Colombia remains a hairsbreadth away from a dramatic upsurge in political violence, as President Pastrana and the leftist guerrillas of the FARC engage in high-tension political brinkmanship over whether the country's stagnated, three-year peace process will continue and with it, the rebel's Switzerland-sized safe haven. Meanwhile, in Bolivia, the last Andean drug war success story, incoming President Jaime Quiroga is cracking down on traditional coca markets in the Chapare, a campaign that has led to two civilian deaths so far.
When the Week Online went to press last week, Pastrana had given the FARC an ultimatum to remove conditions it set on the negotiations or be prepared for an attack within 48 hours. As the Colombian military deployed around the safe haven and its murderous paramilitary allies began gathering in the area, international mediators from the United Nations and the so-called "group of friends" nations (France, Canada, Sweden, Cuba, Norway, Spain, Mexico, Italy, Switzerland, and Venezuela) managed to paste together a deal to keep the peace talks going.
Talks began again on Wednesday and will continue under severe pressure through the weekend. Sunday marks the end of President Pastrana's latest extension of the deadline for the talks and the safe haven. Pastrana is demanding serious progress toward a ceasefire agreement as a condition for another extension.
There are some indications from Washington that the US government would just as soon see the talks fail, paving the way for a deeper US involvement in Colombia's 38-year-old civil war. Despite State Department spokesman Richard Boucher's contention that the US would support Pastrana's decision, the US is conspicuously absent from the peace process. No US diplomats joined the UN and group of friends in attempting to salvage the negotiations.
Instead, according to the Washington Post, "senior US officials" spent last weekend salivating over the prospect of enlarging the US effort in Colombia to explicitly take on counterinsurgency activities against the FARC. Current US policy limits US assistance to counternarcotic operations. According to the Post, those officials held "urgent weekend discussions" about how to get around congressional restrictions on such activities as providing intelligence on guerrilla activities around the country and forming a new battalion of Colombian troops to serve as a rapid reaction force defending "vital infrastructure, including pipelines owned by US oil companies" from guerrilla attacks.
The proposed shift to a deeper involvement in the Colombian civil war has been floating around Washington for months now, but has received a real push after September 11, and last weekend's dramatic standoff sent the war hawks into a tizzy. "Before [September 11], there would have been no debate or only very limited debate, about whether to even think about extending beyond counternarcotics aid," one anonymous official told the Post. "At least now, these are debatable propositions."
Now, with the Bush administration officially defining the FARC and the smaller ELN as "terrorist organizations" akin to Al Qaeda and the peace process on extremely shaky ground, the Potomac chest-beaters smell blood. Of course, there is that pesky problem of the other "terrorist organization" in Colombia, the paramilitaries of the AUC. The Colombian military has the bad habit of allying itself with these rightist death squads, making a US war on terrorism in Colombia an exercise in hypocrisy at best and a murderous moral and military quagmire at worst.
Meanwhile, in Bolivia, civic unrest among the coca-growing peasantry has been inflamed by the new government of President Jaime Quiroga. In November, the Bolivian government passed a new law, Supreme Decree 26145, which prohibits the drying, transport, and sale of coca leaf grown in the Chapare region. According to the Andean Information Network, drying coca is not necessary to produce cocaine, but is an essential step in preparing the leaf for legal, traditional consumption.
In recent weeks, the government moved to close 15 previously legal coca markets in the Chapare and the Sacaba market in Cochabamba, which were the only legal markets for Chapare coca. By Monday, the government moves had provoked a new round of peasant mobilizations, with 5,000 cocaleros marching on Cochabamba to protest the prohibition on coca sales and denounce efforts to remove union leader Evo Morales from his position in parliament.
On Tuesday, protestors marched on the offices of the General Coca Directorate, the government entity responsible for legal coca, and the Sacaba market. After fruitless discussions with directorate officials, peasants forcibly entered the compound, burning 25 vehicles that had been confiscated by police. In a melee that lasted for hours, police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition, leaving a toll of four peasants wounded by gunshots and two injured policemen.
Violence escalated on Wednesday, with police killing two demonstrators near the Sacaba market. The Andean Information Network reported that the toll of wounded over the two days had climbed to 38, with 49 others detained by police.
Tensions remain high at press time, with the government ordering arrest warrants for a dozen coca union leaders, a general strike in Sacaba on Thursday, and coca growers telling the local press the may take up arms to defend themselves.
Despite ongoing violence between coca growers and the Bolivian state, the last mainstream US press article about Bolivia appeared in September.
Visit http://www.drcnet.org/wol/215.html#blockades for previous Bolivia coverage, and visit http://www.narconews.com for an interview with peasant leader Felipe Quispe ("El Mallku") and other live reporting from Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America. The Andean Information Network is at http://www.scbbs-bo.com/ain/ online.
Visit http://www.drcnet.org/wol/219.html#colombia for previous Colombia coverage. Visit http://www.wola.org or http://www.lawg.org or http://www.ciponline.org/colombia/ for further information on Colombia. Visit http://www.ariannaonline.com/columns/files/011402.html to read Arianna Huffington's column discussing the US role in derailing Colombia's peace talks.