Last Updated:12/13/01
Ricardo Vargas: "The New Global Era," December 2001

The new global era: threats and impacts for Colombia

                                                                                    Ricardo Vargas M.

                                                                                    TNI – Acción Andina

“Global terrorism” is a loaded term that both hides realities and legitimizes policy decisions. In fact, those decisions are often pre-determined by the term’s very use.

To begin with, it hides the political motivations behind dramatic acts of terror. Global terrorism is so shocking that it causes most to ignore the particularities of the conflicts that engender it – conflicts which generally involve multiple actors, dissimilar positions and in general a complexity of relations. The term has a sense of “the present” that ignores historical trajectories. Time is thrown out of order. The present is put forth as rational: what exists is the culmination of what reason has built, and thus is unavoidably acceptable and unassailably legitimate. Its mutation into an immediate threat to the status quo makes it synonymous with danger and insecurity. Generally the concept of “terror” reflects a sense that what is at stake is the survival of the free or civilized world.[1]

It also confuses a means of irregular war, “terror,” with an end in itself. It gives the appearance that there are no fundamental causes of conflict: what exist are terrorists, agents of insecurity, terrorist sanctuaries. This connotation makes the world of conflicts dangerously homogeneous: the complexity of the Islamic world reduced to the expression of terrorism could make it seem comparable to the situations of Ireland or Colombia. Conflicts resemble each other not in their political or military nature, but in their potential to generate terror and insecurity. It is in that context that the use of force superimposes itself, regaining legitimacy as the new consensus solution.

In the very first reactions to the September 11 terrorist attack, Henry Kissinger immediately called attention to some of the operation’s characteristics:

“An attack such as yesterday's requires systematic planning, a good organization, a lot of money and a base.”[2]

Immediately afterward, Kissinger describes the attack in terms of strategic objectives:

“This, however, is an attack on the territorial United States, which is a threat to our social way of life and to our existence as a free society. It therefore has to be dealt with in a different way -- with an attack on the system that produces it … and by the terrorist system I mean those parts of it that are organized on a global basis and can operate by synchronized means.”[3]

Kissinger recommends the immediate reaction necessary to send a strong message to those who acted on the eleventh or are considering something similar, but this is not his main point. He is more interested in the structural changes that he sees as necessary to fill this serious security vacuum; one of the first of these changes, he writes, will be to restore intelligence agencies’ political privileges and immunity, beginning with the CIA and its undercover agents.

Consequences for Colombia

Under purely numerical terms, Colombia is the country in this hemisphere with the most terrorist organizations and, as such, serves as a frequently cited example of a key zone of insecurity outside Central Asia.

In the case of the FARC, a contradictory situation exists within the framework of U.S.-Colombian relations. In effect, the Colombian government, by agreeing to pursue a peace process to resolve the armed conflict, has essentially granted the FARC a very definite political status, that of a guerrilla group. In addition, it has downplayed accusations of the FARC’s ties to narcotrafficking, a very controversial move – though the UN Drug Control Program, among others, has insisted that the FARC are not a drug cartel.

The United States and Colombia

Meanwhile U.S. authorities have emphasized at various levels the FARC’s resemblance to a criminal organization, citing an increasing lack of reasons to consider the group political. In addition, with the group’s presence on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations and especially after its 1999 murder of three U.S. citizens, the FARC has been more completely confirmed to be Washington’s enemy. To this are added several episodes related to the export of drugs, which further compromise the organization’s political status.

On the other hand, Washington has recognized the Colombian government’s peace negotiations at the same time that it has supported a strengthening of the armed forces and carried out operations – in the name of fighting drugs – that have had repercussions on the peace conversations. This dichotomy, cited by the Rand Corporation among others, seems to bring us to a defining moment under the new security paradigm that has begun to develop.[4]

A few days before Colin Powell’s planned September 11 visit to Bogotá, the secretary confirmed his support for both the peace process and Plan Colombia. But he also indicated his concerns about the FARC’s use of its demilitarized zone and relationship with the IRA.

