What I Learned from 1.5 Weeks in Colombia


President Uribe talking to us about building “confidence” in Colombia

Last week I traveled throughout Medellín and Bogota as a fellow with the New Generation Leadership Forum, an initiative of the Americas Business Council and Inter-American Development Bank. NGLF seeks to bring together 20 leaders throughout the Americas under the age of 40 “with the goal of tackling today’s pressing political, environmental, religious and economic issues.”

I was honored to be invited to join the inaugural group. We had a terrific time together meeting high level political and business leaders as well as talking amongst ourselves about the issues facing the region.

We had private meetings with the following people:

  • President of Colombia, President Uribe
  • former prime minister of Jamaica, James Patterson
  • former mayor of Medellín and current presidential candidate, Sergio Fajardo
  • chairman of Intel, Craig Barrett
  • editor of the Americas section of The Economist, Michael Reid
  • Secretary of the Treasury of Mexico, Agustin Carstens
  • Nobel-prize winning economist, Robert Merton
  • former president of Colombia, Cesar Gaviria
  • head of the national police force (FBI, DEA, and all local police combined)
  • head of reconciliation for ex-guerrilla forces in Colombia, Frank Pearl
  • Minister of Defense of Colombia, Juan Calderón

Below are assorted observations and impressions based on these meetings and a week spent talking non-stop about Colombian politics, the Latin America region, and globalization. More specific dispatches, photos, and personal notes are over at my travel blog.

1. Colombia’s Unbelievable Security Turnaround. 10 years ago Colombia was one of the most dangerous countries in the world. 80% of the world’s kidnappings happened there. Guerrilla and paramilitary groups controlled vast swaths of the country. Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellín drug cartel, terrorized the country: in one election year, Escobar killed 4 out of the 7 presidential candidates. In the process he consolidated control over the cocaine trade to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars of personal wealth, earning him a spot on the Forbes world’s richest list. Today? Escobar is dead, Medellín’s violent crime rate is lower than Washington D.C, kidnappings are not a fact of daily life. Dozens of important drug cartel leaders have turned themselves in or been captured. FARC has been pushed deep into the jungle. It’s a pleasant place for tourists to visit. Most people point to President Uribe as the trigger for this turn-around. Uribe brought a hard stance against the cartels. In 2000, in conjunction with billions in aid / resources from the United States, Uribe implemented Plan Colombia which proactively sought to dismantle FARC by destroying cocoa fields, enticing (with carrots) paramilitary leaders to demobilize, and reducing corruption in the police force. Momentum has been key: with every additional bad guy you capture, you gain valuable intelligence to capture others, and reduce morale within the opposition. Hence we’ve seen the successes pile up in the last 12 months.

2. War on Drugs. You hear “Colombia” and you think drugs. The U.S has been fighting a War on Drugs for almost 30 years now. America’s policies — and the billions of dollars behind them — are back in the headlines thanks to new waves of violence along the Mexican border related to in-fighting among drug cartels there. All the Colombians I met seemed hopeful that the headlines will generate real debate within the U.S. about the War on Drugs. In particular, Latin Americans hope that America will confront the demand side the equation: the marijuana and cocaine habits of millions of Americans are the reason blood is shed every day on the streets of Mexico, Colombia, and elsewhere. Hillary Clinton, in a visit to Mexico a few weeks ago, acknowledged as much. The question is whether renewed debate in the U.S. will lead to any fundamental policy changes beyond the usual talk about better border control or better education efforts. Namely: will the U.S. legalize marijuana and regulate it? Legalization seems to have broad support in theory but little support politically. How the U.S. decides to proceed on its war on drugs depends mostly on how successful Washington sees its efforts to date. Everyone agrees it’s been a failure — overall consumption has not declined precipitously in the U.S., Latin America still hosts warzones related to cartels fulfilling that consumption — the question is how dismal a failure you think it to be. Until there’s wide recognition that incarcerating potheads and adding super duper cameras along the El Paso border has not at all worked, little is likely to change in American policy. In the meantime, all eyes are on the supply side and particularly Calderon’s muscular posture toward the cartels in Mexico.

