Guerrillas’ return to arms in Colombia complicates U.S. policy in Latin America
The Colombia peace deal that ended the hemisphere’s longest war is in jeopardy, potentially handing the Trump administration another Latin American crisis, threatening to unleash cocaine production and complicating U.S. efforts to topple neighboring Venezuela’s government.
Colombia was painstakingly attempting to overcome 55 years of civil war between successive governments and leftist guerrillas that claimed more than 250,000 lives. With enthusiastic support from the Obama administration, then-President Juan Manuel Santos brokered an end to the conflict in late 2016 — and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
For the record:
6:35 PM, Sep. 04, 2019An earlier version of this report said about 1.4 million Venezuelans have fled the country, with most taking refuge in Colombia. About 4.3 million Venezuelans have fled, with 1.4 million taking refuge in Colomiba.
But a week ago, dissidents from one of the signatories to that agreement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, announced they were taking up weapons again and would fight the government for better conditions for former combatants.
“The state hasn’t fulfilled its most important obligation, which is to guarantee the life of its citizens,” former FARC commander Ivan Marquez, whose real name is Luciano Marin, said in a video message. He claimed to have numerous followers, and he was reacting to the unexplained killings of several former guerrillas.
The Colombian government and its U.S. backers have sought to downplay the rebellion.
“The peace process is not in danger,” President Ivan Duque told a small group of reporters Tuesday night here in Bogota, the Colombian capital. He was speaking on the margins of a visit to his country by U.S. presidential advisor and first daughter Ivanka Trump and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.
Duque, whose commitment to the peace process has been questioned, said it was necessary to distinguish between the handful of dissidents returning to war and the thousands of former guerrillas who remain a part of the transition to civilian life, a key component of the peace process.
But Marquez’s announcement underscored the fragility of a difficult and as yet far from complete reconciliation.
Santos invested enormous energy in ending the war. Duque, his successor, comes from a right-wing party that always believed the peace agreement was too lenient on the guerrillas, who committed egregious atrocities, as did the army and paramilitary units loyal to the government.
Under the peace accord, an estimated 7,000 FARC fighters laid down their weapons and were to rejoin civilian life, along with 17,000 noncombatant followers.
Duque and U.S. officials have branded the mutinous FARC members as drug traffickers, whose once lucrative production of coca plants, the principal ingredient in cocaine, has suffered with the return of peace and normality.
Colombia in recent years rejected U.S. programs to eradicate coca by aerial spraying, in part because of health concerns. Production of the drug soared. Duque, who took office a year ago, ramped up manual eradication and last month, for the first time since 2012, the land dedicated to coca production slightly declined. Trump issued words of praise, saying Duque had made “early progress in rolling back the record-high coca cultivation and cocaine production levels inherited from his predecessor.”
During Colombia’s long years of war, violence became a cover in some areas for massive coca production. The peace process was meant to reestablish government authority over all parts of the nation; stopping that could allow drug traffickers to operate unfettered, officials say.
Trouble in Colombia also complicates the administration’s signature policy effort in Latin America: removing Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from office. Maduro’s leftist government has taken his once-prosperous country down a road of social and political devastation, with widespread hunger and repression that have propelled about 4.3 million Venezuelans to flee, with 1.4 million taking refuge in Colombia.
Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special representative for Venezuela, accused Maduro of “complicity” in the renewed Colombia guerrilla activity.
“The Caracas regime is fomenting this,” he said in a briefing late last month, adding that the goal is to force Colombia to cede parts of its territory.
Sullivan, the deputy secretary of State, said here that Venezuela acted as a “safe haven” for criminal organizations that have the potential to wreak havoc in Colombia. He and Trump on Wednesday traveled to the city of Cucuta, on Colombia’s border with Venezuela and the principal crossing point for fleeing Venezuelans.
Sullivan announced a new humanitarian aid package of $120 million for Venezuelan refugees and the countries, such as Colombia, that shelter them. It brings to more than $376 million the U.S. has given Venezuelans since 2017.
The State Department called the exodus the “largest external displacement of people in the hemisphere’s history.”
The Trump administration has thus far refused to give temporary protection status to Venezuelan refugees who reach the U.S.
The war left Colombia a bitterly polarized country. Rare is the Colombian who doesn’t know or isn’t related to a victim of the violence — someone killed or kidnapped.
Shortly after the peace plan was signed at an elaborate ceremony in Cartagena, with then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry in attendance, it was on the losing side of a referendum.
“The wounds are still raw,” said Bruce Bagley, an expert on Colombia at the University of Miami. Duque and his political patron former President Alvaro Uribe have been dedicated to discrediting the peace plan, he said, by refusing to allocate money for its various components. And so, he said, its demise was perhaps all but inevitable.
Colombians have greeted Marquez’s declaration nervously, not ready to give up on peace but keenly aware of how badly the process could deteriorate.
“This is a blow to the fragile peace process,” said Adam Isacson, who specializes in defense policy at the Washington Office on Latin America. He said the rebellion remained small but nevertheless could create hazards for the government and deteriorate into renewed bloodshed.
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