Colombia: Success At Home And The Mess Next Door


July 15, 2013: The eight months of peace talks with FARC may succeed where three previous attempts (since the 1990s) have failed. What’s different this time is that rebels have suffered a string of defeats over the last decade and their armed strength has been reduced by more than half to 8,000. Meanwhile, decades of fighting has gained FARC nothing but has left over half a million dead and nearly four million people driven from their homes. Involvement with cocaine gangs in the 1990s provided the rebels with a lot of cash but also corrupted many of their members and greatly increased the amount of violence. Recruiting has become much more difficult and FARC has become more dependent on kidnapping and brainwashing teenagers (and younger children) to be fighters. This sort of thing has made FARC very unpopular in rural areas where the leftists used to enjoy popular support. Because of all this, FARC was willing to negotiate an end to the half-century of armed rebellion and become a political party. FARC never offered to negotiate its disbanding before.

The problem here is that 80 percent of Colombians do not even want FARC as a political party. Most Colombians don’t even believe FARC can be trusted to agree to a settlement and keep their word. FARC leaders have come to realize that their biggest problem in the peace talks is gaining the trust of the Colombian people, which is not going to be easy considering the decades of FARC violence the country has suffered. Even if there is a peace deal, there is one other leftist group to deal with, ELN. While a third the size of FARC, ELN has been more active recently when it comes to economic terrorism (attacking electrical power, mining, and oil production facilities) and crime (especially kidnapping). FARC is assisting ELN in persuading the government to allow both leftist groups to jointly negotiate a peace deal. The government believes it will have a deal with FARC (and possibly including ELN) by the end of the year, after which will come a major effort to persuade a majority of Colombians to go along with it. The government sees the effort to get ELN included at this point as a major obstacle, if only because there’s so much popular distrust of FARC. Most Colombians see ELN as a smaller and even more hated version of FARC. ELN has made itself particularly unpopular because it has refused to stop using kidnapping as a weapon. Nationwide, kidnapping has been greatly reduced in the last decade, but Colombians still have bitter memories of all the past kidnappings (nearly 40,000 since 1970). In 92 percent of these cases the kidnappers were never punished (mainly because they belonged to FARC or ELN which protected its own vigorously). The peak year for kidnapping was 2000, in which some 3,500 were taken. Since then vigorous military and police efforts against the kidnappers, and a lot more help from the general public, have reduced kidnappings by over 90 percent. FARC and ELN were both responsible for about 40 percent of the kidnappings since 1970, and since ELN has always been smaller than FARC you can see why ELN is hated more. ELN is one of the most prominent remaining kidnappers and that has hurt their public image big time. FARC has largely given up kidnapping, which is now dominated by common criminals and ELN (which needs the money from the ransoms to keep its gunmen in operation, and their leadership understands that this is part of a death spiral). Thus the sudden eagerness to make peace, especially one that grants a lot of amnesty.

The decade long effort to improve tactics for fighting the drug gangs continues to show results. Recently the largest drug gang boss around (Daniel Barrera) was sent off to the United States for prosecution. Barrera had been hiding out in Venezuela, but the government there was persuaded to arrest him last September and send him to Colombia, where he was held for questioning for as long as that was useful and then sent north, where it’s impossible for major drug lords to bribe courts or blast their way out of prison. Venezuela is also being corrupted by the drug gangs and has become a major smuggling route for Colombian cocaine. But the drug gangs have not bought the loyalty of all the police and prosecutors in Venezuela and the kingpins hiding out there are under constant threat of arrest and extradition. It’s still safer than trying to hide out in Colombia, which used to be one of the world’s safest refuges for major criminals. This is no longer the case, and Venezuela is only marginally safer. Case in point is the recent arrest of Italian crime boss Roberto Pannunzi in Colombia. Pannunzi had been hiding out for years in Venezuela and thought his false Venezuelan ID and cover story made him safe in Colombia as well. It wasn’t, and he was arrested when he came to Colombia to do some shopping. Roberto Pannunzi had set up the largest cocaine importing operation ever in Europe. His exploits became known in Italy and even his status as a major mafia leader could not protect him, and he was arrested in Italy in 2004, and managed to escape and flee to Venezuela in 2010. Now he has been sent back to Italy.

Neighboring Venezuela has a new president but no change in the social and economic mess his predecessor Hugo Chavez created. After a decade of effort, Venezuela is supposed to be a socialist paradise by now. But like every other attempt at this use of centralized economic planning and control, it has only resulted in more poverty and growing shortages of basics. The new government is not making any changes, yet. Meanwhile, some states in Venezuela are introducing rationing and more aggressively going after hoarders (and blaming the shortages on them although, if you do the math, hoarding is obviously a result of the shortages, not the cause). Inflation is now running at an annual rate of 40 percent and unemployment is climbing because the attempts at centralized economic control make it very difficult to run a business and create new jobs. Businessmen and entrepreneurs continue to flee the country, many going to neighboring Colombia where the economy is booming. About a third of the population still believes in the Chavez dream of a socialist paradise and blames the continuing failure of the plan on internal enemies and plots by the United States. But as the economic problems get worse and neighboring nations (like Colombia and Brazil) prosper under free market policies, more and more Venezuelans reluctantly change their minds. The hard core Chavez followers are another matter, and they are arming themselves to defend the Chavez ideology with force if need be. That may be difficult, because the new government has started deploying the army into the areas with the worst crime rates. This has worked but there are too few troops to do this everywhere. The troops are needed for this sort of thing because a decade of Chavez rule has given Venezuela the highest crime rate in the Americas. A growing number of unemployed Venezuelans turn to crime. The murder rate in Venezuela is 72 per 100,000 people a year; one of the highest on the planet and more than ten times the rate in the United States. Since 1999, the government has implemented 19 different plans to deal with the crime and none have had a lasting impact. The fundamental cause of the crime is a lack of economic opportunity, which the Chavez government made worse and worse with its enthusiasm for central planning.

July 4, 2013: In the north the ELN blew up a section of an oil pipeline. But ELN also released a soldier it had captured in May, as a show of good faith and an effort to get peace talks started with the government. 


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