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TWO hundred miles northwest of Bogotá lies Juradó, a lonely seaside village housing a small navy barracks. Commercial fishing vessels browse the nearby waters, drifting in the equatorial trade winds. As one of the few ports on Colombia's desolate northwestern coast, Juradó serves as a minor staging area on the Pacific drug-smuggling circuit, and the navy barracks are here supposedly to show the government's vigilance.
Juradó's condition suggests why a guerrilla movement might be popular. The electrical generator in the village runs only a few hours a day. There are hardly any telephones or roads. Doctors, teachers, and professionals of every other kind are scarce. Twenty percent of the region's residents are infected with malaria.
In town after town like Juradó, FARC and the ELN recruit young men and women for whom the state has done nothing. Some join for the benefits of a steady wage; others get an invitation at gunpoint. Many have already lost a family member in the fighting or have been transplanted from their property, and may feel deep resentment toward the government.
Physically, Juradó also illustrates why the rebels have been able to keep up their fight for thirty-five years. Like many other towns in Colombia, Juradó is completely isolated, surrounded by jungle. In December, Juradó's navy barracks suffered a huge surprise attack by FARC. It took eighteen hours for the Rapid Deployment Force -- a brand-new, high-tech mobile battalion whose stated goal is to raise the rebel death rate by at least 50 percent -- to reach the scene of fighting. In staging the attack FARC had been able to move 600 soldiers through the jungle undetected. Owing to poor weather, the Rapid Deployment Force had to land at an airstrip thirty miles away. The results of the battle were predictably lopsided: at least forty-five dead soldiers and, reportedly, not a single rebel fatality.
This kind of attack -- the overrunning of a military base -- has come within the rebels' reach only in the past few years, and it is particularly effective at enlarging the guerrillas' presence in the public mind. Nevertheless, few analysts consider either FARC or the ELN to be capable of toppling the government. Estimates of their combined numbers top out at 25,000, whereas the Colombian army has 120,000 soldiers. But few observers give the government much chance of winning a decisive victory in the near future either. The army is viewed as one of the weakest in Latin America, and it has been unable to prevent the guerrillas from taking control of more than a third of the country. Nor has it done anything to curb the suspicion that the cumulative weight of Colombia's problems may eventually lead to some sort of national disintegration, with or without a clear-cut guerrilla victory.
Paradoxically, increased power seems to have done nothing for the rebels' popularity -- if anything, it may have lessened it. One hotly debated subject in Bogotá is whether the guerrillas actually want to topple the government. Judging from what I heard, many people believe that the guerrilla cause is really more like a business -- one that makes money by kidnapping executives (an average of seven kidnappings a day take place in Colombia), practicing extortion on oil companies, and taking a piece of the black market. Or, as one well-heeled woman in the capital put it to me, "This is a war between the legal multinationals and the illegal multinationals."
Such a view might seem to betoken the feelings of a defensive elite determined to deny its adversary any respect. But it is not entirely baseless, as the story of Ashock Nandwani demonstrates.
Nandwani, a wealthy businessman, was abducted one night last October. Within days he managed to escape, after his kidnappers, a gang that included former policemen, swamped their getaway boat. Nandwani swam to shore and returned home. His story made headlines, not because of its dramatic ending but because Nandwani was kidnapped from outside his home in Panama City, 500 miles from Bogotá. The kidnappers had planned to take him to Colombia and sell him to the guerrillas, who would then have negotiated a ransom.
Also contributing to the guerrilla-mafia image are persistent allegations, leveled by the U.S. drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey, that the guerrillas are engaging in drug trafficking. The issue has been treated cautiously by Colombia's President, Andrés Pastrana, who has made generous concessions to the rebels in order to coax them into peace talks. McCaffrey's frequent use of the word "narcoguerrilla" is seen as counterproductive by those involved with the negotiations, because it casts the guerrillas as criminals, not legitimate political actors. Yet analysts who know the groups well say it is true that FARC especially has long acted as a labor organizer in the coca fields, keeping the price of a bushel up while taking a hefty percentage from the farmers. Whether the practice is motivated by greed or by ideology may be beside the point: the result, a steady flow of cash, has given the rebels more than ample resources to carry on against the government. By some accounts, they are the best-outfitted insurgents in the long history of Latin America's guerrilla wars.
