The other war on terror

Posted: Jan 14, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Sixteen civilians, including women and children, were slaughtered on New Year's Eve. A radio journalist was killed by motorcycle-riding assailants as he drove to work last Tuesday. A Catholic priest was murdered last month. The head of state has survived dozens of assassination attempts. Scores of locally elected officials, mayors and police officers were killed last year. Death squads are not uncommon. Kidnappings, brutal murders of hostages and attacks on civil infrastructure by well-armed bands of terrorists are part of daily life. Notwithstanding the violence, Bush administration officials say that they are optimistic about the future. Quick! What country is this?

 If you guessed Iraq, you lose!

 It's Colombia -- the other war on terror -- the beleaguered democracy less than four hours by air from the United States, that has for more than three years escaped the attention of the so-called mainstream media.

 This lack of coverage is significant. Though the axiom, "if it bleeds it leads" prevails in most U.S. reporting from Iraq, the potentates of the press have largely ignored what's been happening in Colombia. Perhaps that's because the real story is so hopeful -- leading to a conclusion that patient, persistent U.S. assistance really works. And because that's a lesson applicable to Iraq, it has little appeal to the prognosticators of gloom and doom who occupy our editorial suites.

 What the barons of bombast have chosen not to report are the signs of genuine progress being made in ending decades of bloodletting. Members of Colombia's largest terrorist group, the Marxist "Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia" (FARC), perpetrator of the New Year's Eve massacre, are today routinely turned in to the police by a civilian population that once was too intimidated to do so. The equally violent "National Liberation Army" (ELN) now finds its safe havens in the countryside raided regularly by Colombian National Police and Army units.

 These terror organizations have long fought each other and the government -- financing their operations with drug money, kidnap ransoms and bank robberies. Now, both groups have found a formidable foe in Colombia's current president, Alvaro Uribe. Elected as an independent in 2002, Uribe has taken tough, positive steps toward improving the security and economic situation in Colombia.

 Unlike some of his feckless predecessors, Uribe has strengthened U.S.-Colombian anti-narcotics efforts by arresting and extraditing drug-cartel kingpins and sending terror leaders to the United States for trial. His willingness to take advice and assistance from the U.S. Department of Justice, FBI, DEA and military have resulted in dramatic improvements in human rights protections and police and Army effectiveness.

 With the aid of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), he has stimulated pepper and vanilla manufacturing centers in places that formerly produced 70 percent of the coca crop -- the plant that gives us cocaine. He introduced a plan whereby the youths who are the trigger-pullers in Colombia's narco-terror groups can trade in their guns for an education.

 Increased security and industrial development have had the expected positive impact. Since he took office, Uribe has seen his country's economy grow 3 percent in 2003 and just under 4 percent in 2004. The peso has risen dramatically against the dollar. Cocaine production fell by nearly half between 2002 and 2003. Homicides are down 27 percent. Kidnappings have dropped 41 percent. And the right-wing paramilitary group, the "United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia" (AUC), has promised to disarm 800 fighters immediately and completely demobilize by year's end.

 A stable, democratic and tranquil Colombia would be proof that American policy can persevere -- that if we are patient and persistent we can prevail, perhaps the most crucial factor in Iraq. Baghdad and Bogota have other similarities -- both are surrounded by unstable and often unfriendly neighbors. While the Middle East situation is well known to most Americans, the turmoil in Latin America has largely escaped notice.

 Former Rep. Cass Ballenger, who just retired from Congress and the chairmanship of the Western Hemisphere panel on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, summed up the situation for me this week: Fidel Castro's best friend, Hugo Chavez, runs an unpredictable, semi-communist government in oil-rich Venezuela. There is new instability in Peru; a weak, crooked government in Ecuador; and financial uncertainty in Panama, Belize, Honduras and Nicaragua. Islamo-fascist terrorists hold sway in the tri-border area of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. "With all this," Ballenger said, "a Colombian success story could be the beginning of a new era of American-inspired prosperity and democracy in Latin America."

 But Uribe's success isn't a sure thing. New concerns about the Colombian economy have emerged, and a referendum that would have given him more power over the budget was voted down by the people. He also seems too eager to adopt fiscal policies suggested by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) -- taxation and spending programs that frighteningly resemble those that led to the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001. Such policies could lead to the president's political demise.

 If Uribe does fall -- either politically or worse, to an assassin's bullet -- it would be a great loss. His successor would have large shoes to fill and a hemisphere eager to see if he would be as effective as Uribe in facing down the Marxist terrorists and the drug cartels. Uribe is going to be one of "the best presidents Central and South America have ever seen," Ballenger told me, "if they don't kill him." That, too, is a lesson for Iraq.