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Last Updated:9/23/04
Speech by U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Wood, Georgetown University, Washington, September 20, 2004

U.S. Support for Colombia's National Strategy for Defense and Democratic Security

Ambassador William B. Wood
Georgetown University
September 20, 2004


I would like to thank the Colombia Program of Georgetown University, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Fundacion Seguiridad y Democracia, and the Inter-American Dialogue for inviting me to this discussion of the local dimension of Colombia's policies for national defense and democratic security.

It is an honor to be appearing at a conference that features such distinguished leaders as General Ospina and General Castro, Governor Gaviria, and Mayor Fajardo, and so many others with whom I have had the pleasure of working in Colombia.

Colombia is fighting a four-front war, against the FARC, the ELN, the paramilitaries, and the drug gangs. To meet this challenge, the military and police forces have been increased from 252,000 in 2000 to almost 360,000 at present strength. Defense expenditures have increased 46 percent since President Uribe took office, and are expected to continue to rise, to 4.9% of GDP in 2006. To pay these costs, according to IMF figures, about 30 percent of Colombia's GDP is collected in government revenues, although some of this is in the comparatively inefficient profits of para-statal enterprises.

Colombia is not fighting the same way on all four fronts. Against the FARC, who have refused President Uribe's sine qua non condition of a declared unilateral cessation of hostilities, the government is engaged in a maximum, head-to-head effort. Against the drug gangs, the same. Against the ELN, following the safe return of European and Israeli hostages late in 2003, and subsequent further demonstrations of ELN good faith, the government continues its military pressure, but tempered with an embryonic peace process in which the Mexican government is serving as facilitator. We will have to see how that comes out.

Against the paramilitary organizations, the situation is more complex, but not less hopeful. The paramilitaries continue to be divided among themselves. More than 1000 already have been demobilized through local peace processes in Medellin and Cajibio (in Cauca province). Up to 6,000 more may be demobilized before the end of this year from the northern and eastern paramilitary organizations. (Many among the paramilitaries are trying to stop this development, and the government remains short of resources to demobilize and re-insert these combatants.)

Active talks continue in Santa Fe de Ralito in Cordoba province, where virtually all other major paramilitary leaders have been concentrated under government and OAS oversight since early July, based on a May agreement between the government and those leaders. The paramilitaries, as was to be expected, are making every effort to stretch the provisions of that agreement to their benefit; so far, the government has held very firm.

The government continues its military and police operations against paramilitaries who continue violent or drug-related activity. The Uribe Administration has killed or captured twice as many paramilitaries in the last two years as the previous Administration did in an equivalent period. As of September 1, the government this year has arrested 3,170 paramilitaries and seized over 3,300 small arms and explosives from the paramilitaries, both substantial increases over 2003.

President Uribe made clear his position in a pivotal ultimatum on April 27:

"[The paramilitaries] must demonstrate their will for peace by accepting a concentration zone, with clear rules under OAS verification. They must advance toward demobilization. Otherwise, the government will continue fighting them until they are eliminated."
The paramilitaries continue to present a grave threat to Colombia. Contrary to the policy of the Uribe Administration, elements of the public forces, and elements of the larger society, continue to cooperate with or, more frequently, tolerate, the paramilitaries as the lesser of two evils.

The paramilitaries do their best to magnify this pernicious misperception. In a recent presentation by Salvatore Mancuso at the invitation of the Colombian Congress, he sought to justify the brutality and lawlessness of the paramilitaries on the basis of what he termed the "sacrifice" of the paramilitaries in defending the country. The U.S denounced the event and the argument. And we continue to be concerned that, even though paramilitary violence has clearly been reduced, more insidious paramilitary intimidation, extortion, and selective violence remains a major problem in many cities and rural districts.

In the case of the paramilitaries, the enemy of our enemy is not our friend. The U.S. and the Uribe Administration are committed to ensuring that any cooperation with the paramilitaries is punished, and that the leaders of all terrorist groups, including the paramilitaries, face the force of law.

We also support early adoption of the draft law on "Justice and Compensation," which provides for judicial processing, jail terms, and payment of compensation to victims by terrorist leaders. Passage of the bill would make clear that there will be no impunity through the peace process and give the Colombian negotiator, Dr. Restrepo, a firm bottom line in his discussions.

