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Terrorism Havens: Colombia

Updated: December 2005

Is Colombia a haven for terrorists?

Yes. While the country has no known ties to al-Qaeda’s brand of global terrorism, Colombia’s ongoing civil war, feeble central government, powerful guerrillas and paramilitary groups, and wealthy drug lords have made the country a sanctuary for homegrown terrorist groups that carry out bombings, extortion, kidnapping, and assassination.

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What kind of country is Colombia?

The republic of Colombia, population 42 million, is a democracy in northern South America. It shares borders with Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela and is approximately three times the size of California .

Why is terrorism and violence prevalent in Colombia?

Colombia has a long history of violence and unrest, including La Violencia, the 1948-58 civil war that claimed more than 200,000 lives. In the early 1960s, leftist militant groups—such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN)—began to wage guerrilla war against the government throughout the countryside. After Colombia became the hub of the global cocaine trade in the 1980s, the violent Cali and Medellín drug cartels gained power and caused more havoc. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the emergence of rightist paramilitary forces. Known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, they were backed principally by drug kingpins and rural business leaders. Today, the FARC, the ELN, and the AUC—motivated by a mix of ideology, hunger for drug money, and desire for power—engage in terrorism and the narcotics trade, despite the U.S. aid package known as Plan Colombia .

What is Plan Colombia?

Plan Colombia , which began in 2000 and made Colombia the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, is a multibillion-dollar aid program designed to help Colombia ’s chronically weak government combat narcotrafficking. The plan provides for 800 U.S. advisers—half of them military—and includes programs to train and equip Colombia’s military and police, interdict drug shipments, and help peasants cultivate crops other than the coca used to make cocaine. U.S. Special Forces have trained three counternarcotics battalions as prototypes of an improved Colombian Army, which historically has been one of Latin America ’s weakest. But congressional critics have blasted Plan Colombia for failing to: reduce Colombia’s cocaine output; break ties between Colombia ’s armed forces and paramilitary groups; wean coca-growing peasants from their deadly crop; and adequately protect the U.S. citizens who, as private security contractors, conduct risky aerial drug eradication flights. The Bush administration shifted Plan Colombia funding to focus not only on drugs but also on the rebel forces besieging the country’s weak central government. In August 2002, President Bush signed antiterrorism legislation authorizing Colombia to use U.S. aid previously earmarked for counterdrug operations to directly combat the FARC, the ELN, and the AUC.

How long will Plan Colombia last?

The program is funded through 2005, with three-quarters of the approximately $600 million per year in aid to Colombia earmarked for the military and police. The remaining funds are for social, economic, and humanitarian programs. U.S. policy experts are divided about Plan Colombia’s successor: whether the counter-drug policy focus should be continued, or whether to implement a new program involving European and other countries in a broad strategy that links security and the drug war to economic development and institution building in Colombia . Those who support expanding assistance to Colombia warn that, until drug use in the United States and Europe drops dramatically, poor farmers won’t stop growing illicit crops. While most experts believe ending major assistance to Colombia would be a mistake, there is some discussion in Congress on crafting a “U.S. exit strategy” from Colombia .

Why can’t Colombia handle its terrorism problem without U.S. help?

Because its central government is extremely weak—battered by leftist rebels who have long controlled the countryside, rightist paramilitary armies, and an out-of-control drug trade that funds both sides and fuels the cycle of chaos. These problems are exacerbated by the steady demand for cocaine throughout the United States and Europe. Experts say the burden is simply too much for the state to shoulder alone, but note that an important element of engagement with Colombia is strengthening its security and other institutions.