U.S. Policy in Colombia: Current and Future Challenges
Summary of a breakfast meeting with The Honorable William B. Wood, U.S.Ambassador to Colombia, June 14, 2005.
Ambassador Wood outlined three major goals of U.S. policy in Colombia: counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, and assisting Colombia in being a firm ground for democracy, decency, development, and stability in an increasingly troubled region. Noting the more than 3,000 deaths in the United States each year that are directly related to drugs from Colombia, he said that counter-narcotics efforts have been increasingly successful in stemming the flow of cocaine and heroin from Colombia to the United States, Europe, and other parts of Latin America. Eradication and interdiction efforts in 2004, for the first time ever, prevented more than half of the country's cocaine production from making it to market. While acknowledging discrepancies between U.S. and U.N. figures, he stated that both sets of figures showed downward trends in cocaine production; current policies should continue.
On counter-terrorism, Wood stated that more than 25,000 terrorists and an unknown number of militia and other supporters are active in Colombia. He described as a "real breakthrough" the expanded authority Congress gave the Bush administration in 2002 to use counter-narcotics funding for counter-terrorism, saying that the measure had permitted an unprecedented level of coordination and cooperation between the U.S. and Colombian governments. Despite congressional authority last year to raise the cap on the number of U.S. military personnel permitted in Colombia from 400 to 800, he said that the number of military personnel, including Marine security guards, was approximately 450. He cited progress during the administration of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe in lowering the numbers of victims of homicides, massacres, kidnappings, terrorist attacks, and new internal displacement, even though Colombia had the third largest number of internally displaced people in the world, after Sudan and the Congo.
Elaborating on the security situation, Wood said that more than 60 leaders of the FARC, ELN, and AUC had been captured or killed since President Uribe took office. He said that roughly 7,000 people had deserted from all three terrorist organizations and that about 5,000 members of the AUC had demobilized as a result of the peace process, with the promise of another 4-6,000 to demobilize in the near future. Major population centers such as Bogotá, Medellín, and Baranquilla were safer than before, although violence had gone up in Cali due to fights between two factions of the Norte del Valle cartel. Despite the unpopularity of extradition within Colombia, Wood said that approximately 215 individuals had been extradited to the United States, including the two most important captured members of the FARC, "Simón Trinidad" and "Sonia," as well as powerful ex-drug lords Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orujuela.
Referring to the Andean Free Trade Agreement, Wood said that important progress had been made in every area except agriculture, and that the fate of the Central American Free Trade Agreement would be important in shaping future negotiations. Wood concluded his opening remarks by expressing the U.S. commitment to a safe release of three U.S. hostages held by the FARC, who are among 63 hostages held by the FARC for political, not monetary reasons. Meanwhile, he said, the Uribe government had promised publicly that there would be no hostage exchange with the FARC that did not include the three U.S. citizens.
Subsequent discussion focused on the "state of the state," that is, the degree to which Colombia could be characterized as in danger of becoming a failed state, and on the peace process with the AUC. Regarding the first matter, Wood said that Colombia enjoyed the strongest institutions, the deepest political consensus, and the most popular political leadership in the Andean region. Characterizing the country's institutions as "not perfect but improving," Wood nonetheless identified as serious problems the lack of a military justice system and ongoing threats to labor leaders, human rights defenders, and journalists.
The most heated exchanges focused on the peace process with paramilitary groups and the peace and justice law pending before the Colombian Congress. Wood took issue with the argument that paramilitaries are increasing their violent, brutal, anti-democratic political influence; they had political influence through corrupt payments, intimidation, and a reservoir of wrong-headed support, but less than at their high point. He cited divisions among the paramilitary leadership and the disappearance of AUC commander Carlos Castaño as evidence of a decline in their "malign influence."
Wood addressed at length the issue of trade-offs between peace and justice, and described the Uribe government's goal in the AUC peace process as reducing violence against the innocent. He argued that the human rights debate in Colombia had shifted away from the protection of the innocent to the punishment of the guilty. "Bad guys" were going to get more out of the peace process than they deserved, he maintained, but innocent people were also likely to get from the peace process what they so desperately needed. To what degree were people willing to put peace at risk, he asked, for stricter standards of justice? Arguing that neither peace nor justice would be served perfectly in Colombia's peace process, the real question was how to find the right balance between those two goals. Wood said that he was familiar with the argument that compromise with evil promotes more evil; that position, while intellectually respectable was not pragmatically sound. All peace processes are unique in the way that the hard, difficult decisions are made, he said, and the same standards that apply to peace processes in such places as the Middle East, Sudan, Sri Lanka, and Sierra Leone should apply to Colombia. Wood predicted that most Colombian legislators would vote for the peace and justice law proposed and revised by the Uribe government.