The U.S. is providing substantial assistance to Colombia's war against terror: about $162 million from Andean Counter-drug Initiative funds, plus about $100 million in FMF assistance, go to this effort. Our assistance takes the form of sustainment, especially aviation, training, planning assistance, and equipment. Our forces deploy only in the capital or in large headquarters. Neither U.S. military nor U.S contractors patrol with the Colombians or engage in activities that might place them in a combat situation. As I indicated earlier, the Colombians recognize that this is their fight and have organized themselves to wage it; we are proud to help.

Our combined efforts are paying off. After 14 months in Colombia, I have seen the Colombian public forces carry out operations that were beyond them when I first arrived. I have seen improved jointness across services in operations, planning and logistics, coordination of intelligence, harmonization of doctrine, centralization of training and maintenance. But they could still do better.

The Colombians are also increasingly skilled in the use of small, agile special forces units, in psychological operations, and in other techniques especially suited to counter-terror.

Other improvements, although not directly military are also contributing. U.S.-trained anti-kidnapping units have been extraordinarily successful in rescuing victims of kidnapping for ransom. And our training has helped the Colombians reduce the number of fatalities during bomb defusing from a high of seven a year to zero.

The enemies of Colombia all operate against the backdrop of the drug trade. The FARC and the paramilitaries are key narco-trafficking organizations in Colombia. The only recent large-scale massacre -- of more than 30 coca-growing peasants in La Gebarra in Norte de Santander province -- represented an attempt by the FARC to take over a paramilitary drug area. (In response to the massacre, the Colombians, with our assistance, re-directed drug eradication operations to that region, so that they would learn that they will not profit from such brutality.)

Major drug traffickers have bought their way into senior paramilitary positions to give political cover to their drug operations, just as the FARC use their so-called revolutionary ideology on their side of the ledger. In fact, even Pablo Escobar attempted to portray himself as a political actor. And the drug trade has proven its ability to corrupt further even the most perverse and brutal terrorist ideology.

The druggers are themselves an important source of violence: In Cali, Colombia's third largest city, violence has not diminished as it has elsewhere in the country, because of a brutal feud for control of the Norte del Valle cartel there.

The U.S. is working hard to help Colombia defeat the drug trade, whether it wears a political face or not. Through the Andean Counter-drug Initiative, we are providing more than $150 million this year in assistance to the Colombian National Police, in addition to more direct cooperation through DEA, Justice, and other U.S. law enforcement agencies.

In the southwestern provinces of Cauca and Narino, the unprecedented coordination and cooperation of several U.S. agencies, and the Colombian police, navy, army and air force, carried out last month a major campaign, against multiple targets. It seized or destroyed more than 10.5 tons of drugs, three cocaine crystal labs, two heroin labs, over 5 tons of pre-cursor chemicals, and a number of high speed boats.

We are setting records in every major counter-drug category. In 2003, eradication, mostly by air but by hand where appropriate, destroyed more than 130,000 hectares of drugs in the field last year, the equivalent of 160 metric tons of cocaine and opium. In 2003, combined U.S.-Colombian operations seized -- by sea, land, and air -- another 140 metric tons. So in 2003, the equivalent of 300 metric tons of drugs did not get to where it was intended to go. The Office of the National Drug Control Program estimated that less than 115,000 hectares of coca remained in Colombia at the end of 2003. And, in 2004, we are ahead of last year in both eradication and interdiction.

Local Security

To paraphrase Tip O'Neill, all security is "local." If you and your family don't feel secure, there is no security. It is local to each village and town in Colombia. Local to each mayor and town councilman. Local to each representative and senator. And, even in Colombia, where there historically have been strong local communities but a weak national identity, increasingly local across the nation.

In February, for the first time in modern Colombian history, national authority was extended to all municipios -- that is, all counties -- in the country; so for the first time, national authority existed in 100% of the national territory.

In recently recovered towns like Miraflores, a community that for more than a decade was dedicated to cocaine production under FARC control, the Department of Defense and USAID are working closely with the Colombian government to help restore basic public services and new, legitimate economic activity there.

Miraflores is on the southeast edge of the area of Plan Patriota where, today, some 22,000 troops are engaged in fierce fighting to re-take areas that have been the fortress of the FARC for decades.

