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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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?