ON the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, which is the traditional start of the Christmas season, Bogotanos were jittery: it was a ripe moment for the guerrillas to make a statement. For several nights in a row the head of the national police had been on television trying simultaneously to raise the city's guard against bombings and to forestall a wave of panic. At one point he guaranteed a terrorism-free holiday -- a promise that largely was kept. But on the night of December 8, when the city put on a fireworks display and held free concerts, the streets were mostly empty.
A decade ago bombings in Bogotá were routine, as the drug cartels sought to pressure the government into dropping its policy of extraditing high-level criminals to the United States. During the 1990s, however, the government dismantled the largest cartels, which have been replaced by smaller, more discrete groups -- cartelitos. Nowadays explosions in restaurants and shopping malls are less common, and when they occur, it is not always clear who set them off. For example, in November an exceptionally large bomb blew up a block in northern Bogotá; the list of suspects initially included the cartelitos, remnants of the Cali cartel, FARC, and the ELN. Conspicuously absent from the list of suspects was a man named Carlos Castaño, who may now be Latin America's most feared warlord.
Castaño symbolizes what has gone wrong with Colombia. He commands the Colombian United Self-Defense (AUC) unit, a deceptively bland name for what are in fact death squads: gangs of mercenaries and hit men who try to terrify the population -- everyone from peasants in Juradó to professors at the Universidad Nacional -- into shunning the guerrillas. The hallmark of the AUC is "the list": a roster of suspected collaborators who are dragged into public places and executed. Castaño says he is only fighting a guerrilla war with guerrilla tactics. The government says he was responsible for more than 1,500 deaths in 1999 alone.
Like so many who get their hands dirty, Castaño is driven by the most personal of politics: his father and, it is claimed, nine of his eleven siblings were killed by the guerrillas. But what makes him a symbol goes deeper than vengefulness. An ugly truth of the Colombian civil war is that the army relies on Castaño's death squads to fight its most difficult battles -- skirmishes deep in the jungle or in guerrilla-held mountain ranges. It has traditionally been a weak, clumsy organization, and the AUC is one of the few effective tools it has. In short, the army not only tolerates the death squads but needs them.
Other institutions are no better than the army at doing their jobs. According to their own statistics, the police fail to solve 95 percent of crimes, and fail even to investigate most murders. When a justice system loses credibility to this extent, victims stop reporting crimes and vigilante groups -- nascent death squads -- begin to appear. In Medellín, whose murder rate -- the highest in the hemisphere -- is five times Bogotá's, the outlaw justice system is entrenched, and gangs with names such as Death to Car Thieves and Robocop have taken over from the police.
One of the few institutions that have not fallen apart completely is the Bank of the Republic, which flips the switches of monetary policy from a high-rise in downtown Bogotá. Along a quiet and dusty corridor on the sixth floor sits the office of Salomón Kalmanovitz, one of the bank's directors. Kalmanovitz has spoken publicly about the dire need to strengthen the state, and owing to his position, it would seem that he could get the attention of the elite if anyone could. When I interviewed him, though, Kalmanovitz seemed already defeated. "The reality," he said, "is that a weak system of justice can benefit the upper class as well." For many of them the war means the freedom to avoid paying taxes, to misuse public funds, and to dip into the rivers of drug-related cash flowing through the Colombian economy.
I left the bank and walked south into the neighborhood that houses the main offices of the central government. Outside the gate of the presidential palace two men approached me and identified themselves as narcotics agents. "You're in a dangerous neighborhood," the first man said. "Care to sit down with us?" We moved to a quiet corner. A few minutes later they emptied my wallet at gunpoint and fled.
Within a block of where this happened, I later counted more than twenty soldiers guarding the entrance to the palace.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2000; Out of the Jungle - 00.05 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 5; page 32-38.