Nepali Times
Guest Column
Colombia and Nepal


The errors made and opportunities lost in resolving Nepal's war bear many resemblances to the early part of the conflict in my own country, Colombia. Nepal used to be known for its great mountains and gentle people, but that image is changing. Colombia used to be known for coffee, today it is known for the world record it holds for gross violations of human rights.

There are 20 violent deaths per day in Colombia, and the toll in Nepal is coming up to that level. There are more than two million displaced people in Colombia, Nepal is getting there. Colombia is proof of how badly things can go wrong in a country. Equally important: it shows how badly things can go wrong in any country when root causes of land ownership, inequality, injustice, corruption, impunity and poverty are not addressed.

Some 500 Colombian landowners occupy 45 percent of the country's cultivable land. More than half the Colombians live below the poverty line, 80 percent in rural areas. The annual income of the wealthiest 10 percent of Colombians is 42 times that of the poorest 10 percent. Although the economy has done well, it is inequality more than poverty that is a cause of the violence.

Colombia's conflict dates back to the late 1940s, when FARC (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia) first emerged from a group of peasants fighting for land reform. During the 1960s more guerrilla groups came out. The upper classes were alarmed and so was the United States.

The government first tried violent eradication during the mid 1960s, by allowing the military to arm civilians, which is what the Nepal government is now doing. Successive presidents ruled under a state of emergency for over two decades, giving the military more power and cutting civil liberties. The military budget soared and so did foreign financial aid, training and hardware for the armed forces. Freedom of press was restricted, students and union leaders were arrested and there were widespread human rights violations throughout the 1970s and 80s.

The deteriorating economy opened the door for the narcotics trade, making the guerrillas and drug lords initial allies. But as they grew richer and more powerful, the drug lords began to resemble the oligarchs. The cash-starved guerrillas started extortion and kidnapping of landowners and their relatives. In order to defend themselves, the landlords created paramilitary groups, which grew into a brutal force during the 1980s involved in 'social cleansing': the elimination of real or suspected drug addicts, ex-convicts, thieves, criminals, prostitutes, homosexuals, beggars and street children. A civil society that shared these interests tolerated the excesses.

By the 1990s, the spiral of violence had gone out of control-leading to a culture of violence in society. Moral values declined, media turned to sensationalism and bias, and aggression and intolerance became common. Today, 85 percent of violent deaths in Colombia are due to common crime and not directly to the armed conflict. When the violence increasingly touched the elite (politicians, notable figures, and the media) the government tried to rein in the para-militaries, declaring them illegal.

But bringing them to justice has proved almost impossible: their power to intimidate and their financial or military links were too strong against a feeble system of justice. The guerrillas turned to the same brutal methods that characterised their enemy and worked against the common people for whom they were supposed to be fighting. From around 6,000 guerrillas in the early 1990s, FARC is now up to 20,000 and controls 40 percent of the territory. They grow because the young have few jobs and opportunities.

Under pressure from foreign governments, the fight against the drug mafia has intensified, fuelling more violence. The cartels have splintered into smaller groups that are even more difficult to detect. No amount of aerial herbicide sprayings, no crop alternatives have effectively controlled the lucrative trade. Surprisingly, the capital Bogot?, has lowered its crime rate in the last years, standing out as the only city in Latin America to do so. The reason: two successive mayors who were honesty, committed and accountable.

Karin Eichelkraut is a Colombian who has been living in Nepal for the past five years.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)