Colombia: Venezuela Crumbles Into Uncertainty

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July 20, 2017: While Venezuela is drifting towards mass starvation, government collapse and civil war Colombia has managed to avoid all that and then some. What Colombia did was not easy. It required nearly two decades of effort to reach the point where a peace deal was agreed to and succeeded in disbanding the major leftist rebel group FARC. With that accomplished (as of the end of June) the second largest leftist rebel group (ELN, a third the size of FARC) now wants to talk peace as well. All these leftist rebels got going in the 1960s but by the 1990s were rapidly losing popular support. It got worse after 2000 because by then the drug gangs and leftist rebels had merged in many parts of the country, and the war was increasingly about money, not ideology. A new reform government took advantage of this and organized an offensive that sharply reduced crime and gave the economy a chance to become the most successful in South America.

Meanwhile there is still a problem with drug gangs. In 2016, for second year in a row cocaine production in Colombia increased. Production in 2015 was 649 tons and that increased to 866 tons last year. It’s not just 146,000 hectares (52 percent land) being planted with coca in 2016 but more of these plants are older and now more productive. Despite this growth the peace deal with FARC has changed the situation considerably. The FARC peace agreement has successfully disarmed nearly 7,000 FARC members who spent much of their time protecting drug operations. This has given the security forces an opportunity to go after the cocaine trade and that plan is on schedule to destroy more than half the coca crop this year and shut down a similar number of drug gang facilities.

In addition, as part of the peace deal FARC agreed to work with the government to convert half the 96,000 hectares (240,000 acres) from coca leaf to legitimate crops by the end of 2018. That would eliminate 150-200 tons a year of cocaine production (depending on the productivity of the cropland coca is removed from). This substitution program is possible because FARC controlled the farmers who produced this crop. This will force production to move to adjacent countries but that takes time, is expensive and does not always work out well for the drug gangs. While Peru, Bolivia and Colombia are best suited for coca cultivation, Colombia is the easiest place to produce large quantities of coca leaf. Moving production to Peru and Bolivia is difficult because the coca plant in those countries grows at a higher altitude, and the political and cultural conditions are very different.

In 2014 Colombia regained the lead (from Peru) in the amount of land given to growing coca. The reason for this resurgence of coca growing is the government ordered halt in aerial spraying of coca crops. Satellite photos had revealed that that land used to grow coca increased 39 percent in 2014 versus 2013. That was still 35 percent less than the peak set in 2007. This increase is believed to be largely because illegal gold mining had lost its popularity (because of lower prices) and many of these rural miners returned to coca growing. But there was another problem. Accusations that the herbicide (Roundup) used to kill coca plants causes cancer has led to growing protests in rural areas and the government halted the spraying, even though there was no proof to back up the accusations. That encouraged some drug gangs to move coca production back to Colombia from less productive areas Peru and Bolivia. Spraying of coca crops had forced the gangs to replant in less productive areas in Colombia as well as across the border. About five percent of the Colombian population is involved in the drug business, mostly as small farmers producing the coca. The farmers often don't have much choice (grow the stuff or die, or try to flee). To get one ton of cocaine, you need to process 250 tons of coca leaf. That ton of cocaine sells for about $2.1 million in the country of origin. But get it to a major market, like the United States, it sells for about $35 million to distributors, and for $120 million to drug users.

