The Clinton administration is proposing an escalation in United States foreign aid to Colombia so large that it will predictably alter the course of domestic politics and internal violence in that country. Colombia is already the third-largest recipient of US foreign aid, after Israel and Egypt, having received $289 million in 1999. As the current aid bill now stands before Congress, the government of President Andrés Pastrana would receive $1.574 billion in direct economic assistance during the next three years. About one fifth of the funds ($274 million) would be spent on assistance in economic development and general improvements in the country’s legal and human rights situation. The rest of the money would arrive in Colombia in the form of military training funds and equipment.

This military help is being presented as indispensable to the fight against the cultivation of coca leaf in southern Colombia and the consequent export of cocaine to the United States. Most of the parties involved—the State Department officials who will shepherd the aid package through Congress, the gung-ho young men in the US embassy in Bogotá who will get to supervise all the hardware, the Colombian army brass who are waiting for the assistance with the fervor of a cargo cult—claim, officially at least, that the funds are not intended for use in the war the Colombian state has been fighting for forty years against the world’s most entrenched guerrillas. The question is how such use is to be avoided.

Colombia, which has a population of just under 40 million, is a country approximately the size of Central Europe. It is divided roughly into five regions: the lush Caribbean and Pacific coasts; the two-pronged Andean range, traversed by the Magdalena River Valley; the eastern grasslands; and the jungle lowlands that extend south to the Amazon River, where Colombia borders Brazil. Bogotá (population 6.4 million) and most of the prosperous cities, including Medellín, are perched in the mountains. Here the population is mostly white and mestizo. In the rich coastal plains and in the Magdalena River Valley, many people are black and mulatto.

Fewer than two million people live in the grasslands and the jungle, but between them these adjoining areas account for more than half the national territory—that is to say, an area roughly the size of France. There are almost no roads—dirt or otherwise—in this part of the country, and it is in fact such uncharted territory that maps from the national geographic institute still show the legend “insufficient relief data” printed over large areas. Most of these two regions’ inhabitants are recent arrivals: land-hungry peasants who carved out clearings for themselves over the last half-century or so. It is here, in the outermost regions of the departamentos of Putumayo, Caquetá, Meta, Guaviare, and Vichada, that the coca-growing boom has taken place in the last decade.

The US military funds, if approved, will be used for drug interdiction operations and for a special antinarcotics brigade, and also for Blackhawk helicopters, speedboats, and planes in which to transport the battalion’s soldiers to the coca fields hidden in the jungle. Here troops will provide protection for police department fumigation teams, whose job it is to spray nontoxic herbicide on the illegal crops. Why should two thousand or so highly trained and equipped soldiers be needed? Because in these parts of the country, the coca farmers are protected by an army of guerrillas, as many as 20,000 in total, who have been waging war on the Colombian state with increasing success. It is here, in the midst of this guerrilla territory, that the Colombian military has built headquarters for the new brigade, one battalion of which was trained last year with the help of US military advisers. It is here that, against all the odds, the violent convergence of guerrillas and US aid, US-trained troops, and US advisers is, according to the Clinton administration, not supposed to happen.


In August of 1986 I traveled with a Colombian writer and a local television team to the headquarters of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC, the largest, oldest, and richest guerrilla group in Colombia. At the time it was only one of at least a dozen militant armed organizations. After some twenty years of fighting, a truce with the FARC had been declared by the government of Belisario Betancur, and our trip was one result. In response to the truce, the FARC had created a legal political party, the Unión Patriótica, and at its makeshift office in Bogotá a few small groups of journalists were able to negotiate expeditions to Casa Verde, the guerrilla headquarters in the departamento of Meta. I knew very little about the guerrillas or about Colombia at the time. It was surprising to discover, for example, that our destination was barely sixty miles from the capital as the crow flies. It was even more astonishing to learn that for years the army had been unable to dislodge the FARC from that nearby stronghold.


