The Magazine

The Colombian Miracle

How Alvaro Uribe with smart U.S. support turned the tide against drug lords and Marxist guerrillas.

Dec 14, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 13 • By MAX BOOT and RICHARD BENNET
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Bogotá

"Colombia has been the most successful nation-building exercise by the United States in this century."

U.S. ambassador William Brownfield's declaration--delivered in an office adorned, incongruously given his Texas background, with a prominent Baltimore Orioles logo--becomes no less impressive once you realize that by "this century" he is referring to a century that is less than ten years old. This is the century, after all, of Afghanistan and Iraq--wars that have consumed far more resources than the low-key commitment to Colombia involving no U.S. combat troops. But Brownfield is being modest. The progress in Colombia, which this professional diplomat has overseen not only in the past two years as ambassador but also in previous stints at the State Department, has few rivals in the annals of 20th-century nation-building either.

A decade ago Colombia was on its way to becoming a full-fledged narco-state. An article in Foreign Affairs' July/August 2000 issue written by a former Colombian minister of defense, Rafael Pardo, summarized his country's woes:

In the last 15 years, 200 bombs (half of them as large as the one used in Oklahoma City) have blown up in Colombia's cities; an entire democratic leftist political party was eliminated by right-wing paramilitaries; 4 presidential candidates, 200 judges and investigators, and half the Supreme Court's justices, 1,200 police officers, 151 journalists, and more than 300,000 ordinary Colombians have been murdered.

Andrés Pastrana, president of Colombia from 1998 to 2002, revealed the weakness of the state when in 1999 he formally ceded 42,000 square kilometers--an area the size of Switzerland--to the control of the primary insurgent group, FARC (the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). A Marxist-Leninist group founded in 1964, FARC had become one of the most powerful guerrilla armies on the planet. And it seemed to be on the verge of victory. The government in Bogotá controlled so little of its own territory that people considered it unsafe to drive out of the capital. The insurgency was fueled by drug production which made Colombia the world's largest producer of cocaine and one of the largest producers of heroin.

The idea of militarily defeating the FARC, the drug lords, and the paramilitary groups seemed farcical. Received opinion was that, as Pardo wrote, "the international community in general and the United States in particular must understand that the Colombian government's conflict with the guerrillas can be solved only through negotiations." The problem was, the guerrillas took the government's attempts to negotiate from a posture of weakness as an incitement to step up their attacks. Colombia seemed locked in a downward spiral.

The turnaround in the past decade is so dramatic as to be almost unbelievable. During a week spent in Colombia recently as guests of U.S. Southern Command, we saw nary a hint of the country that in 2000 was described by the Washington Post as being in the throes of a "comprehensive social and political breakdown." Bogotá is bustling, with a frenetic night-life playing out amid rows of chic bars and restaurants that would be at home in Manhattan. The biggest danger we encountered--aside from overindulging in artery-clogging cuisine--was chaotic traffic. Collisions aside, the fog-shrouded roads leading out of the city are so safe that they are full of locals and tourists flocking to warm-weather getaways far from the chilly heights of the capital. During a three-hour drive to the major Colombian military base at Tolemaida, the only inconvenience we encountered was road construction, part of a massive campaign to upgrade the country's infrastructure. There was no hint of what we might have seen a decade ago: illegal rebel checkpoints manned by FARC fighters intent on extracting "taxes" or kidnapping victims.

Those who might come to Colombia to experience the thrills of guerrilla war are likely to leave disappointed. In the November issue of the Atlantic, William Powers recounts that he was in search of a "bit of adrenaline" when he booked a flight to Bogotá, his "imagination awash with stereotypes--drug lord Pablo -Escobar's Medellín cartel assassinating politicians, Marxist FARC guerrillas kidnapping tourists." What he found was a capital and a country that "was a little too tranquila." His experience (and ours) confirms the validity of the new Colombian tourist slogan: "The only risk is wanting to stay."

