitaries, whose trademark has become massacring rebels or their civilian sympathizers, often with chainsaws. The paramilitaries began as gunmen hired by drug lords and large landowners to protect them from the FARC rebels. Now, they are an outlaw force of about 11,000. Human rights groups have documented links between the paramilitaries and government troops, who often supply the paramilitary force with information or turn a blind eye when their death squads go on a killing spree.

El Paujil, a gritty town surrounded by pastures and patches of jungle, is 70 miles southwest from San Vicente del Caguan, which was, until late February, the virtual capital of a rebel safe haven about twice the size of New Jersey. Pastrana had granted the area to the rebels in 1998 as a goodwill gesture to further the peace talks. When those talks failed, Pastrana sent government troops to reclaim the former rebel zone. That prompted the FARC to launch a nationwide offensive, bombing bridges, power stations, and telephone transmission towers. They kidnapped a minor presidential candidate just a few miles from El Paujil.

Chiqui--who, like most Colombians caught in the civil war's crossfire, would not give his last name--has seen his share of the country's violence. At 14, he and a few friends were nabbed by a paramilitary squad and forced to watch as the gunmen murdered three men lying facedown on the ground, their hands tied behind their backs.

"This is what will happen to you if you get mixed up with the guerrillas," they were told. And last year, he saw a rebel dismembered when a grenade he was about to lob toward El Paujil's central square exploded in his hands.

"Now that the [peace] game is over, we'll start to see a real war," says Chiqui.


The renewed fighting in Colombia has led the United States to re-examine its policy here. For years, the U.S. saw Colombia primarily as a drug problem. The South American nation produces 90 percent of the world's cocaine supply and is the source of most of the heroin sold on U.S. streets. Leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary groups reap huge profits from extorting drug producers and traffickers in areas under their control. The U.S. estimates that the FARC alone collects $300 million a year from the drug trade.

In 2000, Congress approved more than a billion dollars in aid to Colombia to stop drugs at their source, by spraying herbicides from airplanes on coca, the base for cocaine, and heroin poppy crops. But concerned that the U.S. might be dragged into the muddled civil conflict, Congress restricted the funds to use in counter-narcotics operations.

With the escalation of political violence, many U.S. policy makers are reconsidering whether Washington should help Colombia in the wider war against the rebels. "In the current security context, focusing on eradicating coca doesn't seem like it makes a lot of sense," says Michael Shifter, a Colombia expert at Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.

Already, the Bush administration has requested $98 million for training and equipping Colombian soldiers to protect a pipeline serving an oil field operated by California-based Occidental Petroleum. The pipeline is a frequent target of the FARC, who see disrupting it as a way to weaken the state by driving out foreign investment. They also see the pipeline as a source of potentially huge extortion funds for themselves.

With America's war against terror spreading, some in Washington believe it's time for the U.S. to broaden its involvement in Colombia beyond the drug fight. Both the FARC and the paramilitaries are on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, and some top U.S. officials have suggested the U.S. may be looking to go on the offensive against the rebels.


So far, Colombia's capital, Bogota, has been spared most of the violence that has raged in the countryside. As 16-year-old Christian Gomez browses through the latest rock CDs in a Tower Records store in a swank Bogota neighborhood, he has a vague notion that things aren't going well in the country, "because of the war and the drug trafficking and stuff."

Christian and his friends, who hang out in an area of northern Bogota dotted with sidewalk cafes and exclusive shops, don't feel it though. "Here, it's really cool, you go out, have fun--it's just normal," says the high school junior. "My friends and I never talk about the war; we talk about school and soccer and music."

But analysts say the FARC is likely to continue kidnappings and attacks on the country's infrastructure. Since rebels tried to sabotage Bogota's main water reservoir, politicians in the capital are bracing for the worst. As the attacks continue, it looks increasingly like hard-line candidate Alvaro Uribe Velez will win next month's presidential election. Uribe promises to establish government authority throughout Colombia, and he welcomes more foreign military assistance to Colombia.

Whether the U.S. will venture that far into the muddled war here remains to be seen. Uribe has not ruled out trying to negotiate with the rebels, who have said they would talk to the next government if it is committed to improving the plight of the nation's poor.

But analyst Shifter predicts it could be years before the two negotiate again. "The government has to regain authority and a greater presence," he says. "A process like that takes some time." By the time those talks begin, one FARC commander says, there will be at least 5,000 more deaths.