I understood why, though, as soon as we began our trip: we drove through the night from Bogotá over impossibly bumpy and steep roads to the town of Sumapaz, which sits on the slope of the Andes that opens southward into the jungle. From that point some members of our group were provided with splaybacked mounts, while those of us deemed hardiest by our guide—a guerrilla who happened to be a renegade priest—were invited to walk. At more than 10,000 feet above sea level, we trudged across the páramo of Sumapaz, a breathtaking expanse of icy swamp that seems to sit on the top of the world. Once, when a persistent freezing rain cleared, we were able to see the tips of snow-capped volcanoes more than one hundred miles away, and a double rainbow in a canyon at our feet. Around us we saw bizarre frailejones, which look like stubby, furry palms, and orchids and tree ferns, wild ducks and occasional herds of sheep. At night taciturn shepherds shared their tiny, freezing homesteads with us, and we lay wide-eyed in our sleeping bags through the night, praying for dawn to arrive so that we could recover a little warmth by moving through the icy drizzle. The páramo was inhabited, but there were no roads, no schools, no electricity, no sign at all that the state knew or cared about these citizens.

By the third day mounts had been found for everyone, and the poor beasts struggled down canyons and across foaming rivers with us, then up again, then down, down, down into lush cloud forest. In a clearing we came upon a small community of polite, efficient youths in uniform, including many young women. Their barracks were well constructed. There was a campaign hospital and a spotless butcher shop, and what I recall as a rudimentary schoolhouse. A stream had been dammed and channeled to provide water for the common kitchen and the laundry area, and these gray waters were used, in turn, for latrines that can fairly be described as delightful, for they were raised on stilts above the running water, and were cozy and immaculate. I was taken upstream to another cabin perched above the riverflow, where I was left alone with a cauldron of hot water to bathe and change into clean clothes. And then at last my colleagues and I were taken into the presence of the leaders of the FARC, Jacobo Arenas and Manuel Marulanda.

The legendary Marulanda—more commonly known as “Tirofijo,” or Sureshot—founded the FARC and remains to this day its military leader. Now seventy-two, he has the distinction of being the world’s oldest living guerrilla. Jacobo Arenas, who died in 1990, was the co-founder and chief ideologue of the FARC, having joined forces in his early, Communist youth with the landless rebels and converted them to Marxism. At the time of our visit he was sixty-two years old.

One of the mysteries of the FARC’s success, I decided after our first meeting, was how it had grown and endured despite the total absence of charismatic leaders. Jacobo Arenas was visually impenetrable, permanently wrapped as he was in a military cap, dark glasses (his eyesight was weak), and a thick woolen scarf that seemed to have lived with him for as long as the war had lasted. He was friendly (he offered immediately to play a game of Scrabble with us) and starved for conversation, but his own was hardly scintillating, even though he proudly described himself as an intellectual. Mostly, it seemed to us, he was obsessed with plots against him and his forces—bizarre plots involving CIA offers and infiltrators, government booty for his head, all-seeing antennae directed from great heights against Casa Verde, gifts of Chinese urns wired for sound. Given the realities of the cold war and the CIA, his tales may well have been true, but the narrative was so fervid that a colleague and I could not shake off the impression of having been submerged in someone’s delirium.

Marulanda was a different sort of character. He lived in his own little compound a short walk from central headquarters, surrounded by an elite guard. Although we knew that he was in charge of military training and combat operations, he acted as if his main concerns were the chickens and the vegetable patch in his front yard. Stocky, almost irritatingly modest and of few words, he carried on one shoulder the white fringed towel worn by the rural people, the campesinos. Sometimes he used it to cover his head against the sun. Sometimes he took it off to swat a fly or two. He gave us a rather sketchier version of a discourse we had already had from Arenas (who pointed out a little too often that although Marulanda might be a campesino, he liked to read books).


In Colombia, Marulanda instructed us, the proletariat and the campesinos were allies in the struggle against imperialism and the unjust and oligarchic national state. The FARC fought for justice and equality. Although initially campesinos like Marulanda himself might have joined the fight only in order to defend their land, they were increasingly concientizados, and were now fully involved in the long, arduous struggle for socialism. When I tried to draw him out on his battle exploits the conversation languished. “What about this scar?” I asked, pointing to a dent above one eyebrow. “I got that when my mother asked me to grind some cocoa beans and a screw in the cocoa mill flew off,” he replied. Our group of visitors ended up spending much more time in Arenas’s snug little cabin, where Arenas was happy to chat about old times and national politics—although it strikes me now that for someone with such frail access to communication and political information, he was remarkably uncurious about whatever news we might have had to offer.