The Mess Next Door

The regional crises has shifted from Colombia to neighboring Venezuela which is turning into a socialist dictatorship with the help of Cuban advisors and diehard, discredited, unelected and now outlaw Venezuelan socialist politicians. After a decade of corruption and inept government most Venezuelans are done with ideas of radical populist president Hugo Chavez. This former soldier got elected in 1999 and died in March 2013. Along the way Chavez trashed the Venezuelan economy and democracy. His handpicked replacement, Nicolas Maduro, was even worse. The old Chavez dream of Venezuela becoming a socialist dictatorship supported by oil revenue eventually faded along with cash reserves and the national credit rating. While most Venezuelans want reconstruction (under a non-socialist government) rather than civil war the leftists still in the government are desperately trying to hang on, even at the risk of further chaos and suffering. Currently the president Maduro is using a Supreme Court filled with recent pro-government appointees to try and outlaw democracy and grant him dictatorial power. This is opposed by most Venezuelans and comes to a head on July 30th when an illegal vote (certain to be rigged by the government) to select 545 Maduro supporters for Constituent Assembly that will revise the constitution and make Maduro a legal dictator. So far the armed forces leaders are openly backing Maduro on this and it appears no compromise is possible. The opposition is planning on forming an opposition government which means civil war. The opposition organized a national vote of their own on July 18th and an overwhelming number of voters opposed the Maduro plans.

What Maduro is trying to do is clearly illegal but he feels the need to change the current constitution to become a “legal” dictator. According to the current constitution only the parliament (currently an anti-Maduro national assembly) can perform a lot of key functions. But the Supreme Court has ruled that the current parliament is illegal. The parliament describes these actions as a coup and most Venezuelans agree with that. Unlike most other democracy constitutions Venezuela does not allow the legislature to impeach (remove) the president. Rather the Supreme Court, whose members are appointed by the president (and approved by the legislature) do so. But before Maduro’s party lost control of the legislature in the 2015 elections he appointed enough loyal (to Maduro) new judges to the Supreme Court to block any efforts to remove him from power. The legislature and the government have not been able to agree on a compromise solution for any of this and Venezuelans are faced with continued economic collapse if they submit to a Maduro dictatorship or support a civil war. It is unclear how many Venezuelans would fight Maduro and Maduro and his followers are betting on being able to suppress whatever armed opposition develops. But Maduro has few economic options when it comes to feeding the population and is facing economic sanctions by the United States (the largest customer for Venezuelan oil and largest supplier of all sorts of essentials). Sanctions include bans on obtaining equipment and technology for reviving the Venezuelan oil industry. But at the moment Maduro does not have the cash to pay for that and credit is all used up as well. The UN and all of the neighbors condemn Maduro but the international community is unwilling to do much more than that. Some South American nations have expressed a willingness to join in on sanctions. In part that is because it is no secret that millions of sick and hungry Venezuelans are preparing to flee to neighboring countries, mainly Colombia and Brazil. Many will find they cannot get to and across the border because of health or financial problems, but this demonstrates how desperate the situation has become.

Despite diverting most food and other consumer goods towards the security forces a growing number of soldiers and policemen are complaining that their families are going hungry, often because one soldier or policemen is under pressure to help get food for his extended family and is unable to do so. Commanders are seeking solutions to this growing problem but there is no easy fix. What many commanders do is informally tolerate their subordinates stealing from any Venezuelans that can be seen as Maduro opponents. This now includes most Venezuelans so there are plenty of potential victims. Commanders who are caught doing this often get away with it by explaining it is an effective way to reduce open opposition to the Maduro government.

Something In Common

One thing Colombia and Venezuela have in common is extraordinarily high murder rates. Central America and South America have long had the highest murder rates (currently 5-12 times higher than in the United States) in the world. Latin America, with about eight percent of the global population accounts for a third of murders worldwide. It is worst in four countries (Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia) which together account for a quarter of all the murders worldwide each year.

Some areas, especially cities, are much worse. The murder rate of Caracas, the capital and largest city in Venezuela has been over 200 killed per year per 100,000 population. That's eight times the 24 per 100,000 rate in the capital of neighboring Colombia. This makes Caracas more violent than the worst hit (by drug gang violence) Mexican border city (Ciudad Juárez) where the murder rate has been nearly as large but has since declined. The national rate for Venezuela grew as the economic problems got worse. Since 2013 (when the oil price began dropping) the rate has increased 30 percent. By way of comparison the murder rate in Venezuela is nearly twenty times the rate in the U.S. The Western hemisphere in general has an average rate of about 8 per 100,000 people a year. That in turn is much higher than in Europe, where it is about 3-4. Middle Eastern nations have rates of between 5 and 10 per 100,000.

