In late March, Venezuela’s military bombed and strafed an outpost in the far western part of the country. Its target: a Colombian paramilitary group pursuing Colombian rebels across the border into Venezuela. It was yet another indication of Colombia’s civil strife spreading to other countries.
Colombia reacted angrily at what it considered a foreign intervention in its own affairs. Venezuela responded it was protecting its territory, but in fact, is thought to be sympathetic to the leftist guerrillas who regard Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as an ideological ally.
Colombia’s four decades of civil strife have pitted the democratically elected government against two major leftist guerilla groups, known by their Spanish acronyms as the FARC and the ELN. Illegal right wing paramilitary groups that oppose the insurgents often fight alongside or in coordination with Colombian troops. While the fighting has increased over the past decade, until recently Colombia’s neighbors - Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela - had managed to escape the violence.
That is no longer the case says Russell Crandall, professor of political science at Davidson College in North Carolina.
“What we’re seeing,” he says, “is that the effects of the war in Colombia and the newly aggressive efforts by the administration of President Alvaro Uribe to combat drug trafficking and nacro-guerilla and narco-paramilitary activities have led to greater spillovers in the surrounding countries.”
“While most of the attention right now is on Venezuela,” he says, “because of the reported sympathies between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and some of the Colombian guerilla groups, the two largest groups the ELN and the FARC in particular, it is also important to focus on and to understand the effects going on currently in the northern parts of Ecuador and the Darien area of Panama. And in those two areas it is in some sense similar to Venezuela – increased Colombian guerilla and paramilitary activity. In the case in particular of Ecuador, there has also been an increase in drug producing activity, clandestine drug laboratories.”
In addition, Professor Crandall, author of the book Driven by Drugs: U-S Policy Toward Colombia, says Colombia’s drug trade has spread southeast to Brazil.
“What’s clear is that the Brazilian drug lords are willing to work with any Colombian illegal group that is willing to do business with them,” he says. “It’s a very practical relationship and it’s one that is of utmost concern to the (Luiz Inacio) Lula (Da Silva) Administration. If you look at the Brazilian military’s security concerns right now, they have shifted from southern Brazil and the border with Argentina and Paraguay over to the Amazonian region and its border with Colombia.”
Colombia’s 6,000 kilometer-long border has always been lightly guarded, and people have moved freely across it. But the fighting among armed groups, as well as pressures from the government’s drug eradication campaign, have vastly increased the border traffic.
Some 850,000 Colombians are internally displaced, refugees in their own country. The U.S. Committee for Refugees says another 400,000 Colombians fleeing the violence are living as refugees in other countries.
Linda Rodriguez, associate director of the Latin American Center at the University of California in Los Angeles, says this influx of refugees is more of a threat to neighboring countries than Colombian guerrilla or paramilitary groups.
“The armed groups are not a threat to the governments in that sense of directly threatening them,” she says, “but they are a threat in the sense that they create instability in nations that are already trying to deal with extreme poverty and economic and political crises. It complicates the mix.”
While foreign observers worry that Colombia’s violence may inspire similar insurgencies in other South American nations, Jason Hagen of the Washington Office on Latin America says Colombia’s civil conflict is a special case.
“The only other organization in the Andes that looks anything like the FARC are the remnants of the Sendero Luminiso, the Shining Path of Peru. And that group was virtually exterminated in the 1990’s,” he says. “But frankly, Colombia is really a unique case. And a lot of Colombia’s problems, primarily income disparity and poor distribution of land, you see that throughout the region. But there’s a particular brew of drug trafficking in Colombia, along with really a particularly obstinate and stubborn upper class, which has refused to make any significant reforms for decades, that I think in large part has created the severity of the conflict in Colombia.”
The economic disparities in South America have grown over the last decade, despite a widespread acceptance of Washington inspired free-market reforms. The backlash against the so-called Washington consensus has swept a new wave of center-left and leftist leaders into power throughout the region: Lula Da Silva in Brazil, Lucio Gutierrez in Ecuador, and Nestor Kirchner in Argentina. Along with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an avowed populist, these leaders have promised to address the long standing issues of land reform and social inequality that they say are at the root of South America’s problems.
Some observers fear this new batch of leaders may provide moral or even operational support to the Colombian guerillas, who appear to share similar social and political goals. But Mr. Hagen doubts it.
“If you look at some of the progressive or leftist leaders who have been elected recently: Gutierrez in Ecuador, Chavez in Venezuela and Lula in Brazil, I don’t think any of them can be said to appreciate the guerillas in any way, particularly not Lula or Gutierrez,” he says. “I think that they understand at least the nominal cause to which the guerillas are devoted, which is some kind of social change, but I don’t think any of them condone the FARC’s activities, which are brutal, and I think, internationally condemned.”
But Mr. Hagen says these heads of state could play an important role in easing the strife in Colombia.
“All of these governments have serious domestic issues that they have to deal with,” he says. “And Colombia’s conflict is not really on their radar. But if they were to take an interest in Colombia’s conflict perhaps from a diplomatic perspective, they could encourage a negotiated settlement, which I think is the only way out of Colombia’s conflict at this point. And particularly having regional leaders involved and most importantly leftist leaders, I think, perhaps if done correctly, it could change the FARC’s position here as far as negotiated settlement. We encourage them to get involved in a way that they haven’t done before.”
Many observers say the international war on terror encourages countries to fight for military victory rather than negotiate a political settlement. But if Colombia’s violence continues to spill over its borders and endanger its neighbors, regional leaders may be forced to play a more prominent role.