In fairness to Arenas, he was concerned that his entire organization, from the leadership down, was so limited in its contacts with the world. He himself had not set foot in Bogotá for twenty years, he pointed out, and most of his troops had never done so. He knew the world was changing. And though he insisted that the truce and the fitful peace conversations the Betancur government had initiated did not deceive him, that the FARC expected only war and would never lay down its arms, perhaps he saw the creation of the Unión Patriótica—the legal party that would soon be contending in national elections—as a way of opening the FARC to the part of the country that was not rural.

Certainly, if the legal party had been allowed to survive, the FARC might at least have become aware of the enormous disconnect between the words with which it described Colombia and the way nonguerrilla Colombians perceived themselves. But a campaign of terror against the Unión Patriótica, and against the left in general, was unleashed simultaneously with Betancur’s offer of peace. In 1988, when Colombians were first allowed to elect their own mayors, the Unión Patriótica participated, and won eighteen mayoralties out of about a thousand. Thirteen of these mayors were subsequently assassinated, often after having been forced to resign. No one has ever been charged with these murders, but it is widely assumed that members of the military, which has historically operated more or less independently of the chief executive, and sometimes at loggerheads with it, played a role.

In 1991, on the same day that a national convention charged with drafting a new constitution held its first session, the FARC headquarters where we had visited with Arenas and Marulanda was at long last bombed and overrun by the army—a worthy military goal whose timing was evidently political. For all practical purposes, the Unión Patriótica was now dead, peace talks had been definitely suspended, and the FARC was on an all-out war footing again. By 1992, 3,500 UP militants and leaders of the legal party, including two presidential candidates, had been assassinated (although only a handful of those murders have ever been brought to trial). The guerrillas had lost nearly all of their urban, better-educated, politically-minded leaders, and Arenas’s paranoia had been brought to the seething point shortly before he died.

We left the FARC headquarters after only three days, rather stunned by the hardship we had been allowed to experience, which was only the palest reflection of the lifelong hardship endured by campesinos who may have decided that life with the guerrillas at least afforded some possibility—of revenge, of hope for the future, of camaraderie. And we were stunned too by the accounts of the bugged Chinese vases and the cheerful discipline among the young men and women in the camp, as well as by the utter lack of political imagination we had found in Arenas and Marulanda, and the paradox of their great capacity to endure.

A conversation with Arenas stayed with me. I had wondered aloud what more the FARC troops could do, other than sit in their various camps—there were twenty-seven permanent military units, or frentes, at the time—staging occasional ambushes and worrying about the CIA. They had been doing this for the better part of twenty years, after all. When would the revolution finally get underway? “When the subjective and objective conditions ripen,” Arenas answered imperturbably. But was this not, I persisted, rather like standing on a street corner in Bogotá on a Friday night, during rush hour and in the middle of the pouring rain, waiting for a taxi to come by? What if a taxi never came? What if conditions never ripened, what then? Arenas merely looked at me wryly.

The conversation has stayed with me because at this moment the FARC has sixty frentes of well-trained, well-armed, and well-equipped young men and women operating throughout the country, engaging the Colombian military in combat, overrunning army bases and police stations, taking prisoners, inflicting casualties, bringing down helicopters, controlling and holding territory, and holding the country hostage. Most guerrilla movements speak of their infinite patience and act precipitously, but Jacobo Arenas’s FARC proved itself willing to bide its time. Watching recent television news reports in Bogotá, with their nightly quota of roadblocks, power pylon blowups, pitched battles a few dozen miles from the city, and civilian casualties, it could seem as if the taxi had arrived at last.


The motor that jump-started the guerrillas into a new phase also energized the official Colombian economy in those same years; this was, of course, cocaine. How and why cocaine became the illegal intoxicant of choice in the United States is a chronicle that remains to be told. But the first American who suggested to a Colombian cocaine hustler that he could find buyers for his product if the hustler could find a way to get it stateside ignited a fire that has consumed tens of thousands of Colombian lives. A small marijuana boom in the Sixties preceded the cocaine explosion. (No one has described it better than Laura Restrepo in her thrilling novel Leopard in the Sun.1 ) Then the fashion in intoxicants switched to cocaine, which is manufactured from the tealike coca leaf. Masticated or brewed, coca has been consumed for centuries in the Andes as a cure for colic, altitude sickness, and hangovers, and as a palliative for hunger. Traditionally, it has been grown by Indian communities who hold it sacred, and its sale—by the bushel in open-air markets or in boxed tea bags in city stores—is legal in Bolivia and Peru. (Coca-Cola company representatives still visit the Bolivian markets once a year to buy the key ingredient in their secret formula.)

