Washington’s War in Colombia

Washington’s War in Colombia

Driving down the gutted gravel roads of Putumayo, you can’t see the war. You could be in any rural tropical region of Latin America— the same wandering cattle that drift onto the road, the same teenage soccer teams in shiny polyester uniforms playing in roadside fields, the same swept dirt yards of tiny farms, overrun with chartreuse flowers and scrawny chickens. Only the silent testimony of occasional graffiti betrays the outward calm. Along the low concrete walls and across shuttered storefronts, spray paint shouts: “Army assassins! Guerrilla traitors! No to the gringo invasion!”

Putumayo is known best in the United States as the name of a world music record label and a high end natural fabric clothing line, but it is also the name of a river, and the state the river runs through, in southern Colombia. Stretching from the Andean foothills to the Amazon jungle along the border with Ecuador, Putumayo is a frontier province, with a history of bloodshed inspired by regional conflict and international trade (British rubber companies were active here at the turn of the century). Today the conflict is fueled by the drug trade. Peasant farmers in Putumayo grow most of Colombia’s coca—the raw material for cocaine. Though it was long a stronghold of the country’s largest and oldest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), for the past three years right wing paramilitary groups have steadily gained control of small towns under the protective wing of the Colombian armed forces. With congressional approval last spring of a huge aid package, the United States will be joining the fray, deploying three elite Colombian army battalions trained and equipped by the Pentagon.

Colombia has long been synonymous with drugs, and the dramatic violence associated with the Colombian drug cartels, is a staple of American popular culture from Miami Vice to Get Shorty. But the “war on drugs” is becoming more and more a real war, with billions of dollars in military aid, helicopters, guns, and training recently approved for the Andes, mostly Colombia. Unfortunately, this escalation of the war on drugs will not stem the drug trade, and may escalate the crime and bloodshed in the longest running internal conflict in Latin America.

By anyone’s measure, the civil war in Colombia has been going on for a long time. Land conflicts and partisan violence between the two traditional parties in the 1950s left more than two hundred thousand people dead and forced more than one million from their homes. A power sharing agreement to end the conflict maintained a formally democratic structure, but made political reform virtually impossible. Frustration with the closed political system in the 1960s and 1970s led to the explosion of guerrilla groups, most of which adopted variations of a Marxist line. Regional alliances between drug traffickers, local military commanders, and landowners unleashed a “dirty w...

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