The IRA episode has more connotations than may appear at first sight. Contrary to expectations, instead of worsening perceptions of the FARC on Capitol Hill, the result was exactly the opposite: the blow to prestige was suffered by the IRA, which had seen its terrorist status lifted in order to facilitate Ireland’s peace talks. The episode affected the Irish talks, given revelations of the IRA’s relations with a group that, in the words of U.S. Congressman William Delahunt, “is currently on the blacklist and finances itself with kidnapping and narcotrafficking.”[5]

Shortly before September 11, the International Relations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives was planning to hold hearings to investigate the presumed ties between the IRA and Colombian guerrillas. Repercussions were expected for the support that U.S. political sectors had given to the Irish negotiations.

It is worth indicating that news of the much-questioned relations between the two armed groups, since eclipsed by the terrorist acts of September 11, was the result of intelligence operations made possible through the use of U.S. systems intended to detect coca cultivation in Colombia:

“[I]ntelligence services’ alarms went off several months ago, when one of the radar planes that habitually overfly Colombian soil to confirm advances in the coca eradication processes photographed an unusual explosion in the demilitarized zone controlled by the FARC. This led the authorities to suspect the presence of foreign terrorists on Colombian soil.”[6]

As a result of September 11, how much change will occur in Washington’s rather ambivalent approach to Colombia? In practical terms, what measures will be taken and how will they impact Colombia’s conflict?

There are two ways to interpret the Colombian case in light of the new paradigm. In the first place is the perspective expressed by the deputy assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, which differentiates among armed groups according to their profile, using the concept of “Terrorist Groups with Global Reach” (TGGR).

In light of this concept, different organizations represent different levels of threat to U.S. national security. In this sense, Colombian groups are not in principle comparable to the most radical Islamic groups, as measured by strategic objectives, ability to operate in the United States, and perceived danger. To this is added the U.S. government’s commitment to respect the political character President Pastrana lent Colombia’s insurgent organizations when the peace strategy began in August 1998.

However, the approach represented by the State Department official could change. Colombian groups’ behavior could bring them closer or further from the status of TGGR.

A second sector, strongly influenced by the Department of Defense and the U.S. Embassy in Colombia, indicates the terrorist nature of Colombian armed groups in an undifferentiated way. It also emphasizes the role of narco-trafficking as a financial base of these groups, and argues for a continuation of the current counter-narcotics strategy in which “the cornerstone of Plan Colombia is the eradication of illegal crops.”[7] This approach claims a double justification of the current anti-drug policy: as a strategy of supply reduction and as an attack on a main source of financing for groups classified as terrorists.

The new context has revealed the true nature of the aid approved by the United States in 2000, proving correct those who warned of the counter-insurgent character of the counter-drug aid. In Ambassador Patterson’s words, “Plan Colombia is still the most effective anti-terrorist strategy we could design.”[8]

Additionally, U.S. Embassy announcements about the design of a new bilateral anti-terrorist strategy have indicated three high-priority issues:

1.      Improvement of the Colombian government’s law-enforcement capacity. The main element in this area is the fight against kidnapping, through the strengthening of specialized units which will receive training, equipment and strengthened intelligence capabilities.

2.      An effort to strengthen the Police, the armed forces, and the Chief Prosecutor’s office (Fiscalía) in such areas as explosives detection, intelligence collection and anti-terrorist investigations.

3.      Improvements to protection of infrastructure and roads.

The U.S. Embassy’s criticisms of the situation in the demilitarized zone, which continue the repeated criticisms of Randy Beers regarding the Caguán peace talks, complement the longstanding interpretation of the FARC as narco-traffickers, casting doubt on the group’s political status.

“My government is also quite worried about the use of the demilitarized zone as a base for terrorist acts. The presence of foreigners with links to terrorist groups is especially troubling. For this reason we applaud and support President Pastrana’s application of improved controls over the demilitarized zone. … The United States has to do more to combat terrorism in Colombia.”[9]

The definition of this new danger will determine the policy changes that get made. How far will this definition go? More than clear definitions of the phenomenon, the choice at hand is the already existing classification of dozens of organizations worldwide as “terrorist groups.”

The suspicions of IRA activities in the demilitarized zone reaffirm the phenomenon’s global connotation and can lead to these ties’ characterization as a system – using the terminology of Henry Kissinger – and, as such, to efforts to destroy them.

The political forces favoring a military solution in Colombia, along with sectors of the state security forces, quickly grasped the transcendence of the changes in the world’s perception, and immediately sought to capitalize on the new anti-terrorist movement. They seek to build international alliances against the insurgent groups, which the Department of State has already classified as terrorists.