Colombia, which has a much smaller indigenous population than Bolivia or Peru, used to cultivate less coca, and for many years it grew what was considered an inferior product—meaning that the Colombian leaf produced a less potent alkaloid. But Colombia had a lackadaisical government, uncharted riverways, and a tradition of smuggling that dated back to colonial days. A small but flourishing illegal trade in marijuana, emeralds, and pre-Hispanic artifacts had kept smuggling techniques up to date, and by the early Eighties non-Indian hustlers, many of them from the prosperous industrial city of Medellín, had consolidated their hold on the manufacture of cocaine from coca leaf, and on the export of refined cocaine to the United States. Among other things, these middlemen had figured out how to smuggle acetone and ether from the United States—precursor chemicals, as they are called, without which cocaine alkaloid cannot be extracted from the leaf.

By the end of the decade the illegal manufacture and export of cocaine had turned into a bonanza. Cocaine accounted for around 5 percent of the Colombian national product, according to calculations by Salomón Kalmanowitz, an economist who is currently on the board of the Banco de la República (the local equivalent of the Federal Reserve). “In arming the population, creating strong criminal incentives—crime pays really well!—fomenting corruption, financing both sides of the war, and destroying personal security,” Kalmanowitz says, the boom had highly distorting and destructive effects on the national economy. But the fact is that Colombia had found what most developing countries lack, a cheap crop that can produce the levels of employment, return on investment, and national growth that only industrial goods normally provide. Construction soared, the service sector exploded, antiques dealers thrived, airline companies expanded their routes, artists made a more than decent living, and, beginning in 1992, many campesinos also felt less gnawed by hunger.

This last effect was a direct consequence of the “War on Drugs” decreed by President George Bush. In the late 1980s, the State Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration coordinated a successful anti-drug campaign with the governments of Bolivia and Peru: vast coca plantings were sprayed out of existence in both countries’ Andean foothills; under US guidance, Bolivian and Peruvian army planes began shooting down unauthorized aircraft entering their air space. But demand for cocaine had grown, not eased, in the United States and around the world. Seeking safer territory for the unceasingly profitable trade, Colombian drug exporters began to sponsor coca plantings in their own uncharted jungles, and they financed a successful search for a variety of coca plant that would produce high levels of alkaloid in hot, lowland conditions. Seeking a better livelihood, peasants from all over the country flocked to the jungle departamentos of Meta, Putumayo, and Caquetá. And the FARC guerrillas were with them.

In a small town in Caquetá last January, I talked with a spokesman for the FARC, who explained the guerrillas’ approach to the illegal drug trade this way: “For us, a campesino who plants coca is no different from one who plants cocoa,” he said. “They both live off the land. We say that coca cultivation is no good, and we’ve established norms: they must plant two hectares of food crops for every hectare of coca. But what we can’t do is deny the campesinos the right to grow this crop, because from the government on down, everybody in Colombia lives off coca.”

What the guerrillas really can’t do, apparently, is deny themselves the right to improve their own situation. Running even a small guerrilla army is expensive, after all, especially if all weapons and supplies must be acquired illegally and smuggled in. It did not take long for the FARC to notice that campesinos could use protection from the city types who paid them to grow coca, not to mention from government antidrug patrols.

During the same period that the Colombian traffickers were consolidating their supremacy in the world drug market, the guerrillas worked out a policy. “We don’t look after coca fields, we don’t grow coca and we don’t transport it,” the official spokesman claimed. “But we do charge taxes, just as we do on everything else. Truckers [who drive through FARC territory] have to pay taxes. Shopkeepers [who operate in FARC territory] have to pay taxes. And the growers do too.” The guerrillas, who see themselves as the legitimately established authority in areas they control militarily, levy taxes on both the sale and transport of coca (and recently also of opium paste from poppy fields in the highlands). In exchange, the campesinos expect them to guarantee that they all get paid, and paid equally, and that the money they receive is in some proportion to the product’s market value. Estimates of the income derived by the FARC from this arrangement vary between $200 and $600 million a year.

