COLOMBIA: EXITING ESCOBAR’S SHADOW

There are bigger and more desperate caravans in the world trying to abandon
wretched lands than the ones from Central America that President Trump paints as
gangs of terrorists, drug dealers and criminals. Most importantly, neighboring
countries try to accommodate the influx of people driven by hunger and despair.
Each day, fifty thousand Venezuelans enter Colombia in search of food and
medicines that are not available in their country. One tenth of them leave Venezuela
for good. More than 3 million Venezuelans have gone since 2015; 1.2 million have
been accepted and resettled in Colombia. Not unlike Trump, in 2015 the
authoritarian leader of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, shut down the border with
Colombia claiming that it was used by criminal gangs to smuggle price-controlled
gasoline out of Venezuela. The border was re-opened a year later and thousands
cross each day on foot over two bridges. Many others use clandestine trails across
the river.
For anyone who spends a little time in Colombia as I just did, it is hard to ignore the
reality of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans who are trying to rebuild their lives
in a foreign country. Their only consolation is that Colombians speak the same
language and try to help in many ways. Many young Venezuelans become
vendedores or sellers of water, beer and trinkets in Cartagena and on other
Caribbean beaches. Many find jobs in Medellin, an emerging economic powerhouse
that once was the cocaine kingdom of Pablo Escobar, whose life and brutal deeds
now generate a substantial tourist trade. More than 220,000 people died as a result
of the drug wars since 1960. Escobar was finally killed by police in 1993. Medellin
was the epicenter of his cocaine business, supplying 80 percent of America’s coke.
Colombia is a relatively peaceful country at this time but the roots of the cocaine
trade have hardly been eradicated. There still are many streams of cocaine
produced in the hinterland that come to the shores and find their way to the United
States and other countries. The guerrilla war that lasted six decades between the
Colombian state and the left wing guerrillas of FARC created no fewer than 260,000
victims. Colombia was the battleground of Latin America, with a massive number of
murders, massacres and terrorist attacks. These days, the tourists that disembark
daily from three cruise ships in Cartagena have no idea that so much blood was shed
in this beautiful tropical country. They hardly know that most of those victims were
civilians. The killers were the Marxist guerrillas and the paramilitary forces that
fought them.
In August 2016, a peace agreement between the government and FARC was signed
after lengthy negotiations in Havana. It was submitted to a referendum in October
but a narrow majority of Colombians rejected it. A month later, President Santos and
FARC signed a revised peace deal and both houses of Congress ratified it without
holding a second referendum. The spadework for the negotiated end of the conflict
had been done by President Alvaro Uribe who enjoyed wide popular support. His
successor Juan Manuel Santos signed the peace agreement that called for the

cessation of hostilities and the surrender of weapons by the guerrillas. The central
issue that was settled was the guerrillas’ acceptance of the political institutions that
FARC had rejected and fought for decades. The demobilized FARC was able to
register as a political party that received public financial assistance. The political
arrangements, however, have not placated the opposition of the majority that voted
against the referendum and continues to harbor resentment toward former
President Santos for his inability to achieve a true and effective surrender of arms
from the former guerrillas. People say that he got nothing in return.
It is quite apparent that the distrust is very much alive and hangs as a Damocles
sword over the new and future governments. The other issue is that FARC continues
to be involved in the drug trafficking business. It is well known that FARC elements
work with Mexican cartels to smuggle cocaine to the United States.
Colombia appears to be a country in suspended animation. It still has terrorism of
the sort that FARC employed and at least one guerrilla movement, ELN (National
Liberation Army), is active under the leadership of Catholic priests, as
revolutionaries devoted to the cause of liberation theology. Last month ELN car
bombed the police academy in Bogota killing 21 cadets. This action put a damper on
negotiations that the new president Ivan Duque was hoping to start by following the
model of the peace dialogue with FARC. A simplistic rendition of the future of
Colombia is that the country will continue to live dangerously. Its social and
economic progress will complement the twin source of wealth incorporated in
tourism and coca. Colombia also extracts oil, coal and rare minerals. It is Latin
America’s third largest economy. Just as in Spanish colonial times, when Cartagena
was the principal shipping port of the new continent’s gold to Europe, Colombia is
the gateway between the South and the North. One thing the visitor is reminded of is
that Colombia is the only two-ocean country in South America. The poverty rate has
fallen and well financed government programs are pushing education. A middle
class is rising. Most dramatically, it seems that the country has finally shaken off the
cycle of violence and the bloody convulsions of the struggle against the guerrillas.
They may still keep their weapons hidden, as everyone knows, but they are slowly
being assimilated into the civil society with the assistance of organizations such as
ARN, the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization. It is a novel approach
aimed at reintegrating former FARC guerrillas and members of paramilitary groups.
In a real sense, everyday life shows that Colombia has emerged from the shadow of
the drug king Escobar and embraced the revival spirit of her beloved son, the writer
Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

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