From the September 1999 Trumpet Print Edition

A decades-old feud between the Colombian government and guerrilla insurgents has recently escalated.

The two main rebel groups, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (farc) and Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (eln), have both grown in number and strength in the past decade—the farc to about 15,000 and the eln to 5,000. The rebels have consistently overcome the Colombian military in the country’s eastern jungles and control about 40 percent of the countryside, although the government has maintained control of the mountain and coastal cities.

“A Pentagon report last year indicated that the guerrillas had become so strong that they could seize power by force within five years and were a threat to regional stability” (Intelligence Digest, Aug. 6-20).

Recent events altered this scenario when the Colombian army gained two decisive victories over farc guerrillas. These were largely attributed to intelligence gained through the use of U.S. military technology. But increased U.S. involvement in Colombia’s war against drugs and guerrillas, even in light of the recent victories, has brought to the fore a number of new dilemmas.

When Colombian President Andres Pastrana took office last year, he vowed to fight drug trafficking and negotiate an end to the country’s 35-year-old civil war. As a good will gesture, he ordered the evacuation of the military from a part of Colombia the size of Switzerland and awaited the withdrawal of rebel troops within the negotiated 90-day time frame.

Not only did the hoped-for withdrawal never happen, but the area has since been occupied by farc forces and turned into a drug-producing haven. Guerrilla violence against civilians has intensified significantly since peace talks began. As things stand, Colombia has a million internal refugees as a result of guerrilla violence.

Pastrana is following an “accommodation” policy of negotiation which leaves him with few viable options for dealing with these insurgents.

It is clear that he cannot defeat both the farc and the eln without major U.S. assistance and direct intervention. Colombia is already the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid; a $289 million package for Bogota was approved last October, with more on the table. And by December the U.S. Special Forces will have finished training a special anti-narcotics battalion of the Colombian army.

U.S. policy officially pledges U.S. support for Colombia’s war against drugs, but not against its guerrilla movements. However, the rebel movement once fueled by Marxist ideology is now charged with involvement in the narcotics industry and is bankrolled by an estimated $600 million worth of drug money annually, giving rise to the term “narco-guerrilla.”

This merging of terrorism with the international drug trade raises new questions about the implications for the peace process and the extent of U.S. involvement in Colombia.

Pastrana would like to negotiate a peace settlement with the farc, even at the expense of ceding control of parts of the eastern Colombian jungles to the farc. This would allow him to redirect his resources to handling what would then be the more manageable problem of the eln and of rebuilding the battered Colombian economy. He faces opposition in this by members of his government who stand aghast at the thought of surrendering any sovereignty to guerrilla forces.

While continued involvement by Washington at the present level would assure future victories over the farc like those recently experienced, it would also mean continued violence, economic woe and political instability—for a seemingly indefinite period of time. Increased U.S. military involvement against the “narco-guerrillas” could mean the eruption of a full-fledged civil war, one in which the U.S. could quickly find itself too deeply entangled to get out.