The transaction the FARC spokesman described—taxes in exchange for a protective armed presence—includes in his telling only two parties; growers and guerrillas. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a large and belligerent antigovernment organization can prove extremely useful to the drug lords as well. At the very least, there is a situation on the ground of peaceful coexistence between the guerrillas and the people who control the drug trade. Perhaps the guerrillas are telling the truth when they say there is no explicit agreement, and that the two sides never even come into contact. Another possibility is that the guerrillas don’t merely look the other way when the little bimotor planes land on improvised strips in the jungle to pick up their cargo, or when motorboats bring in chemical engineers to tinker with extraction procedures in clandestine laboratories. Perhaps they unload some automatic rifles for themselves and the odd antiaircraft gun as well.

Whoever paid for the guns, there were enough for a force that has tripled, at least, since the bonanza in the jungle. The FARC’s sixty military frentes are spread out through every region in the country, including the outskirts of Bogotá. In one or several of these, the guerrillas are holding the five hundred soldiers and police officers they have taken captive since they began overrunning army bases and police stations in 1996. The word in the countryside is that one eats better in the guerrilla army than at home, and there is general agreement that the FARC controls or has strong influence in about a third of the one thousand or so municipal districts into which Colombia is divided—meaning that, at the very least, the organization has a say in who gets elected mayor in these districts and how municipal funds are spent.


The tacit agreement between drug traffickers and guerrillas in the southern half of the country is surprising only because in the northern part of Colombia the two sides are busy killing each other. Or at least it is fair to say that the various right-wing armed associations who fight the guerrillas—paramilitares, or autodefensas—depend on drug money for their machine guns and uniforms just as the FARC does.

The paramilitares first sprang up, like soldiers grown from dragons’ teeth, in regions where the guerrillas made the mistake of kidnapping the wrong people. In the days before the FARC started taxing cocaine, they survived in large part off income derived from abducting, or threatening to abduct, ranchers and businessmen. Kidnapping as an illegal economic activity has a long history in Colombia. Many drug traffickers, for example, got their startup capital through kidnapping and continued to use it as an additional source of income and power. (The best account of a kidnap victim’s terrorized life in captivity is to be found in Gabriel García Márquez’s News of a Kidnapping, about the victims of the trafficker Pablo Escobar.2 )

It is the armed left, however, that has turned kidnapping into one of Colombia’s widespread horrors. Colombia experts estimate that the FARC still derives as much as half its income from kidnappings. Another guerrilla group, the Ejército Nacional de Liberación, which kidnapped both a planeload of passengers and all the worshippers in a church in Cali last year, subsists almost entirely off extortion. In recent years the guerrillas have increased their efficiency in two ways. They “buy” kidnap victims from ordinary criminal organizations that do not have safe hiding places, as the guerrillas do in the wilderness, and they set up roadblocks on major highways, at which drivers’ licenses are checked against a computer listing of all the bank accounts in the country.

At the beginning of the Eighties, however, the guerrillas started kidnapping the relatives of drug traffickers, a drastic miscalculation. In response, the drug traffickers created and financed a group, called Muerte a los Secuestradores, or Death to the Kidnappers, which appears to have worked closely with the military to hit back at the guerrillas by murdering anyone suspected of associating or sympathizing with them. In 1981, in the mining town of Segovia, the FARC kidnapped the father of a small-time drug and emerald dealer called Fidel Castaño, a crime which would turn out to have fateful consequences.

According to the accounts of Fidel and his younger brother Carlos, the guerrillas—former friends of the family—demanded a ransom far beyond the Castaño family’s ability to pay. The brothers offered what they could and were rejected. Fidel, in what Carlos would later describe as “a mistake,” then wrote the kidnappers, stating that if the family came up with more funds “it would be exclusively to fight against you.” According to a subsequent account by Fidel, his father, who had been held tied to a tree by a long rope for many days, slammed his head against the tree trunk until he dropped to the ground and there “was left to die” by the guerrillas, presumably of a heart attack. According to published accounts by Carlos, the father was killed by the guerrillas after the Castaños failed to come up with the ransom money.

The details matter a great deal to many people these days—not the least the FARC—because, according to a survivor Iinterviewed in 1989, in 1983 a group of men under orders from Fidel Castaño moved like a scythe through the riverside villages near Segovia where Castaño believed his father had been held, pulling babies out of their mothers’ arms and shooting them, nailing a child to a plank, impaling a man on a bamboo pole, hacking a woman to pieces with a machete. By the time Castaño’s men were finished there were twenty-two dead. It was the first time after the brutal civil war known as La Violencia—from 1945 to 1965—that a massacre of such size had taken place in Colombia.

