We then had lunch with Frank Pearl who helps ex-guerilla members leave the shadow world and re-integrate into Colombian society. The government has essentially bought out more than 30,000 paramilitary guys over the past several years. They still have to serve justice, but their sentence gets reduced, and they receive job training and other assistance. Pearl has the very difficult job of balancing peace and justice: by demobilizing guerillas you further the peace process, but by shortening sentences or otherwise offering carrots to criminals, you are hurting the justice process for victims. Imagine if you were the mother of a son who was murdered by a FARC guerilla; how would you feel if the guerilla turned himself in and then received a light sentence and government aid to re-integrate into society?
Our last meeting of the trip was with the Minister of Defense (Secretary of Defense). Yet another extremely high level meeting with one of the most important power brokers in the country. The Minister started by showing a brief video about “ecoside” – drawing the connection between drug trafficking and environmental destruction. Colombia is one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet…and the drug cartels / cocoa growers are demolishing thousands of acres of forest and plants and wildlife. I had not yet heard the environmental mandate to root out the drug lords, but it makes sense. It introduced a new source of guilt on American drug consumers: “The next time you snort a line of cocaine at an American party, think of the rainforest that got destroyed to make that possible. Think about the carbon footprint of drug users.”
U.S. aid to Plan Colombia only funds 5% of the effort but it’s a high quality 5% in terms of intelligence and resources. Still, people overestimate U.S. aid on that effort.
Bottom line with the defense minister: this past year has been one of incredible achievements for Colombian security forces. They’ve captured key guerrilla leaders, eliminated more huge swaths of cocoa fields, rescued captured hostages, and continued to restore confidence in the people that they will be safe.