Colombia Challenges Rebels With a New Weapon
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
SAN VICENTE DEL CAGUAN, Colombia -- Marxist rebels once ran a visitors center in this town in southern Colombia, the office staffed by a young, amiable female guerrilla and the walls decorated with huge posters of famed fighters. Rebels ran a court, built bridges and taxed locals, including the farmers who grew coca in such abundance that the region became ground zero for the war on drugs.
Those were the days when the government had ceded this town to guerrillas for disarmament negotiations, simply making official the absence of a state presence to which residents had long been accustomed.
Now, in an ambitious government program here and in 52 other towns nationwide, a multi-agency task force operated out of Bogota has built schools and roads and introduced public institutions such as courts. In essence, President Álvaro Uribe's administration is trying to create a functioning state, essential if the government is ever to erode the power of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, the country's biggest rebel group.
If expanded, the program would amount to what Colombian officials describe as a logical second phase of a U.S.-backed campaign, called Plan Colombia, that combines military offensives with aggressive aerial fumigation of coca and opium poppy crops to weaken rebels. With the U.S. Congress now in the hands of Democrats, who have promised to shift more aid from the military to social and economic programs, Colombia may be better positioned to secure funds for nation-building in regions practically devoid of any government presence.
"We have to go to the more remote areas, where we have drug trafficking and illegal groups and we have poverty," said Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos. He said the idea, one that has never been applied here, is for the military to work with the government's social action agency and other institutions to provide schools, health care and infrastructure.
"What we're doing now is aligning our efforts in a way that will allow the state to go and clear those areas and then hold those areas -- what the military calls 'clear and hold,' " Santos said. "And the hold aspect has to do with the presence of the state, of institutions different from the military. We go in with brigades of doctors, teachers, the justice system."
Here in San Vicente, symbolic because it was once in the heart of the rebel-run zone the size of Switzerland, the old visitors center run by the FARC was razed after negotiations collapsed in 2002.
Its replacement is a two-story building that houses offices offering government services and even a gymnasium for the town's 32,000 inhabitants. A block away, a new city hall is going up, joining a newly built police station and a community center. The government is nearly finished building a sprawling school and campus for 2,000 students, while three modest schools have been remodeled.
|Luis Francisco Valencia is the administrator of San Vicente del Caguan. To the left is the old city hall, destroyed by a rebel bomb. To the right, is the new city hall, which is in the process of being built. (Juan Forero)|
Observers such as Adam Isacson, a policy analyst who follows Colombian military issues for the Center for International Policy in Washington, said the nation-building plan "looks really well-conceived."
But he also said the huge scale of replicating the campaign across Colombia will be a challenge. Even government officials, while holding up the program as a sign of hope, admit it is only a small step forward for an immense country that has 1,100 towns and hundreds more unincorporated, isolated hamlets.
Colombian officials talk of spending $43 billion over the next six years as a second phase of Plan Colombia. This time, though, officials here say the vast majority will go toward economic and social programs.