A Conversation with Steven Dudley

Colombia's War from the Ground Up

Congress passed an emergency aid package June 30 that includes more than $1 billion to help fight the Colombian drug war -- despite criticism that the war is failing. The aid primarily provides military training and equipment to the Colombian government for its war against the country's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Reporting from Colombia, Steven Dudley covers the war in the current issue of The American Prospect ["The Colombia Quagmire," TAP, July 31, 2000].

Steven Dudley is a journalist living in Bogotá. He reports regularly for The Washington Post and National Public Radio.

Q: [L]egislation just recently passed by Congress gives $1.3 billion over two years to Colombia -- three times what the U.S. gave last year. Can you explain the reasoning behind such a dramatic increase? Why now?

A: There are so many interests involved with that particular question. . . . I think the elections play a role in the way in which the Colombian conflict is viewed from the U.S. side. There are many politicians who seek to use the war on drugs to further their political careers. Also, the U.S. has traditionally been at the forefront of this supposed war on drugs, and they want to continue playing that role. They also want to continue combining what they see as social and economic programs with the militaristic approach, and in that way, they can satisfy a lot of interests such as the Pentagon's and war industries'.

People are concerned for the region as well -- particularly the ecological effect of herbicides, the ecological effect of growing drugs -- the further reaches of the Amazon are particularly vulnerable to this type of destruction. Lastly, there is also genuine interest in helping Colombia; I'm not absolutely cynical. I do think the Colombian conflict has gotten worse, and there is a genuine interest in helping the Colombians resolve it.

Q: One line in your story struck me. You say, "But we are almost just minutes from being prime targets for a FARC ambush." These ambushes became very real for you. What was that like, and that sort of immediacy? Should it affect our understanding of what's taking place in Colombia?

A: It was surreal, really. The guy says, "The FARC could attack at any moment," but you don't think about it that much. The point is that the Colombian government and military in general just do not have control over the situation. And their ineptness that leads us into this situation, whereby we're basically entering darkness in the middle of the jungle in the middle of FARC-controlled territory, is just illustrative of how unorganized they are. The bottom line is that these guys not only put themselves in great danger, but they put us in great danger, simply to show us that they can burn a few useless coca labs.

And at the end of the day, this war is useless. You make this huge effort, you put all these people in danger, and what is the result? A few poor peasant farmers in custody and a number of useless coca labs that can be rebuilt in a half-day, now burned down.

Q: Which is basically how you describe the government's plan in Putumayo, as "futile." Are you saying that the goal of squashing the FARC should be abandoned altogether, or should different strategies be devised?

A: Well, there's no question that it requires a different strategy. The drug war in general requires a different strategy. The war on drugs has been going on for 20 years, and the result has been disastrous for these countries in terms of violence, ecological disasters, and long-term psychological effects on people under siege who don't actually believe they're doing anything wrong. For them, picking coca leaves is no different than someone working on a tobacco field in the south of our country.

This strategy has really led to some horrible consequences, and it needs to be thought out again. You need to take a step back and say, Is this policy going to lead to a more peaceful Colombia and a more peaceful region? Because, really, the effect of our policies could be disastrous not only for Colombia, but also for Ecuador and Brazil. . . . Instead of having this drug push into the south, you'll have this push into the north of Ecuador or a push into the jungle region of the Amazon. That's what we're looking at here -- a type of plan that's consistently failed yet is being implemented again.

Q: So then what will make American decision-makers realize this?

A: The sad thing about the way the U.S. political system works is that the only thing that's going to start shifting policy away from this militaristic attitude is if the FARC kill a few American advisers or if they knock down a few more planes or some helicopters with U.S. personnel in them. That's the really sad and shallow sense of political rightness and wrongness people have in Washington and, really, across the country.

This whole idea of whether we should be in there for the good or bad of Colombians doesn't come up. It's always whether we should be in there for the good or bad of the United States. The whole debate swirling around whether it's the Vietnamization of this conflict or not is ultimately really selfish. It doesn't take into account all the things that could happen to Colombia, to the Colombian peace process, to the Colombian people.

