Comments by a top U.S. official suggesting the United States might use military force against armed Colombian groups that Washington considers as terrorist organizations met with a swift, and largely negative, reaction in Colombia.
The comments came earlier this week from the State Department's chief of counter-terrorism, Francis Taylor, who was discussing how the Bush administration views the situation in Colombia after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.
Colombia is in the midst of a decades-long conflict, pitting the government against two leftist insurgencies and a right-wing paramilitary organization. The country's largest guerrilla group, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the rightist United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia are involved in the drug trade to raise money for their fight. A smaller leftist rebel group, the National Liberation Army, relies on kidnapping and extortion for its funding.
The United States has labeled all three groups as terrorist organizations. As such, Mr. Taylor told reporters, the three will get, as he put it, the "same treatment" as any other terrorist group, including possible "use of military force," as in Afghanistan.
His comments were front-page news in Colombia's newspapers this week. The United States is providing more than $1-billion in aid, most of it in military equipment and training, to help the Colombian military combat drug trafficking and the armed groups that benefit from the illicit trade. Both the U.S. and Colombian governments have said repeatedly there will be no U.S. military intervention in the conflict.
However, political analyst Arlene Tickner of the University of Los Andes believes the situation may be changing following the September 11 attacks. "The United States has tried to establish a clear distinction between counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency in the country for multiple reasons." she said. "One of them is simply that current legislation inhibits it from becoming involved in counter-insurgency efforts on a global level. The shift from drug trafficking organizations to terrorist organizations in terms of their representation of the FARC could essentially lead to a more direct counter-insurgent effort.
This possibility has generated a largely negative reaction in Colombia in the wake of Mr. Taylor's comments.
A candidate for next year's Presidential election, Luis Eduardo Garzon, says, if there is a U.S. military intervention, everyone in Colombia will suffer. Mr. Garzon told the Caracol radio station the Colombian government should move forward more quickly in its peace talks with the FARC, while the rebels should recognize that time is running out for reaching a peace agreement.
In a joint statement, the governors of several Colombian departments where the conflict is especially intense rejected any military intervention. They also called on Washington not to interfere in the effort to negotiate an end to the Colombian conflict.
The government of President Andres Pastrana has been holding peace talks with the FARC for almost three years but there has been little progress.
Because of the ongoing talks, political analyst Tickner notes, the Pastrana government is reluctant to label the FARC as a terrorist organization. "Pastrana himself has taken great care to not associate the FARC either with terrorist organizations or with drug trafficking organizations," she said. "The military, on the other hand, which perhaps doesn't favor the peace process as much other actors in Colombia do, immediately following September 11th began to portray the FARC in particular as a terrorist group. The military took out huge advertisements in national papers presenting different FARC attacks as terrorist attacks."
Despite this, Colombian Armed Forces chief, General Fernando Tapias, reacted to the comments coming out of Washington by saying Colombia does not need any foreign military intervention. General Tapias told the El Tiempo newspaper Colombia can carry out the fight against terrorism on its own.
In the meantime, the U.S. State Department appears to be downplaying Mr. Taylor's comments about possible use of U.S. military force in Colombia. Spokesman Philip Reeker told reporters Tuesday the military option is not "being discussed at all". Mr. Reeker added that President Bush has said the current campaign against terrorism is against those groups with a global reach.