Don't get us wrong. FARC still exists and it's still dangerous, but it has been pushed back to a few remote areas mainly near the borders with Ecuador and Venezuela, whose governments are friendly to the Marxist rebels. Its strength is down from 18,000 fighters a decade ago to fewer than 9,000 today. More and more of its cadres are deserting--3,027 last year, up from just 529 in 2002. Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was not uncommon to see 100 or more FARC fighters attacking an army base or government building. Municipalities were overrun with disturbing frequency, and even crack army units suffered military defeats. Today it is rare to see even 10 fighters massing for a single attack, and their ability to carry out more spectacular raids has been all but eliminated.

Last year was a particularly bad one for the group. At the beginning of March, Raul Reyes, one of seven members of FARC's ruling secretariat, was killed in an attack by Colombian armed forces on his base inside Ecuador. That same month, another member of the secretariat, Ivan Rios, was killed by one of his own bodyguards, who cut off Rios's hand as proof of his deed so that he could collect a $2 million reward. March ended with the death, apparently of natural causes, of FARC's senior leader and co-founder, 80-year-old Manuel Marulanda. Less than two months later, one of FARC's best-known and most ruthless commanders, "Karina" (Nelly Avila Moreno), who led the forces in the vicinity of Medellín, surrendered. Her decision to stop fighting is part of a trend: Since 2004, the number of veteran fighters--those with more than 10 years of experience in the group--leaving the battlefield has increased by a factor of 10.

The most spectacular event of 2008 occurred on July 2 when Colombian commandos disguised as guerrillas wearing Che Guevara T-shirts descended in a Russian-built helicopter into a FARC camp deep in the jungle. Pretending they were transferring hostages to another FARC facility, they took off with 15 kidnapping victims including three American contractors and former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. Operation Jaque, carried out without a shot fired, has elevated the reputation of the Colombian armed forces to new heights.

The results of many such successful operations are visible in a series of metrics prominently displayed in the U.S. embassy in Bogotá. Colombia used to be the world capital of kidnappings, but the number of victims is down from 2,882 in 2002 to 376 in 2008. Terrorist acts in the same period have fallen from 1,645 to 303. Homicides are also down dramatically: from 28,837 in 2002 to 13,632 in 2008, a 52 percent reduction. Three hundred fifty-nine Colombian soldiers and police lost their lives in battle in 2008, down from 684 in 2002.

The statistics also chart progress in the closely related war on drugs. Between 2002 and 2008, the total hectares of cocaine eradicated rose from 133,127 to 229,227; tons of cocaine seized rose from 105.1 to 245.5; and the number of drug labs seized rose from 1,448 to 3,667. All statistics on narcotics production are hard to gather and therefore suspect, but the latest indications are that last year cocaine production in Colombia fell by 40 percent.

While the illicit economy was taking a severe hit, normal economic activity has been soaring. Although Colombia's GDP grew by only 2.4 percent in 2008 as a result of the worldwide slowdown, it grew almost 8 percent in 2007, up from less than 2 percent in 2002. Unemployment is still high at 11.1 percent, but considerably lower than in 2002 when it was 15.7 percent. Analysts attribute most of that growth to a more secure environment which encourages investment and discourages capital outflows. To put it another way, Colombians now think their country has a future worth investing in.

What accounts for this dramatic turnaround? And what lessons might Colombia offer for other countries, from Afghanistan to Mexico, now facing severe problems of their own with narcotics-fueled violence?

In hindsight it is apparent that the turnaround began in 2000, when the U.S. Congress approved $1.3 billion in military aid as part of Plan Colombia, a comprehensive aid agreement worked out between the administrations of Andrés Pastrana and Bill Clinton. The aid package--by now nearing a cumulative $7 billion--ran into criticism initially from members of Congress worried about the potential for U.S. forces' getting involved in a hopeless counterinsurgency. Vietnam analogies flew fast and furious in Washington while the bill was debated. To assuage congressional concerns, the number of U.S. military personnel allowed into Colombia at any one time was strictly limited. (The original cap was 500, later raised to 800--more than proved necessary.) In addition, Colombian personnel with a history of human-rights violations were barred from U.S. training, and the focus of aid efforts was counternarcotics. Thus the United States bought helicopters for Colombia's armed forces and trained Colombian troops but insisted they be used against drug growers and traffickers, not against insurgents. The U.S. government employed contractors (including three who were shot down in 2003 and released as part of Operation Jaque) to spray herbicide on coca crops.

