The most electrifying political moment I have witnessed came about a dozen years ago, when a young woman in a T-shirt adorned with the image of an elephant strode to the front of the Colombian Senate chamber and denounced the pervasive drug corruption rotting her nation from within.
For three hours, broadcast on national television, Sen. Ingrid Betancourt laid out the case against President Ernesto Samper for taking drug money. She demanded his impeachment. The image on her white shirt represented drug corruption, the elephant in the room that no one dared discuss.
Ingrid, who was a source when I covered Colombia for The Post and is also my friend, is still paying for her courageous action in June 1996, when most of Colombia was cowed by cocaine barons and their political surrogates. Her popularity propelled her to a presidential bid in 2002. But while campaigning, she and a companion, Clara Rojas, were kidnapped by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
These days the FARC, the hemisphere's oldest rebel group, is more of a criminal enterprise than a political movement. It released Rojas and former congresswoman Consuelo Gonzalez this month in a rare moment of good news in Colombia's relentless conflict. But hopes of real progress were dashed when Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who helped broker the women's release, endorsed the FARC as a revolutionary army entitled to international acceptance.
Few are less deserving of international esteem than the FARC. For its well-documented abuses against civilians and deep involvement in the drug trade, it deserves its designation by the United States and the European Union as a terrorist entity. Despite Chávez's embrace, the FARC remains a pariah even on the Latin American left.
In addition to producing and transporting cocaine, the FARC still holds more than 700 hostages, including Ingrid and three U.S. military contractors. Captives are held in chains and made to walk for weeks through the jungle. They are allowed little communication with the outside world and are released only when their freedom can purchase something of value to their captors, often after years of captivity.
The hostages are largely forgotten. Ingrid flashed across television screens in December when police intercepted a video showing her gaunt face; the Americans were shown briefly, raising hopes that they are still alive.
To many, it makes sense that the "war on terrorism" is focused almost exclusively on radical Islamist groups. But the FARC's criminal and terrorist activities, coupled with Chávez's institutional support, pose serious, often underestimated, threats to our national security.
Rising oil prices have created virtually a bonanza for Venezuela, which, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency, purchased $4.3 billion in weapons in 2005-06. This arms buy was greater than that of China and included a Kalashnikov assault rifle factory licensed from Russia; such purchases make little sense for a nation not at war. Chávez has already proved his ability to unite other nations behind an anti-American agenda. Also disturbing is Chávez's growing personal and economic ties to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose government sponsors Hezbollah, a terrorist group already operating in Latin America.
This "connectivity between narco-terrorism and Islamic radical terrorism could be disastrous in this region," says Adm. James Stavridis, head of the U.S. Southern Command.
Originally a part of the Liberal Party militias, the FARC acquired a Marxist ideology in the 1960s and moved into drug trafficking after the Cold War ended. Raw capitalism, in the form of the cocaine trade and kidnapping for ransom, replaced Marxism as the group's raison d'etre.
In the 1990s, I met with FARC leaders and foot soldiers, as I have with many insurgent groups in the Western Hemisphere. Their lack of ideological coherence was striking. Years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the leaders insisted that the Soviet Union remained intact and that stories of its demise were imperialist propaganda.
The FARC controls an estimated 40 percent of Colombia's national territory. Flush with revenue from its illicit enterprises, the group is acquiring sophisticated weapons, communications equipment and training, which enable it to entice new recruits and keep the state at bay.
The government's historically weak and inept response is underscored by the fact that many senior FARC leaders die in the jungle of old age, not in combat. As the conflict drags into its fifth decade, despite more than $1 billion in U.S. aid over the past 10 years, the FARC is nowhere near close to being militarily defeated.
The FARC must release Ingrid and the other civilians, particularly if Chávez and the armed group aspire to be more than co-conspirators in kidnapping and the international drug trade. That is simply humanitarian (and ignores the complex international issues that drug trafficking raises). Chávez has shown that he has leverage with the group and is not impervious to global pressure or the resulting accolades when the prisoners were released. Accordingly, international pressure must increase. All dealings with the Chávez government must make normal relations and the reconsideration of the FARC's pariah status dependent on whether Chávez engages with the FARC to free the hostages. The alternative is for Colombia's best and brightest to continue to be lost, victims of an endless war fueled by cocaine and greed.
Douglas Farah. He covered Colombia for The Post from 1989 to 2000. He is a senior investigator at the NEFA Foundation and a fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.