Cocaine state: Seeking peace in Colombia

Like ancient gaul, Colombia can be said to be divided into three parts. After several decades of undeclared civil war, leftist guerrillas dominate much of the southern part of the country. Much of the north is in the hands of right-wing paramilitary groups backed by wealthy landowners (though the leftists have a piece of this region too, near the Caribbean coast). Both the rebel insurgents and the rightist militias are involved in drug trafficking—a highly lucrative enterprise, Colombia being the world's principal producer of cocaine and a major provider of heroin. The beleaguered central government is literally central, occupying what might be called, without much exaggeration, an urban median strip.

As often happens in such situations, a lot of innocent civilians have been caught in the crossfire. Many such victims are killed simply because they are suspected of sympathizing with the enemy. Colombia has more than a million internal refugees who have fled their homes to save their lives, and more than half of the refugee families are headed by women whose husbands have been murdered or "disappeared." Some of the displaced have fled to neighboring countries. Though the parallels are imprecise, Colombia is a kind of Latin American Kosovo.

Colombia has a long history of political violence, much of it the result of bitter rivalry between the elite-controlled Conservative and Liberal parties. One period of bloody civil strife—called la violencia—was sparked by the assassination of Liberal leader Jorgé Eliécer Gaitán in 1948; lasting a decade, it descended into sheer criminality and cost some 200,000 lives. It was ended by a bipartisan power-sharing agreement—the National Front—that required a constitutional amendment and was operative for 16 years. But while interparty peace finally prevailed, the economic and social problems at the root of the conflict still went unaddressed, and the marginalization of the masses persisted—a situation that paved the way for the guerrillas, the drug cartels and the paramilitary groups.