That narrow focus on the drug problem proved counterproductive. In Colombia, as elsewhere, you cannot separate criminals from insurgents; the two types of lawbreakers are closely connected. FARC in many ways has become as much about drug trafficking as about its ostensible ideological objectives. Without eliminating the group's influence and establishing the government's authority at ground level, it proved impossible to eliminate coca crops. Fields that were sprayed could simply be replanted. "Flying over with sprayer aircraft will not solve problems unless you have institutions of the state present to do follow-up," a U.S. diplomat in Bogotá told us. That doesn't mean antidrug efforts are useless; only that they must be integrated in a larger campaign plan.

The big breakthrough in Colombia came in 2002 with the election of Alvaro Uribe, a former senator and mayor of Medellín who instituted a wide-ranging campaign against drug traffickers, insurgents, and paramilitaries--all the groups threatening the authority of the state. That same year, following the 9/11 attacks, Congress eased the restrictions on Plan Colombia, allowing more U.S. forces into the country and allowing them to work not only against drug traffickers but also against terrorist groups such as FARC.

Uribe's strategy was known as "Democratic Security." Its thrust is laid out in a document posted on the website of the Colombian Ministry of National Defense, which says that under the constitution the armed forces have a duty "to protect the life, honor, property, beliefs, and other rights and freedoms of all persons resident within Colombia." The strategy notes that "without security there is no guarantee of the right to life and physical integrity, and without those rights, there is no basis for the enjoying of other rights."

That may sound like political boilerplate, but in Colombia this pledge had serious repercussions. It meant that the government would no longer be content to cede any of its territory to insurgents and narcotics traffickers, and that from now on the Colombian security forces would work to safeguard the rights of all the people--even campesinos (poor farmers), whose safety had never been uppermost in the minds of the Bogotá elites. Colombia is a vast country, with more than a million square kilometers of territory--as big as France, Spain, and Portugal combined. The state has never had the ability to police and govern so large an area. Much as in America's Wild West, warlords and thugs traditionally filled the vacuum. No longer. "The security of Colombian citizens will be reestablished in accordance with the law, within a democratic framework, which in its turn will become stronger as greater security is guaranteed," Uribe promised, and he has been as good as his word.

U.S. aid helped behind the scenes. Ambassador Brownfield stresses that "one of the reasons we've been successful is we haven't been claiming too much credit, ensuring that Colombians were in the lead." That's fitting in a country like Colombia that has a long history of democracy and had a functioning state even at the height of its insurgency. The situation is different in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan where the United States overthrew governments and had to start from scratch in building new ones.

With a full-fledged partner in Bogotá, Washington has been able to confine its assistance to offering those things that Uribe's government couldn't do for itself. It could not, for example, afford to buy helicopters needed to penetrate the most remote jungle and mountain areas where guerrillas and drug traffickers hide. So the United States helped provide more than 250 Black Hawk, Huey, and Mi-17 helicopters. But Uribe was not a passive recipient of foreign largesse. He levied extra taxes on Colombia's wealthiest citizens to pay for a substantial beefing up of the security forces. Defense spending soared from $2 billion in 2000 to $5.5 billion today, enabling the armed forces to grow from 153,000 personnel to 270,000 in a country of 45 million.

Within that total, there has been an emphasis on increasing the number of professional soldiers, who make up the mobile striking forces of the Colombian military. The most capable of all are the Special Operations Forces, which are trained by American Green Berets. We saw some of their troops practicing assaults on buildings and insertions by parachute at Tolemaida, which the American trainers call the Fort Benning of Colombia. Conscripts who are not as well trained or equipped are relegated to service in territorial units providing security in their home areas. The armed forces have become among the best in Latin America, and arguably the best jungle fighters anywhere. They are so tactically proficient that their need for American assistance has been reduced. At Tolemaida's air strip, for instance, we saw how the Colombians are developing the capacity to repair their own helicopters to include the upkeep of ultra-sophisticated avionics possessed by few other nations. The relationship with the United States, one American trainer tells us, "is not a parental relationship--it's a relationship of partners." To give something back to their American partners, the Colombians are preparing to deploy troops to Afghanistan.