The fighting is hard. The majority of government casualties come from terrorist land mines, and the FARC has learned new ways to make more savage use of them. Now they mount them in trees and bushes so that soldiers, trained to check the ground for traps, with heads down detonate chest-high trip wires; and often lose more than a leg. Now the FARC combines mine fields with sharpshooters, whose only job is to ensure that patrols entering the minefields cannot exit the way they entered; they must go through more mines to get out, under fire.

The government has also changed its tactics, in one way more important than all the others: The Colombian forces no longer seek merely to engage the enemy, giving the more mobile FARC an opportunity to melt away and return when the coast is clear. The Colombian forces have been deployed for months in the Plan Patriota area, and are there to stay. The effort to keep 22,000 troops deployed, equipped, healthy, with good morale, in deep, hostile jungle, hundreds of kilometers from supply bases, is enormous. And, so far, an enormous accomplishment.

And the effort is achieving results. Ten towns returned to governmental control in the Plan Patriota area. Hundreds of hectares of drug crops and dozens of drug labs destroyed.

More than 200 FARC camps dismantled. These camps range from very small to very large complexes for FARC leaders. In one camp they found a 42-inch TV, a video-conferencing facility, and a fully-stocked hotel that FARC leaders used as a guest house for visiting drug lords so they could conduct business in luxury. In one FARC leader's elaborate home, they found a large swimming pool in the shape of a guitar. (After 40 years of so-called "popular revolution," the leaders do not live in the same way as the rank-and-file, or their captive populations.)

Military and police efforts are also showing results in the center of national population: the valleys between the three mountain ranges and the coasts. (This region is the size of California and has about the same number of people: 39 million.)

At Christmas and again at Easter, Colombians set records for domestic holiday travel, over roads that had been impassable because of the terrorist threat. Homicides were down by 20% nationwide in 2003, and kidnappings down by 39%. That trend has accelerated in 2004.

The province where Bogota is located, population more than 9.5 million, has largely been cleared of terrorist base camps, terrorist violence has been sharply reduced, and the government has both the tactical and the strategic initiative there. In the last year, national forces killed or captured almost a dozen key mid-level FARC commanders and destroyed several previously powerful FARC fronts there, writing an end to the FARC strategy of encircling the capital.

In the major cities of Medellin, Cartagena, Barranquilla, and Santa Marta, with a combined population of 6.5 million, violence also has declined sharply and the mood of optimism is palpable. In Medellin, the neutralization of the infamous "Comuna Trece" bands, and the successful local demobilization of the Bloque Cacique Nutibara paramilitary group have played a key role in the 51 percent reduction in homicides in the last year, although paramilitary and drug elements remain active in the city. In Cartagena, our records do not show a successful terrorist attack for two years. In Barranquilla, new investment is spurring new economic growth. In Santa Marta, the level of violence has declined sharply, in spite of the city's proximity to the coca fields and drug routes through the Tayrona National Park that feed the drug trade in the Caribbean.

Outside the cities, conditions also have improved. Forced displacements were down by 49% in 2003, indicating that rural inhabitants feel less threatened and see more hope at home.

Nevertheless, Colombia still has over 2,000,000 internally displaced persons, the third largest displaced population in the world after Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Right here on our doorstep. Since FY00, the U.S. has provided more than $110 million to help them; we have assisted more than one million displaced Colombians in that time.

Security is More Than Security

But it is important to remember that security is more than effective military and police action. Colombia is in its fourth decade of terrorism and its third decade of drug trafficking. They have attacked the political system at the national and the local levels, the justice system, the law enforcement system, and the military, precisely because these are the institutions that can directly respond to the narco-terrorist agenda of lawlessness and brutality. That means Colombia is now in its second generation of resignation, accommodation or, worst of all, complicity.

President Uribe's greatest accomplishment has been to give a sense of hope to the country, a sense that they can overcome these problems.

And Colombians have responded with determination to his message. Elected with slightly more than 50% of the vote, President Uribe now enjoys a level of popular approval above 75%. It is increasingly likely that the Colombian congress will approve this autumn a constitutional reform permitting him to run for president again in 2006. The military and the police enjoy levels of popular support above 70%.