The massacre was the beginning of an assassination campaign that since then has left many thousand civilians dead in villages suspected of harboring guerrillas. Before his own death a few years ago, Fidel Castaño organized his hit men into a group called Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá, or ACCU. His successor was his younger brother, Carlos, who turned the organization into a tightly disciplined combat group, and formed an alliance with similar organizations throughout the country, calling it the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia. In a recent television interview, Carlos Castaño claimed that his organization now has 11,200 troops. This figure is twice the usual estimate, but it is easy to believe the Autodefensa leaders when they say that they wish their numbers were growing a little more slowly, because, although there are more guerrillas and guerrilla sympathizers to exterminate with every passing day, controlling so many volunteers is tricky.

I had the opportunity recently to talk at length with a woman whom I will call Rosa, who is closely connected with the high command of the antiguerrilla ACCU. She was arrested not long ago, and she agreed that I could visit her at the detention center. (The office of the current Colombian prosecutor general, Alfonso Gómez Méndez, has aggressively pursued investigations of paramilitary crimes, and there are now six hundred people in jail, accused of collaborating in Autodefensa massacres.) I find it troubling to describe Rosa or even refer to the circumstances of our meeting; people get killed all the time in prisons in Colombia, and she has a great many enemies. It seems reasonable to say, however, that she is now middle-aged, that she seemed vulnerable even as I tried to think of some reason why Ishould feel pity for her, and that although her life has always been “driven by the winds of violence,” as she put it, her activities have been political, rather than military in the strict sense of the word.

Her family was well off by the standards of the provincial backwater she was brought up in, but her father, a devout Catholic, had strong sympathy for the labor movement. One of her first memories is of learning the songs of the Fifth Regiment of the Spanish Republican Army from activist priests who taught at her school. They told her about Dolores Ibarruri, “La Pasionaria,” the Basque miner’s daughter who during the Civil War exhorted the Republican troops to fight for liberty and face down death. Rosa was barely a teenager when she took to singing the Civil War hymns herself, to cheer on workers during strikes. At university, swept up in the radical fervor of the times, Rosa and her friends were soon helping campesino organizations coordinate invasions of privately owned ranches, set up roadblocks, stockpile whatever weapons they could find for the coming revolution.

Although the FARC already existed, it was seen by many as old hat and insufficiently idealistic, and new guerrilla groups, and what used to be called “pre-party formations,” multiplied. The Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or ELN, as well as the Quintín Lame, an armed Indian rights group, the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores, the M-19, all came into being. By the late Seventies Rosa was closely identified with another of the groups to emerge from the university crucible, the Ejército Popular de Liberación, or EPL. The group was strong in the area of Córdoba, where in those days the population was fairly clearly divided between poor campesinos and the people with money who owned cattle ranches and farms where bananas and oil palms were grown.

How Rosa’s destiny took her from the EPL to the heart of paramilitary power is, in her telling, a long, breathtaking, and not always reliable story, but she is only one of many defectors from the fanatic left to join the ranks of the murderous right. The autodefensas claim that fully one third of their troops are former guerrillas, and even if one disputes the figures, there is no doubting the general trend. Rosa’s life, however, is unusual even in Colombia, where reality always seems to flow out of someone’s dream, or nightmare.

The first thing that bothered Rosa about her leftist associates was what one might describe as their impact on the political ecology of the departamento of Córdoba. At the height of the revolutionary ferment, there were six different guerrilla organizations prowling around the hills in Rosa’s region, each one demanding that the campesinos pay “taxes” to finance their coming liberation. “If a campesino had five cows, he had to give up one,” Rosa says. “The guerrillas were eating up all the money from the NGOs [non-governmental organizations]. They were hijacking mules. They were emptying out the community stores.”

