Andres Pastrana became president of Colombia last year amid high hopes here and in Washington that he could bring an end to years of violence, drug trafficking and government red ink. But by most measures, things only have gotten worse.
Although Pastrana kept his pledge to begin negotiations to end a 40-year war with Marxist guerrillas, progress at the bargaining table has been slow. As the guerrillas battle -- and beat -- the Colombian army, drug cultivation in territory they control has continued to increase.
For the Clinton administration, Pastrana's leading foreign backer, the belief that peace was achievable and would provide a victory in Washington's drug war has descended into gloomy uncertainty. The administration continues to support the negotiations -- set to begin this week -- as the best long-term anti-drug strategy. But it largely has lost control of its Colombia policy to a small group of conservative House Republicans who charge Clinton with "coddling narco-terrorists."
The partisan feuding in Washington, according to Pastrana's government, has exacerbated Colombia's problems.
"It's very difficult for us," said a senior Colombian diplomat. "It reminds us of Central America. To make peace doable, in today's world you need the support of the United States, and the fact is that every day" the Washington policy war "draws attention away" from the peace process.
"We are the ham in the [U.S.] sandwich," said Pastrana, whose election ended years of U.S. ostracism of Colombia under his allegedly corrupt and drug-tainted predecessor, Ernesto Samper. Today, Pastrana said in a recent interview, Colombia policy has become more useful as a tool "for hitting your government than for helping or hurting our government."
Meanwhile, as Pastrana frets and Washington quarrels with itself, Colombians long used to living on the edge now fear they are about to fall off.
Cocaine production is up 28 percent, and the diversification of drug mafias into heroin has made Colombia the biggest supplier to the U.S. East Coast.
Despite its agreement to come to the negotiating table, the biggest of Colombia's three rebel groups -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC by its Spanish initials -- is bigger, richer and better armed than ever before. FARC and two smaller insurgent groups together took in an estimated $900 million in "taxes" imposed on drug traffickers for protecting cultivation zones. The rebels and the army are accused of widespread human rights abuses.
Kidnapping for ransom -- the rebels' second biggest income source -- has reached terrifying proportions, with a dozen American and many more Colombian victims this year. Many hostages have been killed, even after ransom was paid, and the State Department last month strongly warned all U.S. citizens against traveling here.
International organizations estimate that as many as a million Colombians -- a number exceeding the exodus from Kosovo -- have left their homes, fleeing the fighting or fearing reprisals from one rebel group for alleged sympathy with another.
Refugees, drug lords and warfare have begun to spill across Colombia's borders into Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Panama, threatening to destabilize the region.
Just as ominously, at least for Colombia's monied elite and sophisticated business community, the economy has gone from bad to worse. The only country in Latin America to have consistent economic growth over recent decades, Colombia this year moved into the negative column. Last month, its credit rating was downgraded in New York, making it more difficult to try to recover from a major January earthquake that decimated the main coffee-growing region.
Pastrana has met three times with FARC leaders. Negotiating teams have been named, a joint agenda established and the first negotiating session is set for Wednesday -- far more than any previous Colombian government has achieved. The rebels, he said, are tired after four decades of inconclusive fighting, and want to be part of modern Colombia.
But in the absence of tangible results from the talks, many Colombians, even among the majority who strongly support Pastrana's initiative, are worried that their president is giving up far more than he is getting.
In a bold but risky move that led to the resignation in May of his defense minister and threats of a walkout by most of the army's generals, Pastrana agreed to a FARC demand to withdraw the army from an isolated, Switzerland-size zone of south-central Colombia where the guerrillas had long prevailed.
Although the army is gone, Pastrana insisted that the government has more presence there than ever before. "Practically every senior official of the government has been there. American congressmen have even been there," including a June delegation of House staffers led by Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.).
Late last month, Pastrana persuaded Richard Grasso, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, to travel to the area to impress on FARC that without their cooperation, there may not be much of Colombia left to fight over. Grasso told reporters he had stressed "the opportunities capital markets will present to Colombia when a peace is achieved."
But FARC has rejected a cease-fire, continued fighting and done little to promote peace other than show up at the negotiating table.
"We need some kind of gesture from the guerrillas for us to start to believe" in the negotiations, said Juan Manuel Santos, an opposition leader.
Pastrana said he recognizes time is running out, and has told FARC "many times" they need to build public "confidence in the process." A useful first step, he said, would be "to pledge their respect for international humanitarian law. Give up kidnapping and terrorism -- that would be a gesture to start the talks off right."
Meanwhile, mere launching of the peace initiative with FARC appears to have made the security situation worse, as both the guerrilla National Liberation Army and a powerful right-wing paramilitary army -- originally formed by landowners to combat the guerrillas but now deeply involved in drugs and terror itself -- have stepped up operations out of what is seen here as fear they will be left out of any new political arrangement.
"I am skeptical of a Colombian peace process that results in 16,000 square miles of territory being given to narco-guerrillas, who work hand-in-hand with the world's most dangerous drug dealers," Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said Thursday in the latest of a year-long drumbeat of statements opposing the Colombian peace process.
As they continue to oppose administration policy in Colombia, Gilman, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and a few others, have instituted their own anti-drug policy. Last fall, they spearheaded an effort to triple the administration's military aid request for Colombia to $300 million -- making it the world's third largest recipient, surpassed only by Egypt and Israel.
The House Republicans have put their money on Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano, chief of the Colombian National Police and, in the words of one senior Republican aide, "the best cop in Latin America." Nearly all the additional funds were earmarked for high-tech equipment to help the police spray fungicide on the coca fields that provide the raw material for cocaine and the opium poppies used to make heroin.
