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A cocktail of bombs, drugs and inequality that just keeps on killing

By Domenico Pacitti

The failure of peace talks between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional) earlier this month has fuelled debate among academics about deepening US involvement in a civil conflict that has torn Colombia apart for almost four decades.

It has also focused attention on the aspirations of the country's second-largest leftist guerrilla group. The ELN, which numbers former university lecturers in its ranks and is funded partly by leftwing academics, accuses president Andres Pastrana of betraying the country's interests by agreeing to Plan Colombia. The $ 1.3 billion US aid package aims to eliminate illicit drug production by providing the Colombian armed forces with training and equipment. Pastrana has branded ELN a terrorist group, and Interpol has been alerted that it has lost its political status and its leaders are wanted for murder. This follows an explosion that killed three children and injured 35 civilians just 48 hours after Pastrana had broken off talks.

The ELN, which is demanding 2,500 square miles of demilitarised zone in northern Colombia, says it will consider more talks after next summer's presidential elections. The largest guerrilla group, Farc (the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces), in the news over alleged links with the IRA (the ELN is reportedly being instructed in explosive techniques by the Basque terrorist group Eta), obtained 22,500 square miles in return for supporting Pastrana's election campaign.

The 5,000-strong ELN was founded in 1964 by university students who underwent Cuban training. It has attracted several revolutionary Roman Catholic priests: Manuel Perez Mart!nez, a former Spanish priest, led ELN from the 1970s until his death in 1998. He urged that peace should be understood not as military demobilisation but as a process creating social justice.

The ELN's co-leader, commander Antonio Garc!a, believes that Plan Colombia's true purpose is to help the Colombian army in its counter-insurgency war. Citing a rising US military presence in the country and troops on standby in neighbouring countries, he says Colombians should be left to solve their own problems. He also argues that US-backed spraying of herbicides on drugs crops is inefficient, a health hazard to humans and livestock and based on an incoherent anti-drug policy that should focus on cutting demand at home.

The ELN says it is fighting for peace, democracy, national dignity, social justice and independence from the US and "other imperialists and multinationals", particularly oil companies (it regularly attacks western oil facilities in the country). It says it is not involved in drug dealing, which it calls immoral. And it justifies kidnapping as legitimate temporary "detention" and extortion from multinationals as legitimate fundraising.

It also believes that, as in other Latin American countries in the past, the CIA is behind the rightwing paramilitary groups that are said to be responsible for 85 per cent of killings in Colombia. This would explain why Colombian trade unionists, human rights workers, journalists and progressive teachers and academics who contravene US interests are targeted by the paramilitaries. Just last month, a case was raised against Coca-Cola for using paramilitaries to intimidate and murder trade unionists at a Colombian bottling plant.

The ELN is quick to cite academics to try to lend its aims intellectual weight. Colombia's 1982 literature Nobel laureate, Gabriel Garc!a M rquez, is required reading for a true understanding of the country's history of repression, and linguist Noam Chomsky is praised for exposing the social inequality behind neoliberal policies.

But experts on Latin America do not agree with the ELN's view of events. Malcolm Deas, a fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford, who has studied Colombia since 1963 and spends a third of the year in Bogot , was a UN consultant to the Cesar Gaviria government (1990-94). He has an international reputation as a Colombia specialist.

"The ELN has no realistic plans either for democratising an already pretty democratic country or for distributing wealth. It is not a democratic organisation, and it has very little support in the population at large."

He says the ELN and Farc both try to disguise a lack of coherent programmes by calling for "national conventions" to be held under their auspices. But locals tend to be unenthusiastic: "Colombia's population is some 40 million, most of it is urban, there is a very large middle class. The guerrillas do not represent a plausible or attractive option for the vast majority of the people. Though there is also a great deal wrong with Colombia, and the guerrillas and paramilitaries are quite numerous, these groups are hardly more of a viable political option than the Red Brigade in Italy or the Baader-Meinhoff gang."

Deas believes that the US is not leading the Colombian class war and does not want military escalation: "The size of the military element in Plan Colombia has been much exaggerated. Nobody knows how to solve the drug-trafficking problem, but the government is faced with the more immediate and Colombian problem of what to do about large areas of coca under Farc and, to a lesser extent, ELN control. Why not fumigate at least some of it?" Spraying herbicide, he argues, causes less ecological damage than drug production and far less than the ELN sabotage of the oil industry.

But Deas is also unimpressed by Pastrana, saying his handling of the peace process has failed because of a lack of clarity, detail and preparation. "On the other hand, negotiating with guerrillas is extremely demanding work. Look at Northern Ireland."

The easiest course for the guerrillas would be more of the same, but "most Colombians are fed up with the whole thing: there have been enormous anti-war - not anti-government - demonstrations. There is also more popular support for the Colombian army than is generally reported abroad."

Deas adds that, although the main planks of Plan Colombia are likely to stay, "the US is not anxious to become heavily involved in this very messy situation. There is a good deal of genuine perplexity in Washington."

Lars Schoultz is professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, author of Beneath the United States, an acclaimed study of US foreign policy in Latin America, and widely considered the top US authority on Latin American human rights issues. He agrees that the US is not as responsible for the Colombian situation as it has been for past conflicts in the region.

Schoultz says that for nearly two centuries, US policy in Latin America has tended to serve its own domestic interests and has been underscored by a view of Latin Americans as "an inferior branch of the human species". This has led to aid flowing disproportionately to governments that torture their citizens.

But he holds Colombia responsible for its present problems, saying its power structures are outdated. "A thin elite still dominates the national structure of privilege, adamantly refusing to modernise. It is as if our Southerners continued to insist that blacks ride in the back of the bus." He sees no likelihood of peace until Colombians solve their political problems and begin to address the nation's pressing social inequalities.

Nevertheless, he says the US and Europe, where cocaine use is rising, are "intimately responsible" for the country's illicit drugs problem. And he believes Plan Colombia will only make matters worse. But, despite concerns about President George W. Bush's revival of Reaganite advisers on Latin American policy, he thinks things have changed. "I am convinced that we are not the Black Force behind this drama as we were in Central America a decade ago," he says.

Note: This article first appeared in The Times Higher Education Supplement on August 31 2001.