THE UNITED States military is engaged in a place where warfare has gone on for generations, where large areas are in the hands of dangerous fighters with loyalties to only themselves. Many poor residents find cultivating illegal drugs the best way to make a living. To defeat the worst of the insurgents, some advocate making alliances with unsavory characters, otherwise the fighting is left to a national army of questionable competence and undeniable corruption.
That might sound like Afghanistan, but it's a place much closer to home - Colombia. A few years ago, the Clinton White House made Colombia the front lines in the war on drugs. Though Colombia was already getting almost $300 million annually from the United States - putting it third on the foreign aid list behind Israel and Egypt - Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey helped push a $1.3 billion package through Congress in 1999, money that was supposed to stem the flow of cocaine from the country that supplies 90 percent of America's consumption. The cocaine continues to pour out of Colombia. The Bush administration is backing a modification in the aid package, sending money for direct military assistance, this time under the anti-terrorism rubric.
All of this takes place as a crucial election approaches in Colombia. But with the Middle East and Afghanistan dominating America's attention, little attention is paid to the growing U.S. involvement in what has become a three-way war, fighting that dates back almost 40 years, part of the violence that has been part of the scenery in this in Colombia for much of the last century.
"This is not a civil war in the sense that you have a polarized nation with one half one side and the other half on the other side," says Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "What you have is very well-financed, well-armed groups competing for power, and you have a state that is very weak."
The difference between Colombia and many of the other countries that have endured long, intractable wars is that few contend Colombia is a basket case of a nation. "It is a viable nation-state," says Peter Siavelis, a political scientist at Wake Forest University. "It has clear national borders, a sense of national identity and longstanding political institutions."
Shifter says that Colombia has the best economic performance in Latin America over the past 40 years. "It's a bizarre and strange coexistence. There are highly sophisticated sections in Colombia, but it is bloody and dysfunctional in other areas."
Siavelis notes that "this is one of the longest-standing democracies in the Western Hemisphere."
That democracy will go to the polls in a week in an election that most expect will lead to Alvaro Uribe becoming Colombia's next president. Uribe takes a hard line against the rebel groups. His popularity can be traced to the failure of the tactics of current President Andres Pastrana, who took office four years ago determined to negotiate with the main leftist rebel group, the FARC - the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
"A year ago, Uribe's rhetoric seemed way out there," says Russell Crandall, a Colombian specialist at Davidson College in North Carolina. "Now, he seems moderate."
Pastrana gave the FARC dominion over a big chunk of Colombian countryside. But his attempts at peacemaking were spurned. "Pastrana gave them the ranch," says Crandall. "He bet his entire administration's success at the peace table and FARC said, `Screw it.'"
Pastrana broke off negotiations in February and fighting has intensified since. Earlier this month, a gas cylinder bomb fired by a FARC mortar hit a church in Choco, killing 119 and injuring more than 100, all civilians seeking to escape the fighting in the sanctuary. This past week, more than 80 combatants died in fighting.
The ideological origins of the conflict have been lost.
"In recent years, you have seen the end of ideology," says Crandall, who notes that in their early years in the 1960s, the current leftist groups had a Robin Hood-like appeal in this economically stratified country. "What these groups want right now is the $1 million question. Everybody thought, and I did, too, that once they got autonomy, they would sit down with Pastrana and cut a deal. We were completely wrong."
As in Afghanistan and several dysfunctional African countries, warfare seems to have become a way of life, offering the best job many can find in the countryside.
"War in Colombia is big business," says Abel Ricardo Lopez, a native of the Colombian capital Bogota who is a history graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park. "People make a lot of money."