Washington has been hit by two big snowstorms in the past five days. Everything has been closed all week – the government, the schools, and CIP’s offices (everything is closed tomorrow too; the roads are impassable). On the bright side, being trapped at home gave me a chance to read three just-released books about Colombia. All of them are from careful, credible authors who happen to be very clear writers.
Law of the Jungle: The Hunt for Colombian Guerrillas, American Hostages, and Buried Treasure, by John Otis, published by William Morrow. (Official release February 23.) John Otis has reported from Colombia for more than a decade for the Houston Chronicle, Time, and the Global Post website. He spent much of that time in the field, covering the Pastrana government’s failed peace process with the FARC, the expansion of U.S. aid programs, the plight of guerrilla hostages, and other stories. Law of the Jungle focuses especially on the three U.S. contractors who were taken hostage by the FARC in 2003 and freed in 2008, and the Colombian military unit that came upon a multi-million-dollar cache of guerrilla dollars in the jungle in 2003, then got in trouble after spending it lavishly on themselves.
Otis’s book is written for an audience that is not intimately familiar with Colombia; he includes a lot of background information, vividly written. The book is fast-paced and peppered with anecdotes. Striking examples include a 2001 battle between the FARC and DynCorp contractors sent into the wilds of CaquetÃ¡ to rescue the head of Colombia’s Counternarcotics Police, who was pinned down by guerrilla fire; and the too-slow response after Colombian soldiers caught a glimpse of the three U.S. hostages in early 2008. In general, the U.S. government is portrayed as lumbering, bureaucratic, and slow to learn. The Colombian military is portrayed as at times heroic â€” the case of OperaciÃ³n Jaque, the July 2008 ruse that freed 15 FARC hostages, is richly detailed â€” but at times abusive or corrupt, as in the case of the guerrilla cash find or former Army Chief Gen. Mario Montoya’s alleged collaboration with paramilitaries.
Otis includes some unvarnished quotes from people involved in the story; U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield even drops the “f-bomb” once or twice.
“No divulgar hasta que los implicados estÃ©n muertos:” Las guerras de “Doblecero,” by Aldo Civico, published by Intermedio. Aldo Civico, an Italian-born Â anthropologist who heads Columbia University’s Center for International Conflict Resolution, was doing post-graduate research in MedellÃn in the early- to mid-2000s. He developed a relationship, with interviews and a long series of e-mail exchanges, with Carlos GarcÃa, alias “Rodrigo Doblecero,” the leader of the AUC paramilitary group’s “Metro Bloc,” which for a time at the turn of the decade dominated MedellÃn and much of Antioquia department. By the time Civico met “Doblecero,” he was on the run from his former paramilitary colleagues (especially Diego Murillo alias “Don Berna,” now in a U.S. prison), from whom he had split out of disagreement with their increasing involvement in narcotrafficking. By then the paramilitary leader was fighting “Don Berna” and the military far more than he was fighting guerrillas. CÃvico was in regular contact with “Doblecero” (who at the time was also talking to U.S. reporters) from mid-2003 until days before he was killed in May 2004.
Most of the book is transcriptions of emails from “Doblecero,” or his recorded words as Civico interviewed him. Much is autobiographical or explaining the origins of the paramilitaries, making “No Divulgar” an interesting companion book to AUC founder Carlos CastaÃ±o’s 2002 autobiography Mi ConfesiÃ³n.
His analysis of what is wrong with Colombia’s politics and economy makes “Doblecero” sound like a leftist: venal, corrupt elites and narcotraffickers, in his view, are strengthening a feudal system. But those he regards as the “true” paramilitaries are defending the interests of middle-class landholders, whom the guerrillas â€” in what he sees as a great miscalculation â€” began to target in the 1980s. “Doblecero” believes that the paramilitary cause went badly in the late 1990s, when leaders like Carlos CastaÃ±o allied with the country’s principal narcotraffickers, many of whom became top paramilitary leaders and amassed huge quantities of land. “Doblecero,” however, has very little to say to Civico about the massive atrocities that even the most “pure,” non-narco paramilitaries committed, including the bloody mid-1990s UrabÃ¡ campaign in which he participated.
Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs, by Vanda Felbab-Brown, published by Brookings Institution Press. Brookings Institution Fellow Felbab-Brown traveled extensively to Afghanistan, Colombia and Peru to research a study concluding that U.S. “War on Drugs” programs badly undermine U.S. counter-insurgency goals. In countries where insurgencies draw support from the drug trade,Â one of the main assumptions underlying U.S. counter-drug policy has been that attacking drug production will take resources away from the insurgency, weakening it badly. Felbab-Brown dismantles that argument.
Instead, she argues for a “political capital” model, which considers how the U.S.-supported operation affects the population’s perception of the insurgents. If people in Colombia or Afghanistan live off of coca or poppy plants, an eradication campaign may modestly reduce the insurgents’ income. However, Felbab-Brown argues, the eradication will alienate the population from the government and increase their support for the insurgents, adding to their “political capital,” which gives them strong military advantages.Â Shooting Up makes an important, well-documented point, one that explains much of the frustrations of U.S.-supported campaigns in Colombia and Afghanistan during the 2000s (both of which left drug production unaffected while insurgent groups tenaciously persist).
Felbab-Brown’s model points to only one type of drug policy that can reduce both the insurgents’ drug income and their “political capital” simultaneously. This would be something along the lines of a “laissez-faire” approach, or even decriminalization and regulation, which would reduce the drug trade’s profitability while offering no political advantages to the insurgents. She acknowledges, however, that for now such approaches are “politically infeasible.”