Colombia: March 14, 2004

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Colombia is 2.5 times the size of Iraq, with an army of 250,000 troops trying to put down over 40,000 right and leftwing rebels, as well as several large drug manufacturing gangs. Colombia has a murder rate ten times higher than the US. The country has endured one rebellion and revolution after another for over a hundred years. A culture of guns and violence has developed and thrived.  The reasons have to do with Colombia's history. When Colombia threw off Spanish colonial rule, the nation was largely agricultural, with a few families owning most of the land and the majority of the population working as tenant farmers. When the industrial revolution arrived in the late 19th century, much of the farming population left the land for wage work. This created a shift in political power. The great landowners now controlled less of the voting population and had a labor shortage. The liberal political parties were now able to gain power. But the landowning families not only had enormous prestige and money, but also maintained their own private armies. With these pistoleros, they bloodily put down strikes by urban and rural workers and generally terrorized much of the population. But the population in general began to arm itself and when a dispute could not be settled at the ballot box, it was decided by a lot of armed violence. Political power shifted between the liberal (largely workers and liberals of all classes) and conservatives (the wealthy, most of the clergy and political conservatives of all classes.) And the fighting became more violent when one part came into power and tried to undo all that the other party had done before. Everyone got in the habit of keeping a gun handy. After World War II, many political groups maintained armed units at all times and life out in the countryside became very precarious. Large scale massacres were common and it was often hard to tell a bandit from an armed political activist.

Then came the drug lords in the 1980s. The largely leftist rebel groups were now financed by drug trafficking (about half a billion dollars a year) and banditry (about $400 million a year.). The armed rebels kept the government troops out of the rural regions where the drug crops were grown and processed for export to the United States (and elsewhere.) In the 1990s, the government recognized these rebel/drug lord combinations as formidable enough to negotiate with. But government attempts to negotiate a settlements have not been successful.  Some 120,000 people have been killed during the four decades of low level rebellion. Popular opinion is increasingly moving against the rebels, but the FARC has so much money and so many guns, that there is no easy resolution of the problem in sight.

 

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