Colombians are returning to Colombia, and returning their money to Colombia for investment, recovery, and reconstruction. Attacks on the oil pipeline in northern Colombia have fallen from a high of almost 180 in 2001 to 15 in the last year. In the last six months, major multinational oil exploration returned to Colombia after an absence of a decade. Unemployment has fallen from close to 20%, to about 14% last year, and should be under 13% this year. Colombia's enthusiasm for a free trade agreement with the U.S. -- in spite of the obstacles posed by the human and financial costs of the war against narco-terrorism -- is a clear indication of the country's sense of confidence in its future.

Economic growth also extends to the countryside, where we and the government are attempting to promote economic activity and more normal social development. We are focusing our efforts on key rural "growth corridors," to try to build new infrastructure and stimulate sustainable opportunities for rural communities.

We focus especially on providing an alternative to drug cultivation, so that areas where coca was once grown, such as Putamayo province, do not go back, and other areas do not start. Since the beginning of the Uribe Administration, we have provided aid to more than 22,000 families, and developed more than 700 rural infrastructure projects.

Colombia has taken important steps to strengthen the rule of law and improve the administration of justice. In January, with our assistance, Colombia will begin to conduct trials through an oral adversary process which, once it settles in, should dramatically improve both the transparency and speed of trials. To guard against corruption, the Prosecutor General has ordered that supervisory prosecutors take lie detector tests conducted by us; we have tested more than 100 officials this year. He has initiated a new internal investigative commission within the 18,000-man Fiscalia that, for the first time in history, will have the mandate, the authority, and the independence to investigate allegations of wrongdoing. And take action.

We are also pleased that in the last several months the dialogue between the government and human rights NGOs, both Colombian and international, has improved. President Uribe has met with representatives of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and a host of others, and publicly endorsed their contribution to advance human rights. The U.S. strongly supports this cooperation to advance respect for human rights. The U.S. is contributing $24 million this year to advance democracy and human rights in Colombia, in addition to our humanitarian and other justice-related programs.

Restoration of the integrity of the civilian and military justice systems is the only way to put an end to do-it-yourself justice, corruption, and impunity. As part of that effort, the U.S. human rights protection program is helping protect more than 1,300 vulnerable Colombians, including many in the labor, press, and human rights fields.

We are very pleased that the Prosecutor General has recently taken the lead in investigating the deaths of three labor activists in Arauca province during a raid by military personnel. We also are pleased by the efforts of the government to get to the bottom of the killing of several civilians in Cajamarca by troops on patrol in FARC-dominated territory. It is vital that these cases be fully investigated and, if wrongdoing is found, that it be punished appropriately.

In cases in which the U.S. has the most direct interest, extraditions, where the accused is believed to have directly harmed U.S. citizens or broken U.S. law, Colombia continues to provide full support. In the two years of the Uribe Administration, more than 130 persons have been extradited to the U.S. for trial for narcotics, terrorism, and money-laundering offenses, a world record. We believe that this cooperation, a fundamental element of our alliance, will continue.


I have attempted to depict a complex, difficult situation, to which we are responding with an ambitious, difficult policy. Not all the news is good every day, not on the military front, not on the counter-drug front, not on the development and humanitarian fronts, not on the human rights front. But our policy enjoys strong, durable bipartisan support because it responds not only the needs of a friend and ally, but also to the fundamental values and vital security needs of the United States.

More Americans died from drugs coming from Colombia in 2001 than died in the World Trade Towers. Some three times more Americans have died in the last year from drugs coming from Colombia than have died in Iraq. That number will continue to die until the Colombians, with our help, resolve the threat. We cannot be secure in the streets of our cities, towns, and suburbs without winning in Colombia.

Nor can we conquer terrorism without winning in Colombia. Colombia is home to some 30,000 active terrorists -- FARC, ELN, paramilitaries -- the largest concentration in the world. The FARC has held three American citizens hostage for more than 18 months. Their safe return home is one of our highest priorities.

And we cannot be secure in our hemisphere without winning in Colombia. Right now, the other nations of the Andean region are going through difficult times. Brazil is the second-largest consumer of cocaine in the world. The wealth and violence of the Colombian drug terrorists dwarf the ability of the smaller nations of the Caribbean and Central America to defend themselves. If we do not stop the threat in Colombia -- where the threat may be most ferocious, but where the institutions, leadership, and political consensus are also strongest -- where will we draw the line?

So that is my final comment about the "local" aspects of Colombian national defense and democratic security. It is "local" here too. In our homeland. And in our homes. And we must stay the course.

Thank you.

Washington, DC
September 20, 2004

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