3. A Third Term for Uribe? President Uribe in Colombia enjoys sky-high popularity both within his country — Colombians feel safe and confident for the first time in years — and from outside observers who admire not only his security work but his willingness to stand up to Hugo Chavez. (No other Latin American leader counterweights Chavez’s voice; Lulu in Brazil is too obsessed with being liked by everyone.) Here’s the problem: Uribe himself thinks he has done such a good job that he sees it right to amend the country’s 1991 constitution, if the people vote to do so, to allow him to run for a third term. His view is that the war against the cartels is not over. They are winning the war, but press on they must, and what sane person would change generals in the middle of the war? Second, he argues that he doesn’t even want to serve a third term. But he will do what the people ask him to do. (Shameless populism!) It’s easy to appreciate why the Colombian people are willing to entertain the notion of more Uribe: more than anything people crave security, and security Uribe has brought. Why mess with what’s working so well? All “expert” commentators we spoke with oppose a third Uribe term. First, they argue when a president amends the constitution to extend his term it weakens the long-term democratic institutions of the country. If Uribe can do it, what will stop a genuinely evil president from pursuing such a powergrab in the future? Second, they argue that the priorities of Colombia have changed. The country no longer needs a fireman to put out fires. There are other social and political issues separate and apart from battling FARC. The next step? Colombians will vote on whether to pass a referendum allowing Uribe to run for a third term; if they pass it, Uribe will almost surely win. But it’s not clear they will pass it, plus there are some amusing technical issues with how the referendum has been phrased that may put the decision in the hands of a very-split congress before the people ever get a say.

4. Guns from the U.S. The assault weapons that the drug cartels use to kill one another are mostly purchased in the U.S. and smuggled across the border. There are two issues here: enforcement of existing gun laws and contemplating whether existing gun lawyers are good enough. The first is uncontroversial: there is almost surely corruption on both the U.S. and Mexico sides within border patrol ranks that are allowing vast amounts of unlicensed, automatic firearms to cross the border. The second is more interesting: what types of guns should Americans be able to purchase on their own? As one prominent Mexican businessperson told us, “Someone who buys 25 assault weapons of the same type at a gun show in San Diego isn’t a fucking collector.” I personally support second amendment rights in the name of self-defense, but so many of the guns being purchased go well above the needs of individual self-defense. We need tighter regulation in the U.S. over guns.

5. Importance of U.S. Policy. U.S. foreign policy ripples around the world, but nowhere as much as in Latin America. It’s impossible to have a conversation about an issue in Colombia (and I suspect most countries) without questions raised about U.S. actions or intentions: Will they approve free trade agreement X? Will they give aid to Y? Will Obama support this or that initiative? I suspect the American people would pay a little more attention to international affairs if they knew, for example, that $700 million a year of their tax dollars have been directed to Plan Colombia over the past 10 years.

6. Cuba. The U.S. embargo against Cuba was supposed to dethrone Castro. Castro is in power. The U.S. embargo has not worked. It’s time for it to end.

7. Justice vs. Peace. Reconciliation in the aftermath of war is a tall task that Argentina, South Africa, Germany, and others have all dealt with over the years. On the one hand, you want to bring the perpetrators of terrible deeds to justice. On the other hand, you want to promote peace going forward, and sometimes the best way to do this is to not imprison for life or execute any perpetrator you find. Take Colombia. The government has been offering packages to guerrilla leaders who demobilize and re-integrate into Colombian society. More than 10,000 ex-paramiliatry folks have taken up the offer, which includes a shorter sentencing, job training and rehabilitation, and witness protection programs. Imagine if your son got killed by Cristina, the notorious FARC operative who recently turned herself in as part of the demobilization program. How would you feel if you learned her jail sentence was going to be halved or more? You wouldn’t be happy. But long term peace will come from the complete dismantling of groups like FARC. And a dismantling strategy that involves indirect approaches (enticing top leaders to desert) as well as direct (military confrontation) might be the best.

