Why you should care

Because history is still rearing its ugly head.

The author, a former deputy director of the CIA, currently teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Just a 3 1/2-hour flight away from Miami, a bloody conflict has been raging in one form or another for nearly 70 years. The site of that brutal civil war that has claimed more than 200,000 lives and displaced millions: Colombia. And while a decades-old conflict may strike you as nothing new, this is a place where failure to end it — and soon — could very much affect us today, not to mention tomorrow.

Colombia is probably America’s closest ally in Latin America; we have poured $8 billion over the last decade into fighting narcotics and terrorism. And it is also Latin America’s fastest growing economy, with U.S.-Colombian trade quadrupling over the last decade. That gives us major incentives to promote stability in Colombia. But of course, Colombia remains the world’s leading cultivator of the coca plant, the source of cocaine, and North America remains the world’s No. 1 market for the drug. It’s this drug market that has fueled the long violence. To its credit, Colombia has cut coca production in half and sharply reduced the power of those behind the drug trade. If officials can keep up this progress, it would stand as a powerful example in an increasingly troubled Latin America. And crucially, it would reduce the flow of drugs into Central America and Mexico.

A peace agreement will not end conflict — it will only transform it.

But the outlook for continued progress is clouded — mainly due to hostility and distrust left over from decades of war waged between Colombian governments and violent insurgents. All of this comes from a tortured history. So let’s dig into that. The Colombian civil war has been driven by crime, money and narcotics for decades; its initial spark came in 1948, with the assassination of a very popular left-wing presidential candidate. That year, the country was bitterly split between Marxist and conservative parties, and the assassination certainly sent things on a downward spiral. By the early 1960s, the leftist groups had come to dominate many rural areas, leading the Colombian government to turn to the U.S. for help. We obliged, in no small part due to the fear of the day — the Soviet communists and their possible encroachment upon Latin America.

By the early 1960s, the leftists had organized into two groups: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). These groups needed money, perhaps more urgently than they needed their Marxist ideologies, and so a conflict that had begun over ideologies morphed into a conflict over something more immediate: the drug trade. Soon, the groups grew into narco-terrorists, responsible for murdering, kidnapping and perpetrating horrific human rights abuses. It worsened as landowners and others responded, forming their own right-wing paramilitary forces to protect themselves. They too got sucked into the drug trade, becoming yet another source of corruption, violence and torture.

Local residents look at Colombian soldiers standing near the corpses of some of the ten soldiers killed by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, in a rural area of Buenos Aires, department of Cauca, Colombia, on April 15, 2015.

FARC guerrillas killed 10 soldiers and injured 20 others in a recent predawn attack in western Colombia.

Source Luis Robayo/Getty

The Colombian government struggled to break this cycle for years — and did, finally, gain traction under Presidents Andrés Pastrana (1998–2002) and Álvaro Uribe (2002–2010). That progress has continued, if a bit haltingly, under the current President Juan Manuel Santos. The glimmers of good news come thanks to impressive work by Colombian political, military and police officials, and also thanks to a crucial U.S.-Colombian partnership called “Plan Colombia.” This program, begun in the late 1990s, delivered to Colombia various U.S. diplomatic, military and intelligence assistance. Colombia used the help to begin attacking the drug trade and eventually the FARC/ELN insurgency. This cut sharply into drug production, although, in a drug war version of whack-a-mole, Colombia’s success pushed much of it into Central America and Mexico.

And the insurgency is slowly weakening: Military officials told me recently they have cut FARC strength from a high point of about 20,000 guerrillas in 2000 to less than 7,000 today; these guerrillas, they say, are squeezed into a few of the remoter provinces near the Venezuelan border. Today the issue is peace talks between the government and guerrillas, which began three years ago. They were moving along haltingly until nearly three months ago, when FARC guerrillas surrounded and killed 11 Colombian soldiers in a small Amazon village. The talks resumed recently — a good sign, but not enough to inspire optimism. Negotiators are stuck on two tough issues: how to mete out justice to the conflict’s worst human rights violators, and what role the FARC and ELN would need to play in domestic politics post-agreement.

The “justice” question is obviously sticky, especially since the FARC and ELN insist they will not spend “one day in jail.” As for post-agreement politics? Should an agreement arise, some elements of the guerrilla organizations will migrate into legitimate politics — but these are powerful people with billions of dollars (Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón estimates their treasure chest at more than $3 billion), and it’s hard to imagine them not becoming inordinately powerful.

So now, with talks at a delicate stage, even the optimists in Colombia are realistic. One view a visitor like myself often hears is that a peace agreement will not end conflict — it will only transform it, shifting the battle from terrorism and insurgency into the arena of organized crime. But even that would be a powerful change for the people of Colombia.

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