While aerial fumigation is his principal weapon against drugs, Serrano also has had some success in finding and destroying the labs that process drugs for export and arresting traffickers. He is credited with dismantling the powerful Medellin and Cali drug cartels, although Serrano himself admits that as a result, the drug trade here has exploded into hundreds of smaller groups that in some ways are more difficult to crack than the big cartels.
Serrano hopes to expand his fumigation efforts this year to the high mountain areas where opium poppies are grown. The six new U.S. UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters scheduled to arrive in September thanks to congressional largess will carry more police greater distances to secure guerrilla-guarded areas and allow the spray planes to operate. Once he begins the assault against an estimated 15,000 acres of poppies, Serrano said in an interview, he should be able to eliminate them within three years.
Although the White House and the Pentagon thought sending the Black Hawks unwise, Republicans saw it as a "no-brainer" way of getting rid of all Colombian heroin in a short time, said the Republican aide.
Judging by the recent past, however, cutting narcotics production by fumigating drug crops is a Sisyphean task. According to a June 22 report prepared for Congress by the General Accounting Office, cocaine cultivation in Colombia has increased 50 percent during the past two years of intensive fumigation, as the guerrillas have expanded their areas of control and the traffickers have developed higher-yield plants.
Many Colombians -- including Pastrana -- worry about the long-term effects of spraying large amounts of poison on ever-larger swaths of Colombia's most environmentally sensitive regions. They say that without a well-financed development program to give peasant farmers another way to make a living, it is a short-term strategy at best.
For the Clinton administration, the concentration on fumigation by police as the most visible part of U.S. policy has other complications.
Because the guerrillas and their paramilitary rivals control virtually all of the drug cultivation areas, it is usually impossible to spray the fields without first battling the rebels, a job assigned to the army.
In the view of the White House and the Pentagon, the police -- no matter how many helicopters they have -- are limited in their fighting ability. By giving them ever-more sophisticated equipment, the administration says Congress is weakening the morale and fighting effectiveness of the army, and thus undermining Pastrana's bargaining position with the guerrillas and ultimately the drug war itself.
"We're not against counternarcotics," said a senior administration official. "But in the end it only works if the people in the country buy it. This is not some kind of 21st-century imperialism."
The Colombian military, according to the GAO report, "lacks a long-term strategy and effective leadership; suffers from poor morale; and has inadequate equipment, logistics, and training." Unlike the police, the army also has a long and dismal record of human rights abuses that restrict the amount of U.S. aid it can receive.
The army has been defeated in virtually every large-scale encounter with FARC, which pays its 15,000 troops three times what army conscripts make, according to U.S. and Colombian government sources.
But the Colombian government and the Pentagon maintain that only by trying to make the army better -- rather than largely ignoring or castigating it -- can both the counterinsurgency and counternarcotics battle be won. It is a problem that occupies more Pentagon attention than those anywhere else in the hemisphere -- "much of my waking and some of my sleeping hours," Marine Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm, head of the Miami-based Southern Command, said last month.
The Pentagon and the State Department note that, under Pastrana, human rights violators have been purged from the army's senior level, which they say is now committed to extending the purge down the line and punishing violations. But they acknowledge it is a slow process.
Although it is hard to quantify precisely the division of U.S. aid between the police and the Colombian military, the Pentagon estimates the ratio at 10 to 1 in favor of the police. It would like to bring the two more in balance.
For the moment, with little money and a relatively small pool of human-rights-vetted Colombian troops available, the Southern Command is training a 950-soldier counternarcotics army battalion it expects to be ready by December, and construction is nearly finished on a U.S.-funded army-police intelligence center at Tres Esquinas in southwest Colombia. Although the counternarcotics and counterinsurgency wars are sometimes difficult to tell apart, Wilhelm insists that army use of U.S. equipment and training will be restricted to known drug-producing areas.
Meanwhile, Serrano, who frequently flies to Washington to consult with Gilman and others, already has faxed his fiscal 2000 police request for $51 million in aircraft and other supplies the administration did not ask for.
Last Tuesday, a bipartisan group of House members introduced a resolution commending Pastrana's peace efforts and reaffirming U.S. support. Although Gilman declared the proposed resolution "dead on arrival" in his committee, it was seen as a step forward in the Pastrana and Clinton administrations' efforts to broaden congressional interest in Colombia.
Both governments acknowledge it is an uphill fight. A fledgling administration effort to nudge the peace process along was quickly extinguished last December, when congressional critics learned of a secret preliminary meeting between FARC representatives and a State Department official. Less than three months later, the FARC ensured there would be no further contact when they kidnapped and killed three Americans.
For now, said Pastrana's planning director, Jaime Ruiz, the administration could help Colombia return to fiscal health by supporting the government's economic initiatives and putting in a good word with the international financial community.
With the White House unwilling to invite a high-visibility partisan battle over an issue as sensitive as the drug war, there is little indication it is prepared to do more. It has argued that the stakes are high in Colombia, and that "you cannot solve this problem only by giving [the police] a bunch of guns and helicopters," in the words of the senior administration official. But as the stated goals of its policy seem ever more distant, he said, "the difference in approach between us and Congress becomes more difficult."
Colombia, wracked by drug trafficking and guerrilla activities, has continued to slip during the first year of the administration of President Andres Pastrana, who had raised hopes in the United States and Colombia for peace and economic recovery.
Foreign debt has continued to grow:
in billions of dollars
'88-93 average 17.4
'98 Aug. 32.7
'99 first quarter 33.8
The unemployment rate has increased:
'88-93 average 10%
'98 Aug. 15.2%
'99 first quarter 19.5%
Despite two years of extensive herbicide spraying, the areas of coca cultivation have grown:
in thousands of acres
X Net cultivation
Y Spraying activity
Z Coca killed
SOURCES: Colombian government, U.S. government