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Professor Bruce Bagley on the crisis in Colombia

(CNN) -- President Bill Clinton spent August 31 in Cartagena, Colombia meeting with Colombian leaders, including President Andres Pastrana. The two presidents held a joint news conference defending Pastrana’s Plan Colombia and refuting charges that the program could lead U.S. troops into a war similar to Vietnam. Pastrana’s $7.5 billion initiative is aimed at fighting drug trafficking and civil unrest in the country.

Dr. Bruce Michael Bagley is a Professor of International Studies at the School of International Studies at the University of Miami. He is co-editor of the Journal of Inter-American Studies and World Affairs. His principal research focuses on U.S.-Latin American relations, with emphasis on drug trafficking and security issues. Since 1991, Dr. Bagley has been a visiting professor at the Instituto Colombiano de Estudios Superiores in Cali, Colombia.

Bagley was co-editor of "Drug Trafficking in the Americas" and editor of "Drug Trafficking Research in the Americas: A Bibliographic Survey."

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Bruce Bagley, and welcome.

Bruce Bagley: Hello! It's a pleasure to be here!

Chat Moderator: Why should other nations be concerned about what is happening in Colombia?

Bruce Bagley: Well, there are several reasons why other nations, including the United States, should be concerned. Colombia is the fourth largest nation in Latin America. It has 40 million people. It is an important source of petroleum, and one of the principal source countries for cocaine and heroin entering the U.S.

Colombia's growing instability has implications for the United States and for the five countries that border on Colombia. They include Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, Ecuador and Panama. Regional instability in North and South America has implications for the United States' security, and for the security of the countries of the region.

Question from Carlos: Would you please address the fear that this involvement will turn into another Vietnam?

Bruce Bagley: The United States does have interests in Colombia, but I believe that the current policy being pursued by the Clinton administration runs a number of major risks.

I think that it is unlikely that we are going to suppress coca cultivation in southern Colombia. It is much more likely that we are going to displace tens of thousands of Colombian peasants towards the agricultural frontier, where they will continue to grow coca. Some will spill over into neighboring countries, causing serious problems.

Still others are likely to move into Colombia's cities, where unemployment already runs above 20 percent, implying that they are likely to become beggars and prostitutes and gang members, rather than to find gainful employment. Finally, even if only 10 percent of the 200,000 plus peasants opt to join the Colombia guerilla, the largest group being the FARC -- the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces -- we are likely to feed the ongoing civil war in Colombia, rather than curtail it.

Colombia is not Vietnam, but the possibility of a long, internal war -- undermining political stability and fomenting additional drug cultivation -- is very likely. To the extent that U.S. helicopters -- Clinton has promised 60 -- are used, the probability is that the FARC guerillas will respond with a technological escalation of the war. They will shoot down American helicopters with shoulder-held Stinger missiles, thereby deepening the war, rather than solving the problems in the country.

So, even though Colombia is not Vietnam, the possibility of a bloody and long conflict in which the U.S. has an escalating role is very high. Given that the U.S. is now authorized to send 500 military advisors and 300 civilian subcontractors means that we could see body bags coming back with Americans from Colombia in the near future.

Question from Laurie: Mr. Bagley, doesn't the real problem in Columbia stem from the U.S. demand for drugs? Shouldn't we be focusing more efforts there, perhaps radical efforts, to put the cartels out of business?

Bruce Bagley: Absolutely. We as a country have not done enough on controlling demand in the United States. Recent studies have demonstrated that U.S. dollars spent on prevention and education, treatment and rehabilitation provide 12 times the impact vs. every dollar spent on interdiction or supply-side control. The United States should do far more on the demand side than it is doing, and our society would be much better off if we did.

That said, it doesn't mean that we can simply walk away from Colombia. The United States has interests, both in security and economics, in Colombia. We also have interests in the stabilization and deepening of Colombian democracy. What we should not do is try to suppress the supply of coca in the midst of a civil war in Colombia. That will not be possible.

But the United States could do a great deal if it were to spend more money on alternative development for Colombia's peasantry. Simply eradicating the coca crop does not stop the cultivation of coca. It pushes it into new areas. The United States, along with the Pastrana government, should provide alternatives to the peasantry involved in coca production. Only in that fashion will the Colombian government be able to prevent continued coca cultivation, and additional recruitment for the guerilla.

The United States could also come out in support of the peace negotiations in Colombia and give those peace negotiations a boost.

Another area where the United States could profitably make a difference in Colombia would be to insist on the elimination of military impunity. Colombian military officers accused of human rights violations, or ties with the right-wing paramilitary death squads in Colombia, suffer no real punishment. At worst, they are forced to resign from the Colombian military.

The U.S. needs to provide funds for judicial reform in Colombia, a judicial reform that should include the transference of military cases to civilian courts, thereby eliminating the current system of military judgment of itself. President Pastrana has taken some steps in that direction, but U.S. support would be key to seeing that that reform is carried out.

In general, the United States should not simply emphasize a military response to the ongoing conflicts in Colombia. Substantial political reform is fundamental. The United States could provide funds, not for helicopters, but for institution building that, in the long run, would be more effective than Hueys and Blackhawks.