8. Environment – I was not familiar with Colombia’s amazing biodiversity. Colombia is the second most biologically diverse country in the world. “More than 1,821 species of birds, 623 species of amphibians, 467 species of mammals, 518 species of reptiles, and 3,200 species of fish reside in Colombia. About 18 percent of these are endemic to the country. Colombia has a mind-boggling 51,220 species of plants, of which nearly 30 percent are endemic.” The Minister of Defense showed us a compelling video titled “Ecoside” – it noted that that the drug cartels are doing enormous environmental damage in the jungle and that planetary concerns alone are reason enough to do our best to bring them down. The video at one point asked, “What is the carbon footprint of the person who snorts a line of cocaine?”

All in all, a deeply stimulating, humbling, and often hilarious time. Thank you very much to the Americas Business Council for including me in this fellowship. Guys – I can’t wait for Cancun next year!

10 comments on “What I Learned from 1.5 Weeks in Colombia
  • I found this quite informative. Great that you gave a positive focus to it.

    Legalizing certain stuff on a country may annihilate the cartel-crime but I’m not sure all societies are educated enough to live with it. I don’t Mexico, my country is prepared for it.

    One of my fav artist from Colombia wrote a song against the constant chemical spreading over Colombia’s forests- to get rid of drug plantations. Is clear now why she wants to preserve that biodiversity.

    I know you didn’t go to Puerto Rico, but anyways, wonder if you notice this cool colored stuff in South America http://thepostfamily.com/community_posts/480-local-paint

  • “Lulu in Brazil is too obsessed with being liked by everyone.”

    Hmm, not so much so, Ben. Brazil tries to play the role of regional power, articulating consensus and smoothing ideological conflicts. To confront the boastful stances of Chávez would simply jeopardize Brazil’s yearn for regional leadership.

    And it’s not Lulu, it’s Lula. Show some respect for our great leaders, will ya? He’s Obama’s guy, ok? =D

  • Apologies for the typo! Your perspective is a smoother way of putting it, but I don’t think it disagrees with “wants to be liked by all in the region.” It takes political courage to confront Chavez.

  • Ben – what an amazing post! As a Colombian (but also Jewish and raised in the American schooling system) living abroad for most of my life, it’s so refreshing to see that someone ‘gets’ Colombia. It’s not about the drugs…it never has been. Yet 90% of the time that I introduce myself to someone – and they ask where I’m from and I say Colombian, inevitably the ‘drug’ joke comes out…At times I’ve found it aggravating…now I just think it’s plain stupid and ignorant to believe what the media says. Stay in touch!

  • Really fantastic article, Ben. Thanks for the report.

    First, in regards to Uribe, and more specifically his third term, are there perspectives in Colombia that there could be other ways of tackling not only FARC, but also social and economic concern? This is a very broad question, but I mostly ask to challenge the idea that Uribe has the right answer. Yes,, it’s working, but could it work better? Some believe that Antanas Mockus is able to make those changes. Any thoughts on this?

    @Patrik – The Fox News article provides some interesting facts, but the other 6000 weapons that could not be traced doesn’t mean they didn’t come from the US. A real test would be to reinstitute the assault weapon law that expired while Bush was president. It is interesting how the level of violence has increased markedly since the law expired (not to say the violence didn’t exist before, only that it has increased since).

    Obviously there are many differing points of view on this subject. But the overall point is the reduce the voilence by providing carrots for deffering militants and their leaders. Well stated, Ben.


  • When it comes to tackling FARC my sense is people are not challenging Uribe
    on that front. He’s done such a good job that his opponents are picking
    other fronts on which to fight (politically)….

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