The police have also grown in size and effectiveness, their total increasing from 95,000 in 2000 to 136,000 today. Since 2002, the government has opened 168 new police stations and 146 substations, while increasing the capacity of the Colombian National Police, including its highly capable commando team, the Junglas. Along with the expansion of the security forces there has been an expansion and streamlining of the legal system. The time needed to process the average criminal case has fallen by 80 percent, and the conviction rate has risen from 3 percent to 60 percent.

Colombia's success is not just a question of resources but of how they are employed. In the past the government emphasized going after FARC's leaders and the source of its financing--coca fields and labs. Such "enemy-centric" counterinsurgency strategies have failed time after time, and Colombia was no exception. What worked here was the same strategy that has worked recently in Iraq and can work in Afghanistan: a population-centric strategy that is based upon providing round-the-clock security so that people feel safe from insurgent intimidation. That, in turn, leads to the collection of better intelligence on the insurgents.

In the past, the Colombian armed forces would sweep through an area, staying only a few weeks. When they left, the insurgents returned and eliminated anyone they deemed a collaborator. The U.S. armed forces in Iraq made the same mistake between 2003 and 2007. Only with the "surge" of 2007 did the U.S. troops concentrate on holding terrain and protecting the population. Uribe instituted the same shift in Colombia, and he did so earlier. The police and army were now committed to staying and garrisoning every area that they liberated. To borrow the parlance of Iraq and Afghanistan, they moved from "clear" operations to "clear, hold, and build." Drug-eradication operations have become more effective now that narco-traffickers cannot return to areas that are effectively policed.

The progress of this campaign can be tracked on a map generated by the U.S. embassy showing which parts of Colombia are fully or partly controlled by the government and which are effectively controlled by nonstate actors. In 2000, almost the entire country is shaded orange (partly controlled by the government) or red (controlled by nonstate actors). The only tiny swath of green (fully controlled by the government) shows Bogotá itself, and even that may have been an exaggeration. By 2008, most of the country is either green or orange; only a few tiny patches of red remain.

Another way to show the same progress is by noting that in 2000, 199 of Colombia's municipalities had elected mayors who were afraid to report to work. Today all 1,099 municipalities have resident mayors--and resident security forces. The government is pursuing a coordinated program to further increase the level of its presence and services in the areas where guerrillas have traditionally found safe haven--a "whole of government" approach that echoes successful counterinsurgency practice from Malaya and Northern Ireland to Iraq.

As in those other conflicts, the Colombian security forces have not concentrated on killing insurgents. They are determined to capture as many as possible and to spur the defection of still others, because they know that live rebels have more intelligence and propaganda value than do corpses. Uribe has strenuously emphasized respect for human rights. This is not only a moral necessity but an operational one: If the army is no longer seen as a killing machine, peasants are more likely to cooperate and guerrillas are less likely to fight to the death. "We respect human rights," one Colombian army colonel told us, "and that gives us legitimacy in the eyes of the populace and the international community."

There are still some abuses. Recent headlines reported illegal wiretapping by the Colombian intelligence service, the DAS, and the deaths of some innocent civilians who were designated guerrillas ex post facto by the security forces in what has become known as the "false positives" scandal. But there is no doubt that the human-rights record of the Colombian military has gotten a lot better and that malefactors who are caught today are punished. No longer are the armed forces associated with shadowy right-wing paramilitaries; those groups, 30,000 strong, agreed to disband in 2003 when it became clear that the military would take on the task of protecting the population. Corruption remains a problem (as it does in the United States, for that matter), but it has been greatly reduced. Once thought to be a crippling woe, it no longer stands in the way of progress.

