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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"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."