January 26, 2008:
In Colombia, the
armed forces have been transformed over the last six years. This came at the
instigation of a new (in 2002) president, Alvaro Uribe, whose family had
suffered at the hands of leftist rebels, and ran on a platform of taking on the
rebels. The army had, for decades, been an inept, largely defensive force. The
U.S. provided over $4 billion worth of new equipment, and help with training.
Uribe had the backing of most Colombians, who were fed up with the decades of
violence. The once popular leftist rebels had turned into partners for the drug
gangs (that produce most of the world's cocaine). Colombians wanted a reduction
in the crime and violence, and they got it. In the last six years, murders have
declined 40 percent, and kidnappings over 70 percent. Before Uribe got to work,
Colombia was the nation with the most kidnappings per capita on the planet.
The security forces (military and
national police) have grown by over a
third, to 390,000, since Uribe took office. U.S. training concentrated on
intelligence collecting, rapid decision making, and organizing and training
small commando type units that could quickly act on information about the
rebels and drug gangs.
The rebels and drug gangs soon found
that they could not deal with the security forces in combat. So the bad guys
switched to cash. Nearly 400 military officers and police commanders have
dismissed in the past five years for corruption. Many more lower ranking troops
and cops have also been let go, or sent to prison. Some troops and cops
dispensed with the legal system, and murdered suspected criminals. That's
always been a problem in Colombia, but with better training and intelligence,
these killings have declined to 100-150, from 200-250 a year, since the
security forces have been upgraded.
For most of those in the security
forces, the goal is to make the country safer for their own families. It's
personal for most Colombians. Until a few years ago, a large chunk of the
middle class has fled the country. This made economic growth more difficult.
Since Uribe reformed the security forces, many of those exiles have returned,
and the economy has risen for each of the past five years.
But the drug gangs and their leftist
allies are still entrenched in many rural, and some urban, parts of the
country. It might be another decade before the gangs are defeated.