Fighting a War with Drug Money

Fighting a War with Drug Money
Posted by FoM on July 23, 2000 at 08:34:54 PT
By Mike Williams, American-Statesman Staff
Source: Austin American-Statesman
It is one of the world's few remaining bands of Marxist guerrillas. But unlike Fidel Castro's rag-tag army of Cuban peasants in the 1950s or leftist insurgents of Central America in the 1980s, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is flush with cash -- lots of it. The FARC, as it is known by its Spanish acronym, has tapped a 1990s source of revenue: drug money. 
The guerrillas buy their guns and equipment with tribute paid by poor farmers raising coca and poppy, as well as by drug traffickers who process and smuggle the cocaine and heroin. The rebels also make millions by kidnapping people for ransom, but ties to Colombia's notorious drug industry are what have propelled the FARC from a backwater group to a powerful military force with a sophisticated propaganda machine. Its top negotiators now hobnob with visiting diplomats and recently toured several European countries with a delegation aiming to bring peace to Colombia. Its opponents, however, bristle at the notion that the FARC is anything more than a group of ruthless, ideologically driven killers. "They don't answer to anybody on this earth or in the next life," said Gen. Mario Montoya, chief of a new Colombian anti-narcotics task force. "They make huge amounts of money from the drug trade. Coca grows like a weed here, and they are the middlemen." Although the bulk of its forces still hides in the mountains and the jungles, the FARC now has its own territory where the rebels walk the streets free from attack by government forces. Seeking to jump-start peace talks, Colombian President Andres Pastrana pulled his troops out of a Switzerland-size area in southern Colombia in January 1999, in effect creating a FARC safe haven. The peace talks have made little progress, with the two sides barely able to agree on a rough list of topics to discuss. But FARC has consolidated its hold on its turf, turning San Vicente -- a town of about 15,000 -- into a rebel showcase. Few tourists venture to the town, which can be reached by regular commercial airline service. Guerrilla checkpoints dot all roads leading into the enclave, with FARC soldiers ordering riders out of cars for searches and questioning. But the guerrillas have welcomed journalists, even opening an information office just off the town square. "We have confidence that we can construct a new government for Colombia," said Fidel Rondon, a member of the FARC commission holding peace talks with government negotiators in a rural village called Los Pozos, about 40 minutes from San Vicente. "We want a better future for all Colombians. This nation has been ruled by a violent political class. The people of Colombia no longer believe in this government." San Vicente -- a busy farm center on the banks of the Caguan River -- is the largest of five small towns in the FARC-held territory. The town government still functions as it did before the FARC came. The local courts collapsed when the judges fled, and they've been replaced by a FARC system of justice that includes a complaint center where citizens bring gripes about everything from disputes with neighbors to domestic squabbles. There are numerous reports that a separate FARC tribunal deals sternly with those accused of spying for the government, sometimes imposing death sentences. Townspeople shrug when asked about their strange status. But they admit there is now peace in San Vicente, which had suffered attacks from all sides in the long-running civil war. "Before the guerrillas came, nobody wanted them to come," longtime resident Jorge Solis said. "But now we have had peace, so everybody is happier. The economy is good, people have work, and there aren't bodies in the streets like before. Most people don't favor one group over the other. They just want peace and to be able to work." Critics, however, say the rebels rule by terror, forcing young peasants into their ranks or seducing them with the promise of a gun, comradeship and a monthly salary of about $200, more than double the average wage. International diplomats and Colombia's press also have blasted the FARC -- as well as other rebel bands and right-wing paramilitary groups -- for kidnapping. There is growing outrage that about 200 children were among the estimated 3,000 kidnapping victims nationwide last year. FARC leaders deny kidnapping children, although they admit taking adults for ransom to raise money. They also deny involvement in the growing or shipping of cocaine and heroin, although they admit "taxing" those who do. "We condemn narcotrafficking," said Andres Paris, one of FARC's top negotiators. "It's not of the guerrillas. It's an economic and social reality in Colombia. We charge taxes on the biggest business in our area. It's a political tax to finance the war." Despite the demise of many Marxist regimes around the world, FARC leaders seem committed and confident. "You can't compare us to Russia," Rondon said. "We have taken the ideas of Marx but applied them to Colombia. As the crisis between the rich and poor in Colombia has grown, we've grown." On the Web: Marxist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, who are known by their Spanish acronym FARC, even have their own Web site: may contact Mike Williams at: mikew coxnews.comSan Vicente Del Caguan, Colombia Published: Sunday, July 23, 2000 Copyright 2000 Austin American-StatesmanRelated Article:U.S. Walks Thin Line in Colombian Conflicts Articles - Colombia:
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