Those reforms have to be sponsored by the Colombian government and political elite. The United States can't reform Colombia, Colombia must reform Colombia. But Washington could play a bigger role in propitiating and sponsoring those reforms than we have in the past or that we are contemplating doing under the recent policy announced yesterday by President Clinton.

The United States needs to develop a balanced approach to Colombia and its problems. Alternative development, military reform, judicial reform and institution building should all receive priority, along with the provision of military equipment and airplanes for fumigation. Repression alone will never work.

Question from Gg: Professor Bagley, how will "Plan Colombia" affect Colombia's neighbors?

Bruce Bagley: Plan Colombia first and foremost posits a push of the first anti-narcotic battalion into the Putumayo that borders Ecuador. The Ecuadorans are already bracing for 20-25,000 refugees fleeing the Putumayo and crossing the border.

Moreover, as the fighting in southern Colombia heats up, the FARC is very likely to cross over into Ecuador, into Peru and into Brazil for rest, to re-supply and to escape the pressures applied to them by the Colombian military. In some sense, Colombia's neighbors fear that both coca growing and guerilla warfare will be pushed across the borders out of Colombia and into their territories. So, at least in the short and medium run, Plan Colombia's success implies increased pressures on Colombia's neighbors. Population flows, guerilla fighting, coca cultivation will all be part of the mix.

This likelihood, in turn, is obliging the governments in Quito, Lima and Brasilia to fortify their border areas with Colombia by adding substantial numbers of new troops and equipment. There is growing regional concern about the potential spillover effects of Colombia's internal wars and drug eradication campaign for all of its neighbors. We have already seen growing evidence of gunrunning from some of Colombia's neighbors across into Colombia. It's possible that the arms traffic will pick up alongside the drug traffic in these border areas.

Chat Moderator: Which organization in Colombia do you consider to be the greatest threat to the nation's long-term security?

Bruce Bagley: Well, the major guerilla organization, called the FARC, or the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, has, by my estimate, some 20,000 troops or combatants. It represents the most significant, immediate threat to Colombia's stability. But there are ongoing peace negotiations with the FARC, and I am hopeful that these negotiations will prosper.

There are at least three other guerilla organizations currently operating in Colombia. The second largest is the ELN, or National Liberation Army, with about 5,000 combatants.

These guerillas represent significant threats. However, in my opinion, the paramilitary groups that have expanded rapidly over the last decade are at least as important as the guerillas are in terms of Colombia's future stability. They are the principal violators of human rights in Colombia today. They are run by Carlos Castano. In my view, the continued unchecked growth of these paramilitary organizations, many of which operate with ties to the Colombian military, are a more troubling problem for Colombia in the long run than even the guerillas.

Finally, it's important to mention that Colombia also has a variety of well-armed drug trafficking organizations, or cartels. The Medellin and Cali cartels have been largely dismantled over the last 10 years, but more than a hundred other smaller cartels have mushroomed throughout the country. They continue drug production and drug smuggling activities at higher rates than ever before.

The addition of cocaine to the internal wars -- both the guerillas and paramilitaries finance their military campaigns with cocaine -- represents an explosive and very destabilizing new element in the Colombian situation. With cocaine money, these organizations have been able to purchase modern weaponry and communication systems, and escalate the violence.

So, from my perspective, the greatest threat to Colombia emanates, not from a single organization, but from an internal war where cocaine money finances all sides and leads to a downward spiral of violence and institutional instability.

To address these problems, it is essential that the Pastrana government be successful in the peace negotiations. In the midst of war, coca cultivation and cocaine become essential ingredients in perpetuation of the violence. Only in the context of peace, where the guerillas are incorporated into the political, social and economic life of the country, will it be possible to pacify Colombia and encourage alternative development to wean the coca growing peasantry away from drug production.

The paramilitaries must be demobilized as well, which will require a strengthening of the rule of law in Colombia. Only if there is effective judicial reform, and a strengthening not of the military but the police, will deactivation of the paramilitaries be possible.

Because there is no single organization that is a threat, there is no single solution to the complex problems that Colombia confronts. U.S. policy should encourage a balanced approach to Colombia's deep-seated problems. Washington should not myopically focus on drugs, nor should it maintain the delusion that there is a military solution to the guerilla problem, which has been progressively worsening over the last 40 years in Colombia.

Alternative development, military reform and institution building, along with respect for human rights, are essential ingredients in any long-term solution to Colombia's internal conflicts. There is no hope for the stabilization of the Colombian political system unless these reforms are carried out and sustained over time.

It is in this reform effort that the United States should spend its money, not in an illusory search for a military solution.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Bruce Bagley.

Bruce Bagley: I appreciate your interest in Colombia. I encourage you to continue to monitor the Colombian situation. It's not just Colombia's problems; the United States is involved as well. We have a responsibility to see that U.S. policy helps, rather than hurts, Colombia. Bye!

Bruce Bagley joined the Colombia Chat via telephone from Florida. CNN provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the chat, which took place on Thursday, August 31, 2000.

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