Colombia: Shattered by War for too Long

Contrary to popular beliefs, Colombia's problems are not all a product of its drug trade and drug cartels. The latter is in fact a product of a much older and more complex set of problems assembled through many years of political instabilities and power struggles. Thus the drug trafficking, which has gained reasonable popularity as one of Latin America's leading dilemmas, can hardly be viewed separately aside from the Liberal-Conservative ongoing disputes, civil war and the rise of the paramilitary.

In times of instability, chaos often rules. Whether these instabilities are caused by an earthquakes or a military coup, the results are often similar -- criminals shrewdly form their own ways to take advantage of the situation. In many cases, their schemes find great success. The Cali Cartel, one of two major drug cartels in Columbia, is said to accumulate an estimated US $5 billion a year. According to a recent CIA report, opium poppy production was up to 23 percent last year, while the production of coca from which cocaine is made was up 20 percent. Such findings, if are truly accurate, show that drug traffickers are winning the drug war and even gaining new territory.

In recent days, Ovejas, a remote northern town, was the stage for another crime, which sadly enough was just another news headline on Colombian radio. After securing their animals with needed food and water and heading home to seek some rest, villagers of Ovejas and other neighboring villages in the northern Surce state were the target of a paramilitary group who claim to be fighting against leftist rebels. The twenty villagers who were beheaded that night, were no rebels, nor were they part of any political parties or conflicts. One man was hacked to death with a machete because he wore a pair of boots that were similar to those worn by rebels. A woman lost her son, and once he was beheaded, the killers came back and beheaded her husband.

But why do such atrocities take place in a county where the literacy rate is over 93 percent and with natural resources so abundant that if managed wisely, poverty could be reduced to a minimum?

Following the hard gained independence of the county from merciless and relentless Spanish colonizers in 1819, Colombia failed to become an exception to those countries that endured a similar fate. Political disputes quickly dismantled the Gran Colombia Federation, which included Venezuela and Ecuador. Yet undermining the union was not the end of the storm and the birth of a new Colombia. Instead, it was the birth of political parties, the unfortunate fate that has been storming the country ever since.

Conservatives, who pushed for centralization and liberals, with their federalist leanings, divided the country at a very early age into two camps. For a country that was left with a great deal of abuse and confusion caused by hundreds of years of foreign domination, partisanship was too much to handle. As a result, wars broke out, bringing with them chaos, devastation and setting the norm for the many years that followed. In the 19-century alone, no less than 50 insurrections and eight civil wars took place.

And in 1948 it was "La Violencia", a cruel and destructive civil war that claimed the lives of 300,000, while each party struggled to dominate the other. Eventually the devastation was brought to an end, and the first promising sign of peace for many years was spotted. Both parties agreed to accept each other and together they joined in the National Front. As always, good things don't last, and the National Front was no exception. In 1974 Liberal President Alfosno Lopez tipped the balance of power once more, paving the road for new movements, new battles and new chaos.

The show in Colombia is run by many parties. Left-wing guerrilla groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are said to be financed by the drug cartels. FARC is engaged in peace talks with the government to end the 36-year-old conflict, which has claimed the lives of over 35,000. Many conservatives see the talks as a waste of time, and demand immediate government action. One of these conservative groups, calling itself United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, has taken it upon itself to get rid of the leftist rebels. Yet the group somehow manages to kill poor villagers instead, and later on distributes press releases saying that the peasants were rebels in disguise.

The Colombian government has failed to stand up to its responsibilities because either it is incapable of fighting thousands of rebels backed with an abundance of drug money, or because it has failed to present a determined style of governing, with clear vision and clean from corruption. While Colombian President Andres Pastrana still hopes for a break-through with the FARC talks, he will most likely negotiate with the paramilitary, which is expected to complicate the situation even further. In the meantime, the U.S. Congress has been asked to provide Colombia with $1.6 billion to strengthen its drug eradication program. But the alleged connection between the government and the paramilitary has caused many human rights organizations to call on the United States to refrain from providing such a large amount of aid, which is unlikely to bring immediate improvement, according to Thomas Pickering, the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs.

Deciding on where Colombia's problems began is much easier than deciding on where the solution becomes realizable. Each party blames the other or others. Some government officials are comfortable with the situation as it is, since it generates more and more aid. But the great beneficiaries from the status quo are the drug cartels whose business has experienced its greatest boom ever. Meanwhile, the displaced Colombian villagers, those with destroyed property and the families of the every day victims are certainly the only ones with little vested interests in an ugly conflict which many experts can tell you when and how has it began, but no one can dare predict when and how will it end.

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