Hostage Nation: Colombia's Guerrilla Army and the Failed War on Drugs, by Victoria Bruce and Karin Mayes, with Jorge Enrique Botero (2010, Alfred E. Knopf Publishers, 315 pp., $26.95 HB)
In a sense, though, Hostage Nation is a synecdoche for Colombia's experience fighting its own leftist guerrilla insurgency -- the longest-lived insurgency in the hemisphere, now in its 47th year -- as well as fighting America's war on drugs. In a very real sense, Colombia has been a hostage nation -- held hostage by its own internal divisions and American drug war geopolitics, as well as seeing hundreds, if not thousands of its citizens literally held hostage, taken captive to be used as bargaining chips by the FARC in its relentless struggle against the Colombian state.
And while, until the very last chapter, Hostage Nation does not directly confront US drug policies in Colombia or their failures, its briskly paced narrative illuminates -- at times, starkly -- just what those policies have wrought. At the beginning, the book opens a window into the murky world of American defense contractors and subcontractors working for the State Department in its efforts to poison the coca crop from the air. Those contractors, like Northrup Grumman, were perhaps the primary beneficiaries of Plan Colombia, gobbling up hundreds of millions of dollars in lucrative spraying contracts at taxpayer expense.
Hostage Nation also presents a critical, but not completely unsympathetic portrayal of the FARC, a group now commonly caricatured as little more than drug trafficking terrorists. They do profit off the coca and cocaine trade, of course, as the authors show, and they have committed numerous acts that could be qualified as terrorism. But even though now staggering militarily and politically, the FARC continues to be a stolidly Marxist organization in a world where Marxism is dead (although someone might want to let India's Naxalites know that). The authors provide hints of the violence, injustice, and revolutionary fervor out of which the FARC emerged.
They tell the tale of the FARC in part through recounting the travails of the captured American contractors and others the guerrillas considered POWs -- latterly including elected officials -- in a deadly game where people were pawns whose lives and freedom were to be bartered. While mostly not sadistically cruel to their captives, the FARC was not very nice, either. And its policy was to kill captives on the first hint of an attempted rescue, something it did at least twice, once in a false alarm.
But prisoner exchanges had gone off successfully before, and the FARC wanted some of its people in exchange for the high-value Americans and the high-profile Betancourt. Unfortunately for FARC plans, the post-911 Bush administration had absolutely no interest in "negotiating with terrorists," and then Colombian President Uribe followed suit. Of course, that stance was also unfortunate for the American contractors, who quickly dropped from public notice.
As the war on drugs morphed into the war on terror in Colombia, the authors make clear that they see the other main beneficiary of Plan Colombia as the Colombian military. Thanks to training and military assistance from the US, the Colombian military under Uribe and then Defense Minister (now President) Juan Manuel Santos, improved its fighting abilities dramatically. More importantly, the Colombian military sharply improved its intelligence capabilities, leading it to achieve a number of lethal blows to the FARC leadership and enabling it to salt the FARC with spies when the rebels lowered their standards in a mass recruiting drive at the turn of the last decade.
The Colombian military has probably strategically defeated the FARC, but at great cost to the country's civilian population, which has seen tens of thousands killed and hundreds of thousands turned into refugees in their own country under onslaughts from the military and its erstwhile allies, the drug trafficking rightist paramilitaries. Hostage Nation only hints at that reality.
But its final chapter is a scathing attack on US drug policy in general and in Colombia in particular. The US has spent, and continues to spend, billions to repress the coca and cocaine traffic, and has had middling results at best, while sowing political violence, criminality, and environmental destruction, the authors assert. And they warn that the US is on course to embark on a similar drug war policy disaster in Mexico.
As an in-depth, sustained account of US drug policy in Colombia, the history of the FARC, or the politics of kidnapping, Hostage Nation doesn't quite make it. But it is an engaging read that does provide some real insights into Colombian reality and is a well-informed contribution to the popular literature on the subject.