In fact, on September 16 a full-page advertisement appeared in Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper, in which eight pictures of rural towns destroyed by the FARC surround a photograph of the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York.[10]

These circumstances call into question the fate of the demilitarized zone in the short term, and that of the peace process in the medium term. The deterioration in the legitimacy of the process is worrisome. With regard to the ELN, it is reasonable not to expect serious talks to continue until the next presidential term. In the case of the FARC, the situation is characterized by increasing advocacy of the use of force, pushed by business groups and the security forces. Support for force is also growing among sectors of the Congress, especially in light of the kidnapping of several legislators. Meanwhile, candidates for the 2002 elections seem increasingly disposed “to follow where things may lead,” with the exception of those on the democratic left.

The new international context is pushing a change in posture toward the Colombian process, in the direction of the recommendations of the Rand Corporation. In particular, these include a clear commitment to support the armed forces, without the constraints of the drug war, but instead with an eye to the danger that a regionalization of the Colombian armed conflict could represent.

The change in global security circumstances strengthens this think tank’s recommendations, but does not mean that justifications for the drug war will be abandoned. The atmosphere in the U.S. Congress broadly favors less negotiation and more use of force in the Colombian case. Colombia, after all, typifies the two most sensitive situations in the current global context: drugs and terrorism, both seen as international networks due to the many contacts and relationships that are so frequently alleged.

Effects of the new context

One of the first results of the intersection between the new international paradigm and the crisis of the Colombian peace process[11] was the establishment of control measures, including military overflights, around the zone where talks are occurring. The FARC challenged the government’s security methods, viewing them as an expression of the loss of conditions of trust, and viewing the zone as useless with them in place. The FARC’s leadership in fact made that clear in a November 8 communiqué, which ended with an offer to formalize the return of the chief towns of the demilitarized zone.

The document reflects very well the level of the crisis in which the process finds itself. To some degree, it was the result of a thorough reflection that the FARC’s Southern and Eastern blocs performed on the current situation of the talks. The arguments of the FARC rest primarily on a rejection of the controls around the zone, which in their view and considering the human rights record of the state security forces, the levels of degradation of the war and the absence of a policy against paramilitarism, bring the talks very close to their breaking point.

Those who favor all-out war hope to bring the process to such a level of polarization that it can produce a strategic gain, with possible international support, allowing a reversal of the correlation of forces that had favored the FARC when the talks began. For its part the FARC, through its practices, has provided a basis to legitimize arguments in favor of this strategy. At the same time, the systematic kidnappings of citizens of Germany, Japan and Mexico have taken the armed group’s international isolation to new levels.

To this situation is added the pronouncement of the ambassador of Great Britain regarding the Colombian guerrillas’ terrorist status, affirming his government’s commitment to seize guerrilla resources in the United Kingdom financial system, an act of diplomatic policy that has no precedent in Colombia.

Complementarily, the perceived illegitimacy of Pastrana’s peace process has generated a consensus within a broad sector of the Liberal Party, which seeks to avoid "endorsing" the process, allowing a possible Liberal administration to start over.

Implications for civil society

One of the most serious consequences of the new context is the worsening of the humanitarian crisis in Colombia. The cost to the civilian population will increase as the strategy increases polarization to such levels that the FARC is obliged to respond with extreme harshness (surely using methods that will be described as terrorist) in order to gain more political space on the international front. At the same time, polarization will help hide the great responsibility of the security forces for serious human rights violations and practices that de-legitimize the rule of law.

The pronouncements of Colombia’s Ministry of Justice and Prosecutor General (Fiscalía) in response to the serious accusations of the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders are a pathetic example of the state authorities’ level of responsibility in the humanitarian crisis and disdain for preserving the rule of law.[12] In this new context it is easy to envision stonewalling and resort to extra-legal maneuvers in response to eventual demands for state responsibility, which will necessarily emerge in an atmosphere of total confrontation.