Q: I've heard you mention Vietnam a couple times. How does the situation in Colombia compare to past American involvement in places like Bosnia, Somalia, and Vietnam?

A: It's so different. . . . There are many complexities to it all, the amount of U.S. involvement is different, and the way in which people fight wars now has changed. . . . You really are comparing two things that just can't be compared. Particularly regarding the level of U.S. involvement -- it doesn't even begin to approach what it did in Vietnam at this stage and what it will [approach] -- because of things like Somalia. The U.S. now understands that it can't control these environments, and it also can't control the political fallout that may occur if any U.S. personnel get killed or if they're involved in some sort of atrocities, massacres, or human rights violations.

I dislike that comparison so much, but it's frequently used, and all for political gain. It's irresponsible, really.

Q: I can imagine that it's frustrating.

A: Yeah, it's just selfish. It's the very selfish way in which the United States approaches foreign policy, and the way they've always approached foreign policy. You would think that after something like Vietnam happened that people would mature -- that political sensibilities would evolve, but they haven't.

Q: Other publications -- most recently, Salon -- are painting a picture that Americans are being deceived, perhaps even by a U.S. cover up [of information about the American Army pilot who crashed in Colombia]. I'm curious how you find yourself received by the Colombian and American militaries. Do people seem eager to tell their stories, or are there reservations about talking?

A: With regards to the U.S. military, most of the dealings with them that I've had are through the U.S. embassy in Colombia. Beginning a few years ago, a new ambassador arrived, Curtis Kamman, and his policy has been very much to stonewall the press. The embassy and the military are not up-front about what they're doing, who's involved, how many advisers there are, training, etcetera. Their hatred for the press is really across the board. So what they've managed to do is foster these conspiracy theories more than quell them. That's the result of this policy.

Now, this whole idea about a cover-up, I don't believe it, but at the same time, there are obviously question marks, and there always will be. For instance, what the U.S. government has done, very aptly, is contracted a private military consultancy agency to do its dirty work. By "dirty work," I mean a top-to-bottom review of the defense ministry, helping it clean out human rights abusers from the Colombian forces. And in that way, the U.S. has been able to wash its hands of a lot of accusations.

Q: The on-the-ground approach that you took in writing the article is also unusual for coverage of this topic. Is this your usual style?

A: Not usually, no. . . . In this case, because it's such an emotionally charged debate, the best way I think to approach it is just to go down and essentially say what I saw. . . . The story pretty much speaks for itself -- this is the perspective from the ground. And this is where the United States is going to put its aid.

I don't think too many people will come to the conclusion that it's a very sound idea. . . . There are too many years of fighting and too many actors to piece it into a very nice black-and-white vision that many people would like to have -- especially following up on the Central American conflicts of the 1980s.

Q: I was really struck by José Pedrero's story. The Colombian government promised him equipment to help convert new crops, but it hasn't followed through, and now he's dismayed. He's obviously representative of a lot of other people. What do you think is going to restore the faith of Colombians in their government -- that the government will come through on promises of economic assistance, that they're not supporting paramilitaries, that they're not corrupt?

A: I think it's a very long process. The government can restore confidence if they do start coming through on projects like José Pedrero's. Once they start that process, it'll take who knows how long -- 20 to 50 years -- to restore faith in these sorts of institutions.

There are so many parts of Colombia that are abandoned to their own fate. I do mean abandoned -- they have nothing, very little. Maybe a school or two, at best a police presence, at worst none of these things. For example, in a place like Putumayo, you have only one major road that's even partially paved, and that's true for a lot of areas. Really what can the Colombians expect from the government when they don't even have paved roads?

In areas like Putumayo, the only one who's really exercised any authority or kept any order in their lives are armed groups like the guerillas. They've exercised authority. They are the ones who have resolved disputes between neighbors, who have reprimanded the husband who cheated on the wife. They are the ones who have kicked out all the thieves (or in some cases, actually killed them).

The situation is that there is no presence of the government. And that's where it needs to start -- with a presence. More importantly, what people say is that the government doesn't need to start with a military presence, which is what they've often done. They come in first with the military, and that's really not a positive thing to do, but that's what's going to happen in Putumayo. It only fosters distrust.