With the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, terrorism has become the biggest threat to the stability of the international community. Attention has focused primarily on the terrorism emanating from South Asia and the Middle East, but Colombia has been dealing with terrorism long before Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda appeared on the scene.
While Islamic terrorism is rooted in fundamentalist religion and globalization and its discontents, drug trafficking has largely fueled terrorism in Colombia.
During the 1980s, the term “narco terrorism” was used to describe the actions of the Medellin cartel, the powerful drug trafficking group headed by Pablo Escobar. The Medellin cartel was not afraid of violent confrontation with the Colombian government, and it did not hesitate to use indiscriminate violence to eliminate its enemies. To impose its will on the state, the cartel killed scores of government officials, police officers, journalists, Supreme Court justices, and even a leading presidential candidate named Luis Carlos Galan.
In 1989, nine years before al-Qaeda committed the terrorist attacks in Kenya and Tanzania, Escobar arranged to have a bomb hidden aboard Avianca Flight 203, en-route from Bogota to Medellin. The plane exploded over Bogota killing all of its 107 passengers. In the same month, a bomb blast outside the Bogota headquarters of DAS, Colombia’s Administrative Department of Security, killed 52, injured 1,000, gouged a 30-foot deep crater and damaged buildings forty blocks away. In March 1990, bombs exploded in Cali, Bogota and Medellin simultaneously, killing 26 people and injuring 200 more.
The Medellin cartel and, to a lesser extent, its chief rival, the Cali cartel, were willing to resort to terrorist acts like these because of the huge profits that the drug trade generated. In the late 1980s, Colombia drug trafficking groups were earning between $2 and $5 billion annually, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and godfathers like Pablo Escobar, Jorge Ochoa and Gilberto and Miguel Rodriguez were making Fortune magazine’s annual list of the world’s richest individuals.
Drug trafficking has also fueled terrorism in Colombia by weakening the state’s institutions. Traffickers have used drug money to penetrate and corrupt Colombia’s democratic political system, creating a virtual state within the state. Indeed, the illegal drug trade has had a serious corrupting influence on every aspect of Colombian society.
The nature of Colombia’s judicial system and the way it has dealt with the extradition issue provides a case in point. Because of the threat drug traffickers and other criminals pose, defendants appear in court before so-called “faceless judges,” whose identities are hidden for their protection.
In early 1991, as part of its efforts to reform Colombia’s constitution, the Colombian Constitutional Assembly reviewed the country’s extradition policy, giving serious consideration to banning it completely. In the previous seven years, Colombia had extradited 49 suspected drug traffickers to the U.S.
Several Constituent Assembly members took money from the drug traffickers, who threatened those members who couldn’t be bought off. The vote was 51 against extradition, 13 for, with ten abstentions.
By the mid-1990s, Colombia’s security forces had dismantled the Medellin and Cali cartels, but the ability of drug trafficking to fuel terrorism did not abate. Colombia is a graphic example of how enterprising groups will enter a lucrative illicit market like drug trafficking if the opportunity presents itself. Both of the country’s guerillas and paramilitaries expanded their role in the drug trade and helped fill the void that the Medellin and Cali cartels created.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (F.A.R.C.) is a 20,000 strong guerrilla force involved in the Colombian drug trade, mainly in protecting the drug traffickers’ crops, labs and airfields and taxing the peasants who grow crops in areas under guerrilla control. Today, these “revolutionaries” rely on their connection to the drug trade to fill the financial gap left by the downfall of its formal financial backers, the Soviet Union. By the year 2000, the guerrilla’s total annual take from drug trafficking was put as high as $400 million annually.
“The guerrillas have taken a direct role in the drug trade because the vacuum could easily be filled,” explained Dr. Bruce Bagley, a professor of international relations at the University of Miami and an expert on Colombia. “The money they make from the drug trade gives them the degree of autonomy they need to pursue their agenda.”
The Colombian guerrilla movement has been primarily rural in nature and claims to champion the rights of the country’s poor and dispossessed peasants. As Colombia’s largest and oldest guerrilla group, F.A.R.C.’s political agenda has changed little in the past forty years. It has a ten point program that calls for land distribution and social benefits and demands that the poor be given access to political power.
Colombia’s guerrillas are using the drug profits to buy arms and munitions on the international market. In 2002, three Irishmen — two convicted Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.) members and another, a member of Sinn Fein, the I.R.A.’s political arm — were arrested in Bogota while trying to leave the country. It is suspected that they were in Colombia as representatives of the I.R.A. and were trying to arrange a deal in which F.A.R.C. would give the I.R.A. drugs in return for training in the ways of guerrilla warfare.
The 10,000 strong paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (A.U.C.) has also financed its operations through the drug trade. In January 2000, Carlos Castano admitted on Colombian television that his organization routinely charged a tax on the coca and poppy crops that Colombian farmers grow. Fueled by the drug trade, the brutal struggle between guerrillas and paramilitaries has terrorized the populace and contributed to at least 3,500 murders annually.
Since the September 11 attacks in the United States, Washington has tried to tie the drug war in Colombia to the “war on terrorism,” but critics say U.S. anti-drug policy is actually fueling terrorism in that country. They charge that the U.S. has looked for a military solution to counter the guerrillas’ growing strength and has geared the majority of its aid to Colombia towards the purchase of helicopters and weaponry for military and police use and towards the funding of coca eradication projects. The U.S. has justified the policy by warning that the guerrillas’ increasing power is seriously undermining the Colombian government.
Critics respond that the U.S. strategy of supporting a repressive military in league with brutal paramilitaries ignores Colombia’s economic realities that have forced the impoverished farmers to turn to coca and poppy production as a means of survival.
As this debate continues, it is certain that U.S. anti-drug policy toward Colombia will not change anytime soon, given the focus of U.S. policymakers on the “war on terrorism.” Therefore, we can only conclude that drug trafficking will continue to fuel the violence that has terrorized Colombia.