Crisis in the Cocaine Capital

FOCUS: U.S. Concern About Colombia Shifts From Drug Smuggling to Civil War


To help students understand Colombia's growing civil war, and why some U.S. policy makers believe Washington should increase military aid to Colombia as part of the new war on terrorism.

Discussion Questions:

* Who is more to blame for the smuggling of Colombian cocaine and heroin to the U.S.--the Colombian producers, or the American users?

* Should smuggling drugs to the U.S. be regarded as a terrorist act?

* Should Colombia's escalating civil war be seen as part of the terrorist threat facing the U.S.?


The Problem: Review the three problems facing U.S. interests: drug smuggling, threats to a U.S. oil company, and the concern that a rebel victory means leftist control of a large South American nation.

Choosing Options: Tell students to, assume they are policy makers assigned to examine one of the options open to the U.S. On the board, write (1) Expand military aid; (2) Do not aid. Next to each write "Possible Consequences."

Divide the class into teams I and 2. Have each team explain why their option is the better choice. Remind students that no option provides easy answers and that any choice opens the door to unforeseen consequences. After students present their arguments, ask them to comment on these consequences of each option:

* Send More Aid. Possible Consequences: Rebels defeated, drug trade plummets or war drags on with no apparent winner. U.S. troops eventually sent in. Many of these troops are killed. Alternatively, rebels defeated, drug trade plummets, and U.S. is besieged by other nations fighting rebels for U.S. military assistance.

* Don't Increase Aid. Possible Consequences: Rebels topple government, kill thousands, expand power or government wins without U.S. help.

Note that both FARC and the right-wing paramilitary death squads are on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. Should the U.S. help Colombia's government, whose troops have been linked to the paramilitaries? Might the U.S. then be seen as propping up a system that violates human rights?

Use with INTERNATIONAL, pages 18-21, Multiple Choice.

1. President Andres Pastrana of Colombia cut off peace talks with the country's leftist rebels, known by the acronym FARC, after (a) the rebels kidnapped a high-ranking member of the government (b) the U.S. asked him to terminate the talks (c) the rebels killed a U.S. military adviser (d) government troops lost a battle with the rebels.

2. About how long have the rebels been fighting Colombia's government? Nearly (a) 40 years (b) 20 years (c) 10 years (d) 5 years.

3. In 1998, President Pastrana granted the rebels a large area as a safe haven. Why did he do that? (a) UN negotiators requested it. (b) The rebels threatened more violence if he did not do it. (c) Pastrana granted it as a stage for peace talks. (d) The rebels offered to reduce drug production in exchange for the safe haven.

4. What do the FARC rebels claim is their goal? (a) to control drug production in South America (b) to control oil production in Colombia (c) to forge South American countries into a new superpower (d) to produce social justice.

5. Which of the following statements is most accurate? FARC favors (a) capitalism (b) an economy based on corporate values (c) more-equal distribution of the country's land (d) an economy based on large privately owned farms.

6. FARC finances its operations with payoffs from drug traffickers, extortion, and (a) holdups (b) kidnapping for ransom (c) gun sales (d) oil sales.

7. The article reports that Colombia is the source of most of the U.S. supply of (a) marijuana (b) Ecstasy (c) amphetamines (d) heroin.

8. In 2000, the U.S. Congress approved aid to an antidrug program in Colombia. The focus of this program is (a) paying farmers not to grow drugs (b) bribing drug dealers to quit the trade (c) killing drug smugglers (d) spraying herbicides on drug-producing plants.

9. The Bush administration is requesting nearly $100 million in aid for Colombia to (a) build schools (b) build an air force base (c) protect a pipeline that services an American oil-company facility (d) protect U.S. troops on duty there.

10. What is the best description of presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe Velez's policy regarding the rebels? (a) hardline, but willing to consider negotiations (b) basically neutral on the issue (c) will do nothing without U.S. help (d) will refuse to discuss anything with the rebels.


1. (a) the rebels kidnapped a government official. 2. (a) 40 years. 3. (c) as a stage for peace talks. 4. (d) to produce social justice, 5, (c) more equal distribution of land. 6, (b) kidnapping. 7. (d) heroin. 8. (d) spraying drug-producing plants. 9. (c) protect pipeline. 10. (a) hardline, but willing to negotiate.
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Author:Brodzinsky, Sibylla
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:3COLO
Date:Apr 8, 2002
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