Venezuela stopped releasing inflation and murder rates in 2016 but there were other ways to collect data. Thus it’s no surprise that the Venezuelan capital (Caracas) has become the murder capital of the world with 130 murders per year per 100,000 population. On a list of ten cities in the world with the worst rates four are in Venezuela (ranging from 72 to 84). All ten cities are in Latin America, with number two being Acapulco Mexico with 113 per 100,000, mostly because of drug gangs. In Venezuela the reasons are mainly economic and political.

July 18, 2017: In Venezuelan the opposition used its widespread support to conduct a referendum on president Maduro efforts to become dictator. Some 38 percent of eligible voters participated and the outcome was predictable. Maduro had the security forces stay away and pro-Maduro terrorized many of the voting locations with threats and sometimes violence.

July 17, 2017: Colombia has agreed to release senior FARC leaders already in prison. This was part of the peace deal but the government delayed the release of these senior leaders until it was certain that the disarmament deal was working.

July 10, 2017: Colombia granted amnesty to another 3,000 FARC members who had completed the disarmament process and proved to have no serious criminal charges against them. This makes 7,800 disarmed FARC members who have received amnesty and are free to live as regular citizens.

July 5, 2017: A Colombian UN employee was freed after being held captive since May 3rd by a renegade FARC faction. The renegade faction, believed to contain 60 armed members, chose to turn down amnesty and continue working in the drug trade.

July 3, 2017: In Colombia government negotiators have finally persuaded the ELN to present their demands. These are, as expected, largely about amnesty and freeing people from prison. ELN leadership still has a problem with controlling many of its factions. There is an even more ominous problem. ELN violence (bombings and kidnappings) have become more risky now that FARC is disarmed and the security forces have lots of trained and experienced troops ready to go after drug gangs or ELN, depending on which group causes the most trouble. Out in the rural areas where ELN is most active the local chatter is all about disgruntled ELN faction leaders resigned to some kind of peace and disarmament, because so many of their followers are envious of the deal FARC members go.

July 1, 2017: In Mali (central Africa) the local al Qaeda group released a video showing the six foreigners (from France, Australia, South Africa, Romania, Switzerland and Colombia) they are holding for ransom in northern Mali. The Colombian is Gloria Cecilia Narvaez, a Catholic nun working in Mali. She was taken in February. Her captors are apparently soliciting discreet offers. Most governments no longer pay ransoms because they have come to understand that this only makes their citizens, especially when overseas, more likely to be kidnapped. As an alternative the Islamic terrorists will sometimes try to get a swap (for a jailed Islamic terrorist) deal. Making a video of the hostage being killed (usually by beheading) is also a possibility but this has been shown to increase the efforts to track down and kill the kidnappers. These videos still get made, but not usually in the Sahel where the Islamic terrorists are more concerned about the money. AQIM in particular was always more mercenary, and quite good at it. But it is a lot more difficult to get multi-million dollar ransoms these days because it is not only illegal but frowned upon globally and to be done it must be very clandestine. The Colombian nun is in even more danger because non-Moslem clergy are often killed by Islamic terrorists to show how dedicated they are to destroy competing religions.

June 27, 2017: The FARC disarmament process was completed with 6,803 FARC members turning in 7,132 weapons. These have been locked up in containers under UN supervision and will be melted down for a peace monument. Some FARC members still retain 700 weapons which are used to maintain order at the 26 camps where FARC members are assembling at for demobilization. These 700 weapons will be surrendered on August 1st when the camps are turned into civilian retraining centers.

June 23, 2017: In northeast Colombia (Norte de Santander province) two Dutch journalists kidnapped six days earlier by ELN were released. The security forces received several tips that ELN had done it and were pursuing those leads. ELN used that to persuade the local ELN group to release the prisoners to avoid a major search operation by the security forces.

 

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