MEDELLIN, COLOMBIA -- If you were listening to the programme last night, you’ll know that I’m in Colombia to report on the country’s continuing war against insurgents and drugs traffickers.
(My piece last night is still available via Listen Again, of course, and there’ll be another report on air tonight. Plus some fabulous pictures by our producer Beth McLeod which you can see via links from the website or from my Facebook page.)
Colombia has been a country at war for several decades. What began as a left-wing guerrilla movement slowly transformed into a drugs-fuelled insurgency, during which right-wing para-military groups and the army both contributed to a death toll over the past 20 years alone of more than 70,000.
Colombia is still one of the world’s largest producers of cocaine. Just this week, the police announced that they had seized 29 million US dollars and 17 million euros in banknotes from a house in the capital, Bogota. The money is thought to have been paid by Mexican drugs cartels for cocaine from Colombia to be shipped on to the US and Europe – it gives you some idea of the scale of the trade.
The authorities here say they are now winning the war. A decade ago, people would have said I was mad to come to Medellin, former stronghold of the notorious drugs king Pablo Escobar, and reputed at that time to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
Today, it’s very different. You can stroll along the streets perfectly safely, although there are still some poorer neighbourhoods where you’re advised not to venture – and last year, the murder rate here did rise rapidly again.
So, what changed? First came Plan Colombia, a US initiative that pumped billions of dollars into strengthening the Colombian army and police and tried – mostly in vain – to eradicate the coca plantations.
Then, in 1993, Pablo Escobar was shot dead by police, and slowly, the authorities regained control in areas where for years they had been absent.
When I met Brigadier General Alberto José Mejía Ferrero, commander of the 4th Brigade of the Colombian army, he told me security is paramount in any counter-insurgency strategy.
Without security, he says, nothing makes sense. Without security, you can’t deal with poverty, or build roads or schools, or do any of the other things that make a State worth living in. It’s a lesson that he says governments elsewhere would do well to learn – in countries like Mexico, spiralling ever deeper into Colombia-style drugs-related violence, and even in Afghanistan, where classic counter-insurgency strategy bears a close resemblance to what has been tried here in Colombia.
So much so that Afghan army officers are now being trained in Colombia so that they can learn from this country’s experience. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said on a recent visit: “There’s a great deal to be learned from the success that has been seen here in Colombia.”
But there is a darker picture too. The cultivation of coca, which is used as the basis for cocaine, has barely diminished at all. New, smaller trafficking networks have been established to take the place of the once powerful cartels.
As for the army’s “successes”, well, Gloria Arboleda has a very different story to tell. Her husband disappeared one day in 2007 after going out to work as a day-labourer with a friend. He never returned, and eventually Gloria learned that he had been shot by the army as an alleged “guerrilla”. Her eyes filled with tears as she told me: “They took away the father of my children. I think of what happened every single day.”
There are more than 1,300 cases of so-called “extra-judicial killings” being investigated in Colombia, and human rights groups complain that little action is ever taken against military abuses. General Mejía of the 4th Brigade says on the contrary – there are hundreds of cases of army personnel serving jail terms after being convicted of unjustified killings.
But of course there’s more to winning a war against drugs cartels, guerrillas and para-militaries than just sending in the army. A former mayor of Medellin, Sergio Fajardo, took me to Santo Domingo, one of Medellin’s poorest neighbourhoods – it used to be regarded as one of the most dangerous parts of the city – to show me what he did to start rebuilding a functioning community.
He showed me a modernistic school he built for local children – and an architectural award-winning library and cultural centre to be used by local people.
“It’s no good just killing the men with the guns if they are immediately replaced with others,” he says. “You have to ask yourself why young people choose to go through a door that leads only to violence and death – and you have to provide them with another door, one that leads to education and opportunity. It’s the only way to weaken the gangs and strengthen the State.”
Security, a strengthened State, and a rebuilt civil infrastructure. A useful lesson for Mexico – or Afghanistan? Colombian officials say Yes, without a doubt. But others are not so sure. The critics say there is still a culture of impunity in which too many crimes go unpunished; there is still widespread corruption; and coca is still being grown in huge quantities.
Colombia today is certainly a much better place than it was a decade ago. But its war has not yet been won.