Paradoxically, the new antiterrorist strategy, as well as what was the anti-drug component of Plan Colombia, will not deal blows to drug trafficking. In fact, the opposite will happen. The compulsive emphasis on eradicating illicit crops and the characterization of guerrillas as narcoterrorists are two ideal arguments to pursue if narco-traffickers – above all those who have already legalized their capital in Colombia and in different parts of the world – are to keep enjoying their accumulated resources. One of the big winners in Colombia’s privatized counter-insurgency model is once again able to hide itself – this time under the spectacular umbrella of fumigating illicit crops and fighting for freedom against terrorist groups.[13]

Among the most important consequences for the international community are signals that Colombia’s peace process is in crisis due to the exhaustion of a bilateral model that overwhelmed the capacities of both the state and the guerrillas. Neither side represents the manifold and complex interests within Colombian society. Only the creation of new political spaces and forms of representation – different from the traditional political parties – expressing in a new way the sectors of society that seek a political solution to the conflict, can save the stability of the few democratic spaces that Colombian society has managed to obtain. Only these new spaces and forms will make it possible to build a more secure future than that offered by the forces that favor war. The international community must understand this, if it is to know where to direct its aid and cooperation in Colombia.

[1] The concept of terrorism is limited in its definition and varies according to historical circumstances. In the Southern Cone, we saw one of the most notorious and dramatic cases of “state terrorism.”  Ofr a historical perspective and conceptual treatment see Bruce Hoffman, “A mano armada. Historia del Terrorismo,” Espasa Calpe, 1999, Madrid.

[2] Kissinger, H. “Destroy the Network” in The Washington Post, Sept. 12, 2001, Washington. However, according to the Wall Street Journal, it is false that the September 11 attack would involve large sums of money. Citing a CIA agent, it indicated that “This costs a lot less than people think. The truth is, bin Laden doesn't have to have any money to be able to do things like this,” according to Milton Bearden, a secret agent for 30 years. See “Frustrada lucha contra el bolsillo terrorista,” The Wall Street Journal Americas edition, El Tiempo, Sept. 20, 2001, Bogota.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See Rand Corporation, “Colombian Labyrinth,” 2001 <http://www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR1339/>. The document is weak in its analysis of Colombia’s armed actors. Its inconsistencies are rooted in:

1.        An insufficient characterization of the self-defense groups, a vacuum in qualitative analyses and the nearly exclusive use of statistical data which, while important to a “broad” vision of the conflict, do not support a good analysis of – among other things – the actors’ nature. As a consequence, for example, references to the self-defense groups center on descriptions of their history without measuring qualitative dynamics.

2.        The same happens with the guerrillas. To externalize the drug factor or reduce it to the debate about whether they are guerrillas or narcoguerrillas, leads to the same dead end.

[5] See “EU investigará nexos FARC-IRA” in El Tiempo, September 11, 2001, Bogotá. Also, “15 hombres del IRA en el Caguán” in El Espectador, September 16, 2001, page E2, Bogotá.

[6] El Espectador September 16, 2001, op. cit.

[7] Ambassador Ann Patterson, “Las nuevas relaciones entre Estados Unidos y Colombia” in La Revista de El Espectador, November 4, 2001, Bogotá.

[8] Ibid. Italics added.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The dramatic scenes seeking to make the acts appear equivalent were accompanied by the following message: “Terrorism knows no limits. … It also knows no nationality, borders, ethnicities, languages, religious beliefs or genders. In the last three years the terrorists of the FARC, ELN and self-defense groups (sic) have destroyed 161 campesino populations in Colombia, killed 5,274 defenseless citizens and have kidnapped 8,983 people. Enemies of Humanity.”

[11] The murder of Consuelo Araújo in the context of her kidnapping by the FARC, the incident of candidate Horacio Serpa in the demilitarized zone in which the FARC did not let him enter, alleging a lack of conditions to guarantee his safety, and the denunciations in the Colombian Senate of criminal acts in the demilitarized zone have been capitalized upon by those who have questioned the peace process.

[12] The hardening of the position in favor of force is also a mechanism to hide the political repercussions of one of the poorest performances in the life of the republic – that of Minister of Justice Rómulo González in the management of the prison system. The same will happen with the Prosecutor General’s maneuvers in favor of those accused of ties with paramilitarism. With these examples of who “leads” key areas of Colombian justice, the panorama for Colombian civil society could not be bleaker.

[13] For this reason President Pastrana’s proposal to include narco-traffickers on the list of terrorist groups, made at the November 2001 UN meeting in New York, is nothing if not comical.

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