The September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center are being used by congressional hard-liners to promote a more aggressive policy toward Colombia's leftist guerrillas, the FARC. The organization was already on the State Department's global list of 29 "terrorist" groups (just last month, the State Department added the AUC, the rightist paramilitary death squads allied with the Colombian government, to that list), but in the post-September 11 atmosphere, the terrorist designation is taking on considerably more heft.
Although there is no evidence that the FARC, which has been engaged in a civil war with the Colombian state since 1964, is linked to Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network, the guerrilla army earned the terrorist designation for repeatedly attacking US-owned oil installations in Colombia and for killing three American indigenous rights activists in 1999. The FARC has been widely criticized for human rights abuses in its guerrilla war, including most recently the murder of popular former Culture Minister Claudia Araujo.
The guerrilla group has also been in the hardliners' sights since three members of the Irish Republican Army were arrested by the Colombian government after traveling to the FARC's Switzerland-sized safe haven. After the August 11 arrests, US and Colombian government sources accused the FARC of inviting the IRA men to provide it with training in urban terrorism. The IRA men remain in jail in Colombia.
"Members of Congress at a senior level are making the link between drugs and terrorism," an unnamed Republican Senate staffer told the Baltimore Sun on Sunday. "As we focus our policy on Colombia, that is going to become a very important part of our debate."
But wielding the terrorism card to advance anti-drug agendas is a bipartisan exercise. Senator Zell Miller (D-GA) jumped on the terror connection in an op-ed in the Augusta Chronicle over the weekend. "One of the biggest bastions of terrorism is not a world away, but right under our nose," wrote Miller. "A two-hour flight south from Miami will land you in Colombia, the most dangerous and terroristic country in the world."
Miller noted recent signs of political and economic stress in the region, but rather than focus on structural causes, he suggested that "what should concern us most is that this region is home to well-established, well-financed criminal networks. A third of the world's identified terrorist groups have operations in Latin America," he wrote. "While all eyes are now on the Middle East, the forces of evil to our south are scheming and stretching their reach around the globe."
Stretching even further, the former Georgia governor turned Latin America expert next attempted to falsely link the FARC with the Al Qaeda network. "While Osama bin Laden is hiding in a cave in far-away Afghanistan, his lesser-known lieutenants are a two-hour flight away from Miami. Soon, this snake is going to bite us," Miller warned.
Carrying the snake imagery a little further, the FARC has in essence responded to post-September 11 attacks on it with "don't tread on me." In a late September communique, the FARC accused the US of using the attacks to justify a "witch hunt" against revolutionary movements around the world and interfering in Colombia's internal affairs with its hundreds of soldiers and mercenaries. The FARC also questioned Washington's right to decide "who are the terrorists and who are not."
One area where the new, more aggressive US attitude could manifest itself is President Pastrana's long-delayed decision on whether to extend the FARC's safe haven, an area in south-central Colombia from which the military has been barred for the past three years. US officials had been taking aim at the safe haven even before September 11.
Now, said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue, US attention on Colombia will probably decrease. "But to the extent US officials focus on Colombia, they are going to be less tolerant, less willing to accept that this is part of a peace strategy to give a group they call terrorists control over a vast amount of territory," he told the Associated Press.
The FARC has said that if the safe haven is ended, the slow-moving peace process is dead.
In the meantime, the war continues. A wave of killings by right-wing paramilitaries of the AUC left 49 dead, with the worst massacre taking place in the town of Buga, an agricultural village 160 miles southwest of Bogota. Local authorities have found the bodies of 24 village men killed by the paramilitaries. Another six are missing and feared dead.
"They took the people out of two buses and from their homes," Buga Mayor John Jairo Bohorquez told Caracol radio. "They separated the women, old people and children, and then killed the men."
Paramilitaries also killed six fishermen, four soldiers, two congressmen and a union leader in recent days, according to the Associated Press.
The Colombian military has also been busy lately. It reported killing dozens of FARC guerrillas in Putumayo and Cundinamarca provinces since late September in battles for control over the country's lucrative coca fields.