WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., the new chairman of the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, says that "the best way to find out what's going on is to go see for yourself." He's been doing that for years.
Back in the days of the Evil Empire, he was one of a handful of congressmen who cared enough to learn firsthand what was happening as the Soviets and their proxies tried to establish a toe-hold in Central America. And that's why, rather than taking off on a junket to some exotic clime during the Memorial Day recess, Ballenger and two of his congressional colleagues headed for a place where U.S. citizens and interests are at greatest risk -- not the Middle East, the Balkans or the Persian Gulf. They went, instead, 1150 miles south of Florida -- to Colombia, the nation plagued by the deadliest armed conflict on the planet today.
In just the first four months of this year, over 500 people -- mostly peasant farmers -- were slaughtered in brutal fashion by paramilitary forces. Decapitation, the use of chain saws and machetes in the killings, was commonplace. Today, the violence continues.
Over the course of the last month, out of the eye of the world press, a major guerrilla offensive and a series of deadly bombings have been causing horrific casualties. Three days before Reps. Ballenger; Nick Smith, R-Mich.; and Collin Peterson, D-Minn., arrived in Colombia, the National Police discovered and defused an American-made, Mark-82, 500-pound aerial bomb rigged as a terrorist device. According to the FBI, the bomb was part of a shipment made to El Salvador in 1992. An inquiry is underway to determine how the bomb got to Colombia. Before the three congressmen arrived in the capital, bombs exploded in Medellin, Cali and Bogota, killing 12 and wounding nearly 200 civilians.
Ballenger and his colleagues were welcomed by Colombia's lame-duck president, Andres Pastrana. The beleaguered chief executive, serving the last year of his four-year term, has been pursuing a Clinton-inspired "dialogue" with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Army of National Liberation (ELN). Thus far, his "negotiations" have resulted in ceding a 16,000 square mile "Separate Zone" designated as a "safe haven" for the FARC. U.S. officials fear that Pastrana may now do the same for the ELN -- the country's second largest guerrilla faction. "If he does," one diplomat told me, "he will have left as his legacy, the 'Balkanization' of the second oldest democracy in the Western Hemisphere."
Unfortunately, the 18,000-strong FARC and the 6,000 armed ELN narco-guerrillas -- both espousing Marxist ideology -- aren't Pastrana's only problem. Right-wing paramilitary organizations like the 8,000-member United Self-defense Force (AUC) also threaten Colombia's law and order and next April's presidential elections. All these organizations gain power daily -- thanks to "narco-profits."
With drug gangs, guerrillas and vigilantes operating in 70 percent of the country and unemployment pushing 20 percent, the Colombian economy is plummeting. Meanwhile, 90 percent of the cocaine and 80 percent of the heroin on U.S. streets originates in Colombia, neighboring countries are being subverted and thousands of Americans are dying from illegal narcotics. The most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control show that in 1998 alone, 17,000 Americans died from drug overdoses.
As a remedy, the Clinton administration created Plan Colombia -- a multinational, $7.5 billion effort to staunch the flow of drugs into the United States, and shore up the Colombian democracy and economy. As usual, they lied. No one in Washington or Bogota wants to admit that Plan Colombia isn't stopping the cultivation, transport or trafficking of illegal drugs. It ought to be called what it is: a last ditch effort -- using U.S. weapons and a small cadre of military trainers -- to keep Colombia from descending into anarchy.
When he returned from Colombia, Ballenger told me: "The Bush administration inherited this mess. The Clinton people took too long to get Plan Colombia underway, took too long to get our $1.3 billion aid package going, and now we're paying the price." The price has been high. Last year, Colombia suffered nearly 23,000 murders in a population of just 39 million, making it arguably the world's most dangerous country.
"It's important to remember that the FARC and ELN aren't rag-tag groups of agrarian reformers. They number more than 24,000 and are the best equipped, best trained and best paid guerrilla army in Latin America. Worst of all, they are being directly funded and supported, not by the old Soviet Union, but by drug users in America," said Ballenger.
Ballenger believes that Colombia is not "another Vietnam," he supports U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson's continued tenure in Bogota and hopes that next April's presidential elections won't be disrupted. But at the end of our conversation, I was left with the nagging sense that Colombia's future is uncertain. With 40,000 killed in narco-terrorist violence in the past decade, Colombia is the wound that won't stop bleeding.