A Colombian experiment in nation building

VISTA HERMOSA, Colombia — The rows of white containers on the edge of this Colombian farm town bring to mind FEMA housing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

But rather than a botched response to disaster, these trailers signal Colombia’s commitment to an experiment in nation building that is providing insight for American planners in Afghanistan.

Located inside an army base on the edge of the Macarena mountain range in southern Colombia, the so-called Fusion Center brings together Colombian government agencies, local politicians, police and army troops as well as U.S. military and development experts. They have been tasked with pushing Marxist rebels out of the zone, eradicating the drug crops that finance the insurgents, and building roads, schools and clinics to win over a hostile local population.

It’s a formidable task. But after two-and-a-half years, the U.S.-backed pilot program — known as the Macarena Consolidation Plan — is showing some encouraging signs.

According to United Nations figures, the amount of land planted with coca — the raw material for cocaine — has been reduced by about 75 percent in the six targeted townships.

In its place, crops of corn, rice and sugar cane are taking hold. Some areas are still hot zones, but security has improved to the point where local mayors no longer have to administer their towns from the safety of Bogota or the provincial capital.

“This is cutting edge,” said Susan Reichle, the director in Colombia of the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.

While U.S. officials have considered similar designs for Afghanistan — where the booming heroin trade provides millions of dollars for Taliban insurgents — “what’s interesting about Colombia is that they’re actually doing it,” Reichle said. “And they’re doing a really good job.”

Meticulous coordination of military maneuvers with drug eradication and humanitarian aid projects may seem more like common sense than some radical new doctrine.

But turf wars can paralyze government action. International donors sometimes restrict how their assistance can be used. Armies, police departments and anti-drug agencies are often rife with corruption and sometimes work at cross purposes.

“People who do counter-narcotics take drug eradication as their metric of success, while people who do counterinsurgency say: ‘Don’t touch those poppy or coca fields because that will turn the population against us,’” said Sergio Jaramillo, Colombia’s deputy defense minister and an architect of the Macarena Consolidation Plan.

But drugs and insurgents, he said, “are all one problem and you have to have all of the tools to address it at the same time.”

Long before the United States became bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, Colombia — which has received more than $6 billion in U.S. aid over the past decade — was Exhibit A for the disjointed and piecemeal approach.

Much of the U.S. money was funneled into programs to forcibly eradicate coca. Fumigating drug plantations, the thinking went, would squeeze the rebel money supply and cripple the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the nation’s largest rebel group (known as the FARC).

But drug eradication far outpaced follow-up efforts to provide coca farmers with emergency food and incentives to switch to legal crops. Thus, frustrated peasants replanted coca. Others wanted to get out of the drug business but couldn’t.

“I was ordered by the FARC to either plant coca or leave the area,” said Leonardo Cuestas, 43, who eventually abandoned his farm on the outskirts of Vista Hermosa.

For its part, USAID steered clear of the most treacherous parts of the countryside. Though coca crops in those zones were being eradicated, the agency decided it was pointless to sink development money into regions that lacked decent security.

By 2007, authorities had made little headway as farmers continued to grow bumper crops of coca. And though the FARC had suffered a series of military defeats, the insurgents remained entrenched in the Macarena region.

Though it lies just 100 miles south of Bogota, the area is a longtime rebel stronghold. For generations, Bogota politicians ignored the zone and actually ceded Vista Hermosa and four other nearby townships to the guerrillas during peace talks that ended in failure in 2002. By then, the Macarena region had turned into one of the most prolific drug-producing zones, thanks to fertile soil that can produce up to six harvests of coca per year.

“This is probably the most important place in the country for the FARC,” said Jaramillo, the deputy defense minister. “So how was it possible that we hadn’t managed (to resolve) this problem?”

Thus, in October 2007 the Colombian government settled on a three-pronged, carrot-and-stick strategy. Soon after troops attacked the guerrillas and teams of eradicators cut down drug crops, aid workers moved into the newly secured zones to provide food, crop substitution programs and public works projects for farmers who had long depended on coca.

Though the program has received about $13 million from the United States, there are no USAID logos attached to any of the projects, as such branding could undercut the Colombian government’s quest for legitimacy.

And unlike most aid projects which are run out of the capital, the program’s Fusion Center sits in Vista Hermosa, a collection of tin-roofed houses, cantinas, and farm tool shops at the foot of the Macarena ridge. Instead of hobnobbing in the capital, program workers can live among the people they are trying to help.

They must tread carefully.

If aid workers push beyond the areas secured by the Colombian military, their projects can be sabotaged by the FARC. Yet if they don’t move in quickly to provide seeds, pour concrete and dig wells, the government can lose credibility.

“We have to be very fast,” said Alvaro Balcazar, who manages the consolidation program, as he sat in one of the trailers at the Fusion Center. “We can’t wait for a year for a contract to be approved.”

However, snafus and bureaucratic infighting have been unavoidable.

A program to grant peasants title to their farms — which would increase land values and allow them to secure bank loans — was delayed in part because Colombia’s former agriculture minister considered the squatters to be guerrilla supporters, Balcazar said.

During a recent visit to one agriculture cooperative, farmers said they had received a cultivator from the government six months ago, but were still waiting for the tractor to pull it. Nearby, the machinery sat rusting in the weeds.

Perhaps most troubling, the FARC remains a lethal force. Last month guerrillas ambushed two policeman and gunned down five soldiers near Vista Hermosa.

“The guerrilla presence in the countryside was much greater than I’d been led to believe,” said Adam Isacson, of the Center for International Policy in Washington, who visited the region in April just as rebels attacked a team of coca eradicators.

He also cautioned that the program may be difficult to sustain due to the government's short attention span and the revolving door of Colombian ministers and U.S. diplomats who rarely stay on the job for more than a few years.

Still, Isacson and other analysts say the consolidation plan seems far more serious than past efforts to pacify Colombian war zones.

Thanks to a newly paved road, Vista Hermosa is now just a five-hour drive from Bogota. Land prices in some areas have risen 10-fold. The rich farmland now produces more food than narcotics.

One of the farmers experimenting with legal crops is Cuestas, the former coca grower who was forced off his land by the FARC. He now raises sugar cane and cacao, which is used to make chocolate.

“For the past 30 years we were not really part of Colombia. We considered the government our enemy. And I was one of the most skeptical, ” he said. “But now I’m a believer.”

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