None of these organizations, however, was capable of defending the campesinos when the ranchers—including many drug traffickers turned aspiring landed gentry—began organizing assassination squads to deal with guerrilla collaborators. “Those people were terrible masacradores,” Rosa says. “The rank and file were ranch guards, ranchers, drug traffickers, and everything you’ve heard about the [murders committed with] chainsaws, axes, and machetes is true.” Although the guerrillas could not defeat the paramilitary squads, they did rather well when it came to turning on each other. One guerrilla group, the ELN, tried to dispute the EPL’s local hegemony, Rosa recalls. “The ELN wanted to rule,” she says. “And they killed whoever didn’t obey.”

One day the campesinos decided they’d had enough of multiple taxes and the conflicting, deadly demands on their political loyalties. The first one to rebel was a fisherman who turned on an ELN patrol that had approached him for money. In Rosa’s description, the fisherman hacked a young man and a young woman guerrilla to death. “Campesinos don’t know how to kill,” Rosa observes dryly, having dwelt on the scene in some detail. “And when someone kills who doesn’t know how to do it, he kills monstrously.”

As for her own apostasy from the revolutionary cause, Rosa says it took place sometime after she was kidnapped in 1991 by one of the leaders of the antiguerrilla squads, the paramilitares. She had already decided by then that her commitment was to the campesinos and not the guerrillas, she says. Then came the kidnapping. She was abducted, she told me, after participating in a land invasion of a ranch owned by a well-known paramilitar. Her captors took her to a camp where “a fat man” was put in charge of torturing her to get information about the guerrillas. He broke off her teeth with pliers. (She paused in her narrative to show me that all her upper teeth had caps.) She was tied down while the fat man jumped on her stomach. She was forced to stand, bleeding, through the rest of the night, wondering when her execution would take place. At dawn, she was told to start walking. The bullet in the back she was expecting never came (“maybe because I never gave them the information they wanted, and they got tired of torturing me”). She kept walking and eventually found her way to her parents’ house.

The lesson she appears to have drawn from this episode is not what one would expect. “After that time,” Rosa explains, she and her kidnapper respected each other. “Me on this side, you on that one, we both agreed.”

“It’s funny how life is,” she said, in conclusion to her narrative. “Because the guy who ordered the fat man to torture me and I are now pretty good friends.” Presumably this is because a few months after her abduction she crossed over to her enemy’s side.

By then, Rosa says, a majority of the guerrilla group she was involved with, the EPL, had decided that a revolutionary war could not successfully be fought in Colombia, and had turned their weapons in, changing their organization’s name, but not its initials, to Esperanza, Paz y Libertad (Hope, Peace and Liberty). Peace was not forthcoming, however, because the FARC guerrillas soon appeared with their own guns and tried to establish control in the void they perceived had been created by the despised pacifists. The FARC began executing former EPLguerrillas. The survivors and their campesino supporters felt they had no option except to join forces with the right-wing paramilitary leaders who had tortured Rosa and murdered many of her comrades.


In the village of El Salado last February, in the departamento of Bolivar, where Rosa’s friend Carlos Castaño operates, members of a paramilitary squad sang and danced in the church square while they tortured the villagers and slit their throats one by one. According to the local army commander, the deaths were the result of an armed confrontation between guerrillas and paramilitaries, but the prosecutor general’s office, which is often at odds with the army on matters such as this, stated in no uncertain terms that the victims were civilians. Forty-four men and women, suspected by Castaño’s people of guerrilla sympathies, were killed during the autodefensas’ four-day rampage.

The latest Human Rights Watch report on Colombia presents in numbing detail dreadful accounts of dozens of similar mass murders, primarily involving Carlos Castaño’s paramilitary troops. But from the point of view of those who have to approve the US military assistance package, the most frightening aspect of the autodefensas may be their long, gleeful, and passionate association with the military. For years, detailed evidence has accumulated implicating senior army commanders, mid-level officers, and troops of connivance with, or even the planning and execution of, paramilitary massacres. “Together, evidence collected so far by Human Rights Watch links half of Colombia’s eighteen brigade-level army units to paramilitary activity,” the report states.

Very few military men have been demoted, much less brought to trial, for their role in mass murders, and perhaps this is also because, as public revulsion with the army’s suspected role has grown, its participation has become more discreet. But perhaps it is because the executive and judicial branches of government remain incapable of controlling the rogue military establishment. In any event, intelligence-sharing, the Human Rights Watch report states, remains the most pervasive and common method of collaboration between the Colombian military and the autodefensas. (The report also describes another form of cooperation, known as legalización, which is rooted in the Colombian army’s tradition of demanding a high number of enemy casualties from officers ambitious for promotion. According to the report, paramilitaries will bring civilian corpses to army barracks and exchange them for weapons. The officers dress the corpses in camouflage and boots and claim that they were guerrillas killed in battle.)

