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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Intervention in Colombia

Skeptics looking for confirmation of a Colombia in crisis need look no further than the northern border towns of Vigia del Fuerte and Bojaya. In March, insurgent guerrillas attacked these fishing villages near Panama. Churches, homes and government buildings were destroyed. Thirty people were killed, seven taken prisoner, and four are missing.

Statistics complement this story of a country in precipitous decline. Between 1995 and 1999, annual cocaine production skyrocketed from 230 to 520 metric tons, 80 percent of world supply. Since 1990, Colombia's growing guerrilla insurgency has murdered 35,000, including 5,000 police officers. Worse, drug traffickers and insurgents bent on overthrowing the oldest democracy in Latin America are working together, a merger that raises the specter of a nation run by violent narcotics predators.

Another ominous sign is Colombia's struggling economy. Colombia is suffering through its first sustained recession after nearly seven decades of uninterrupted economic growth. The combination of 21 percent unemployment, a robust black market economy and a lack of investor confidence is an explosive cocktail. Were these problems self-contained, it would be easy to dismiss them as another country's internal struggles. They are not. More than 90 percent of the cocaine and 70 percent of the heroin consumed in the United States originates in Colombia. U.S. interests in the Andean region extend beyond helping target the source of this drug flow. The struggle between insurgents and the Colombian government has bled into neighboring nations, a development that recalls the spread of civil disorder in Central America in the 1980s. And one of those nations - Venezuela - is our largest petroleum supplier.

Colombia's economic troubles promise to hit the United States. As South America's third-largest economy, Colombia has become our fifth-largest export market in Latin America. In 1998 alone, it imported approximately $4 billion in U.S. goods and services. Colombia's oil reserves of 2.6 billion barrels - slightly less than Qatar, Indonesia and Algeria - could serve as a major energy source, but will remain untapped unless stability is restored.

In January, U.S. President Bill Clinton proposed $1.6 billion in U.S. assistance to complement Plan Colombia, the recovery proposal constructed largely through the efforts of Colombian President Andr?s Pastrana. The package provides aid to help destroy the country's coca-growing capacity and help in training, equipping and providing intelligence to Colombia's security forces. The House of Representatives approved the plan on March 30.

We support this plan, but it is not a panacea for Colombia's woes, nor can it represent the totality of U.S. involvement. Our greatest contributions must come in helping Colombia develop the strong institutions it needs for success, such as a professional military that protects human rights and a respected judicial system. We can bolster Colombia's economy by extending the Andean Trade Preferences Act, which for nearly 10 years has fostered economic cooperation with our Andean friends.

But our best intentions will be in vain if we delay. The United States has pledged half of the international assistance to help address Colombia's growing problems; a slow pace in providing that aid could have a chilling effect on other nations. Spain is hosting a June conference of nations to aid Colombia, a meeting that could fail if we have not shown our commitment to Colombian recovery.

Pastrana has made a good-faith effort to rebuild Colombia; Clinton has responded in kind. Now that the House has acted, it is up to the Senate. Given the rapidly deteriorating situation, assistance delayed will have the effect of assistance denied or rendered irrelevant. But if Congress acts quickly, we can contribute to restoring the societal and economic conditions on which a stable Colombia and Latin America depend.

Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Senator Bob Graham of Florida are co-chairs of a Council on Foreign Relations task force on Colombia. They submitted this comment to the Los Angeles Times.