One of Uribe's signature initiatives is known by its acronym, PAHD (Programa de Atención Humanitaria al Desmovilizado, Program for Humanitarian Care for the Demobilized Combatant). This offers rebels the possibility of amnesty or reduced sentences if they surrender, provided they have not committed "massacres" or other "crimes against humanity." Run-of-the-mill FARC fighters and even leaders can receive free medical care and mental treatment, housing, and clothing, along with educational and vocational opportunities, to help them reintegrate into society after years living in the jungle. Since 2002, more than 20,000 former fighters have entered the program.

We met two of them--a slight, shy, dark-haired woman and her boyfriend, a short man with a wispy mustache and slight pompadour wearing a black down vest over blue jeans. They told us their names are Dario and Nativity, and they left the FARC in September. Dario is not yet 30, but he is already a hardened veteran of 16 years of fighting. Starting as a 13-year-old recruit in 1993, this third-grade dropout had risen to deputy head of the Abelardo Romero Front, one of the FARC's basic units of organization, with more than 60 well-armed guerrillas under his command. Along the way he had met Nativity, who was just 16 when she dropped out of school in 2005 and ran away to a FARC base in the jungle to be with Dario.

Dario told us that life was good for FARC until 2002--the year that Uribe came to power and that marked the end of FARC's sanctuary in the Zona de Despeje (demilitarized zone). He said that the governmental "blockade" made it difficult for the guerrillas to obtain food, clothing, medications, and weapons. They had to undergo food rationing and stay constantly on the move to avoid detection. "We spent no more than two days in one camp," Dario said, adding that they did not have enough time to plan offensive operations.

FARC keeps a strict eye on members to prevent defections under such trying conditions. Anyone whose loyalty is suspect is court-martialed by a revolutionary tribunal and usually sentenced to death. But Dario, like many other guerrillas, owned a small radio to which he was able to listen clandestinely and thereby learn of the government's rewards for "demobilizers." While on an intelligence-collection mission in civilian clothes, he sent away the other members of his unit on various errands, enabling Nativity and him to walk into a military base. Now, he told us, "I just want to recoup my lost life." Nativity is pregnant, and he is looking forward to working in construction and becoming a "family man."

Many more would join Dario in defecting were it not for the intimidation practiced by the FARC leadership and the support they receive from outside sources. "We can annihilate them while they are in our country," one National Police officer told us. "Unfortunately they seek refuge in other countries." FARC has found a particularly important sanctuary in Venezuela, where Hugo Chávez offers them not only bases and contacts with the outside world but also medical care, arms, intelligence, money, and other support. The Colombian armed forces are especially worried that, through Chávez's good graces, FARC may be acquiring portable antiaircraft missiles that could negate their helicopters.

One government minister we spoke with in Bogotá asked us to imagine what would have happened in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s if the IRA, after years of setbacks, had suddenly received a lifeline from Dublin. That did not happen, of course, and the result was the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which led to the demobilization of the IRA. No such peace accord is likely in Colombia, the -minister -suggested, until Venezuela ends its support for FARC. That, in turn, will probably require a change of regime in Venezuela or at least more outside pressure on Chávez.

There is considerable cause to doubt whether President Obama--last seen exchanging a smile and a handshake with Chávez at a Latin American summit in April--will be willing or able to apply any such pressure. Colombia was a major priority for President Bush who enjoyed a close relationship with Alvaro Uribe. No such warmth is evident from Obama, who has opposed the U.S.-Colombia free trade accord, signed in 2006 but still unratified by the Senate amid labor union opposition.

The good news is that Colombia's progress is so far advanced that even a lessening of American support probably would not unravel what has been achieved. The key variable now, one Colombian official told us, is: "How quickly can we move to occupy space and consolidate territorial control?" That is the task confronting whoever wins Colombia's presidential election next year. Uribe has taken steps toward running for an unprecedented third term, which would require amending the constitution. But even if he decides not to run, the odds are that whoever wins will continue the policies responsible for what should be known as the Colombian Miracle.

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD. Richard Bennet is a research associate in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.