A number of Colombian observers of the various wars in their country have pointed out that the aid package for Colombia now before the US Congress is, at the very least, badly skewed. Most of the aid is supposed to be spent on the military; and it is supposed to be spent in the southern part of the country, where the guerrillas, and not the paramilitaries, will be the target. State Department officials who are lobbying for approval of the aid package have not ignored the paramilitary threat: they point to new human rights training programs for officers and troops as signs of progress, and occasionally they reproach the government of President Andrés Pastrana for its “passivity” in the face of the paramilitary attacks. But when the reproaches are combined with the proposed gift of stupendous amounts of hardware for the army, they tend to lose force.

The statements coming out of the Pentagon recently about the intended use of the aid money (“Everybody who’s in the drug business—guerrillas, autodefensas, or drug traffickers—will be the focus of these operations.”3 ) raise the strong possibility that this is really an antiguerrilla package disguised as an antidrug package. In Colombia, at any rate, it is taken as a given by all sides that the money is intended for anti-insurgency use. Partly this may be because Colombians, who have spent twenty years paying a terrible price for the drug bonanza, cannot believe that anyone would be dumb enough to fight drugs with military assistance. And indeed, if the aid is really aimed at halting drug production, it has to be said that military wars waged on cocaine commerce do not have a good record of success. (It is easy to forget that the Clinton administration was not always so hawkish. Clinton’s first chief of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, Lee Brown, stopped using the term “drug war” when he took office. As I wrote after talking to him in Bogotá in 1993, this was because it seemed to Brown that it was dangerous to use the word “war” in reference to a native population—whether Colombians, or black inhabitants of the Bronx.4 )

In the particular case of the war decreed since the days of the Bush administration on the illegal commerce in cocaine, the balance sheet is dismal, although the large and thriving drug bureaucracy in the United States puts out reports every year citing ever-larger impoundments of cocaine and heroin. The figures are presented as evidence that (a) the war on drugs is being won, because seizures and arrests are increasing, and (b) the war on drugs is not being won fast enough, because seizures and arrests are increasing. Ever-larger budget allocations are necessary, according to this logic, to bring victory within sight.

At first glance, it is hard not to be impressed with the results of the war waged on drugs in Bolivia and Peru. In 1995, according to a recent report by the US State Department, Bolivia had 48,600 hectares of coca under cultivation. In 1999 there were only 21,800. Even more dramatic are the figures for Peru, where production peaked at 115,300 hectares in 1995, and shrank four years later to barely 38,700. But if one takes the total combined figures for hectares of coca under cultivation in Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru in 1995, and again in 1999, the picture is somewhat different. In 1995 the estimated total was 214,800 hectares. In 1999 it was 183,000. In other words, there was no large decline in the total area under cultivation: coca cultivation expanded in Colombia to take up the slack in Bolivia and Peru. A cynic might even speculate that the 1999 decrease of 30,000 hectares is partly the result of some enhanced estimating. It would not be surprising if new, uncounted areas of cultivation have been opened on the other side of the Amazon, in the vast expanse of jungle that belongs to Brazil. It is in any case a reasonable wager that once serious drug interdiction programs get underway in Colombia, cultivation will shift to Brazil and Venezuela. As long as demand continues, that is.

Whether or not the military aid being proposed by the Clinton administration can be used successfully to fight drugs, what is true is that in Colombia a surprising number of people—perhaps a majority of those who shape public opinion—now see the aid package as the country’s last best hope of ending the long, brutal confrontation with the FARC. They reach this conclusion at a time when the Pastrana government is engaging in the most serious and lengthy peace negotiations with the guerrillas in the history of this conflict. If the supporters of the aid package are right, US might and money will be useful in defeating the guerrillas in the field or forcing them to take part in serious and practical peace talks. If the supporters of US military aid are wrong, the FARC will retreat from their current armed clashes with government troops to more traditional forms of guerrilla warfare—ambushes, sabotage operations, urban terrorism, selective killings—which would enable it to survive indefinitely, and set the prospects for peace back for years.

This is the first of three articles.

This Issue

April 13, 2000