FARC took advantage of its autonomy to expand coca production in the area it ruled, adding its profits to its main source of income - kidnapping for ransom. The U.S. State Department says there is a greater risk of being kidnapped in Colombia than in any country in the world. Pastrana ended negotiations when FARC operatives hijacked a civilian airplane in February, kidnapping Sen. Jorge Gechem Turbay. A few weeks later, they grabbed presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and provincial governor Guillermo Gaviria. All are presumably still being held.
In moving into the cocaine business, FARC joined the business of its major adversary, the right-wing AUC, a paramilitary operation funded by cocaine producers in part because the military was so incompetent in fighting the left-wing rebels. The paramilitary groups have been brutal and ruthless. But a growing number of people in Colombia seem ready to adopt their tactics.
For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the Bush administration is proposing $98 million in direct military aid to Colombia. Most of that would protect the CaM-qo LimM-sn-CoveM-qas oil pipeline, which runs through northeastern Colombia. It was attacked by guerrillas 166 times last year. But $25 million would go to the military for anti-terrorism activities, justified by growing evidence of links between FARC and international terrorist groups. This money is part of a total package of $275 million in military assitance -- mainly for an expansion of anti-drug efforts -- and $164 million in economic aid.
Though human rights groups are wary of such military aid, many think this is a propitious time for increased U.S. involvement - but only if applied correctly, aimed at strengthening the Colombian state, dealing with Colombian problems, not just American issues of drugs and terrorism.
"Eradicating coca in southern Colombia doesn't necessarily produce a stronger state," says Shifter. "What would really contribute to moving the process further along is support directed at helping the state perform its job better. Then you could settle the conflict and deal with the drug problem."
A major part of moving the state along involves forming a viable army and police force in all areas of the country that could provide security for citizens so they wouldn't turn to the rebels or paramilitary forces for protection.
Most think Colombia can deal with its drug problem, noting that a crackdown in Peru drastically reduced coca growing there and that its cultivation is not endemic in other nearby countries. Peter Reuter, a drug expert in the criminology department at the University of Maryland, College Park, says that if Colombia had a similar crackdown, production would most likely move somewhere else. That would not help the United States but could improve the life of Colombians.
To make that work, Colombia would have to offer alternatives to growing coca, something possible only in a well-functioning economy.
"One of the reasons this war was created and has lasted this long was because of the poverty and unemployment," says Colombia native Lopez. "People go to the guerrillas or the paramilitaries just to have some money to survive because there are no other options. You have to start creating options for people. They have to have the possibility of getting a job."
One problem is the high level of all sorts of violence in Colombia. The 3,500 people who die in the war annually are dwarfed by over 25,000 murders in this country of 40 million. The murder rate of 77.5 per 100,000 is more than 13 times that of the United States.
"The violence goes back not just decades, but centuries," says Crandall, who adds that some of what passes for civil conflict are old feuds dressed up in political clothing. "Colombian people have traditionally solved domestic and economic problems through violence."
Still, Crandall has hope for the country. "I am an optimist, one of the rare ones who studies Colombia. With the paramilitaries and FARC, it's a real tightrope for the United States to walk. We have to follow the lead of the Colombians. It's like the Hippocratic oath, `First, do no harm.' And the United States, in its post-Sept. 11 fervor, needs to be very careful, to support a Colombian solution to a Colombian problem."