c o m m e n t a r
Shades of Gray
In Colombia, U.S. must not turn a blind eye to corruption,
abuses of authority
by Lynn Holland | March 1, 2002
As a result of the United State’s new "War on Terrorism," Colombia’s bloody civil war has finally entered the limelight of international attention after spending thirty-eight years in the shadows.
The events of 9-11 have permitted the Bush Administration to paint U.S.
foreign policy as a matter of black and white choices. But Colombia’s
internecine conflict—and the role the United States is to play in
that conflict—make for a study in shades of gray.
Consider, for example, the February 25 abduction of Colombian presidential
candidate and political reformer, Ingrid Betancourt, by Revolutionary
Armed Front of Colombia (FARC) rebel forces.
Betancourt’s kidnapping serves as a reminder: Whatever the pros or cons
of increasing military aid to the government of Andrés Pastrana,
alongside that increased aid the United States must also increase pressure
on Colombia’s leaders to tackle their country’s appalling human rights
record, endemic official corruption, and drug trafficking by military
and government elites.
Frustrated by an increase in rebel violence in recent months and emboldened
by the post 9-11 intolerance for armed struggle, President Andrés
Pastrana recently broke off an unsuccessful three-year peace process with
the FARC and ordered the Colombian military to retake territory earlier
ceded to the rebels. In this and other military operations, his government
is backed by an annual $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid.
As part of the plan to take control, government officials entered San
Vicente, which until recently served as the capital city of the rebel
territory. A number of presidential candidates, preparing for a first
round of elections in late May, offered to join Pastrana ‘s excursion
but were warned to stay away. Betancourt, having planned a human rights
rally in San Vicente, made arrangements to make the trip by helicopter,
but when she arrived in Florencia, outside of the rebel area, no helicopter
was available. She and her assistants were then refused open seats on
the President’s helicopter (which was also carrying a number of foreign
journalists to San Vicente to hear speeches). Betancourt and her group
decided to travel to San Vicente by car instead, and were abducted along
A former representative and senator in Colombia, Betancourt has been
a staunch critic of the rebels and their links to the drug trade. Yet
she has been equally critical of corruption in government. As a reformer,
she has called attention to the connection between the ruling parties
and the billion-dollar drug cartels, and to how persistent corruption
in the judicial system and public administration has locked Colombians
in a spiral of poverty and crime.
Betancourt has also asked tough questions about what will happen to villagers
residing in the FARC zone once the rebels pull out. These villagers have
repeatedly voiced their terror of reprisals from the paramilitary "death"
squads should the Colombian military enter the zone. In January, I talked
online with Betancourt about this. When I asked if there was a policy
on how these people would be protected, she replied that the government
had offered "no guarantee that the people will be protected as the
Colombia’s anti-insurgent paramilitaries, as human rights watchers have
amply documented, are a big part of the problem of providing for the safety
of civilians. They have long operated as an extension of the military,
and have been blamed for more than half of the 40,000 civilian deaths
reported in Colombia over the past decade. They receive as much as 70%
of their funding from drug trafficking, and also benefit from up-to-date
intelligence and supplies provided by Colombia’s regular military services.
With the most recent installment of military aid to Colombia—$300
million—the U.S. Congress has demanded that the Pastrana government
cut all ties to the paramilitary organizations and vigorously prosecute
human rights violations by the armed forces.
The fulfillment of this demand will require active monitoring of paramilitary
activity and plenty of American pressure on Colombian officials. Instead,
Pastrana has cut the budgets of government agencies charged with investigating
human rights cases and has failed to prosecute members of the military
for assisting paramilitary violence.
Some have accused Ingrid Betancourt of grandstanding in the rebel zone
to bolster her standing in the polls. Her decision to visit the area,
however, should be viewed in light of Pastrana’s abysmal record on protecting
human rights and his lack of guarantees to protect civilians in the rebel
zone. She hoped to reassure frightened villagers and draw attention to
human rights problems in the region, intentions that made Betancourt—like
thousands of human rights activists before her—a target of extremists
on both the left and right in Colombia.
Her abduction, in turn, serves as a reminder that in Colombia there is
little that is black and white, and much that is gray.
In addition to encouraging every effort to find Betancourt, the Bush
Administration should move beyond rhetoric towards exacting compliance
with restrictions that U.S. aid to Colombia be tied to the protection
of human rights, the prosecution of those who commit them, and an end
to corruption in government, including drug trafficking by officials.
Now more than ever, without increased pressure for political and social
reform from Washington, Betancourt’s dream of a safe and democratic society
for Colombians will remain an illusion.
Dr. Lynn Holland is a professor of political science at the University
of Colorado at Denver.
Published by the Americas
Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC). ©2002. All
Lynn Holland "Shades of Gray," Americas Program Commentary (Silver
City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, March 1, 2002).