Interview with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos 'The Guerillas Are Retreating'

In a SPIEGEL interview, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos defends progress made in his country's battle against the left-wing FARC rebels and the war against the drug cartels. He argues Europe should take a closer look at his country as a hub for business in Latin America.

DDP

SPIEGEL: Mr. President, you are coming to Berlin for a state visit on April 13. What do you expect from the Germans? Many think of drugs and violence when they hear the word "Colombia."

Santos : We want to strengthen relations and establish a new image of Colombia and Latin America in Germany and Europe. The drug war and issues of human rights have shaped the picture of Colombia in the last 40 years. Now we want to portray our country as a vibrant democracy. We want to promote science and education, and to make the country attractive for Germans.

SPIEGEL: To attract business? So far, it's been mostly Chinese companies that are coming to Colombia, but the Europeans have been reluctant. Why?

Santos : Europe would be well advised to pay more attention to Latin America. The emerging economies are the engines of the global economy. Colombia has done too little to improve its reputation in Europe. We recently negotiated a free trade agreement with the European Union, and now trade will flourish.

SPIEGEL: That is what you hope ...

Santos: Yes, but there is also a reason for that. Our population is primarily young, and more and more poor people are entering the middle class. This is a market of millions of potential consumers.

SPIEGEL: Which investors from Germany would you like to see?

Santos : German high-tech companies that invest in biotechnology, for example. Colombia has a huge variety of plant and animal species, and we have enormous potential. Small and mid-sized companies should come to Colombia. From here, they have access to the entire Latin American market. Besides, Germany could help us improve our education system.

SPIEGEL: Many companies that might want to come to Colombia are concerned about the safety of their employees ...

Santos : We haven't overcome the violence yet, but for foreign investors Colombia is safer than it has ever been. The number of kidnappings has gone down by 90 percent. Ten years ago, we were seen as a virtually failed state, but today we are a vibrant democracy. You can walk safely through the streets of Bogotá these days.

SPIEGEL: The violence has increased again in Medellín ...

Santos : Medellín was hell 20 years ago, because it was controlled by the drug cartels. Today foreign businesspeople are falling in love with this city. There are still a lot of murders, but this problem doesn't affect foreign investors. Most of the dead are victims of gang wars. This is a relic of the past.

SPIEGEL: You recently warned foreign companies against paying ransom when their employees are kidnapped. Apparently there are still some employers who are not heeding your advice.

Santos : I hope not. We had a very bad experience with the German company Mannesmann many years ago. The second-largest guerrilla group, the ELN, achieved a comeback with Mannesmann's money.

SPIEGEL: How many hostages are the guerrillas still holding captive?

Santos : They have 16 "political prisoners," as they call it, as well as a small number of businesspeople. We are not familiar with all the cases, but there are no more than 30 in total.

SPIEGEL: Can you travel to every corner of your country without fearing for your life?

Santos : Most of the country is safe. Ten years ago, the mayors of 400 of our 1,900 communities couldn't enter their town halls because of the death threats they had received. At that time, a third of the country was controlled by paramilitary groups, one-third by the guerrillas and only one-third by the government. Today, we have regained control over our territory. But I admit that we still have more work to do in a few remote regions. But foreigners normally do not travel to these areas.

SPIEGEL: Still, many of your resources, such as oil, happen to be in these regions.

Santos : Ten years ago, the guerrillas were blowing up pipelines three times a day. Now it is happening only every three to four months. Naturally, Colombia is not a paradise yet, which I readily admit.

SPIEGEL: Your predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, complained that the guerrillas have a lot of supporters abroad, particularly in Europe. Do they still have this support?

Santos : There are a few naïve Europeans who still believe that these terrorists are fighting for the poor, in the style of Robin Hood. But these are isolated cases. They have a few connections to Spain, Sweden and other countries. Let me give you an important statistic: 97 to 98 percent of Colombians are opposed to the guerrillas. The guerrillas are retreating.

SPIEGEL: Is it true that the FARC guerrilla organization asked the Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi for a loan of $100 million to buy weapons?

Santos : We found information documenting this connection on computers that were seized from the guerrillas. Libya even offered them $300 million. But we don't know whether FARC actually received the money. It is clear, however, that they still have connections to Gadhafi.

SPIEGEL: According to human rights organizations, during the time of the Uribe administration the military killed thousands of innocent young men, claiming that they were guerrilla fighters. Do you have your armed forces under control?

Santos : I do not recognize that number. It wasn't that many. As defense minister, I uncovered this scandal and took corrective action. We haven't had this problem since then, which even the most critical NGOs admit. They are calling for justice, which I support.

SPIEGEL: The military had also pronounced a few guerrilla leaders dead, but then they suddenly turned up again ...

Santos : There were exactly two cases. These men who had "risen from the dead" were later killed by the military.

SPIEGEL: Is a military victory in the war against the guerrillas even possible?

Santos : We want to force them to a point of no return. The door is not closed if the guerrillas want to negotiate. But they have to prove that they are seriously willing to reach an agreement. They abused offers by previous administrations in order to rearm themselves. We will not walk into that trap again.

SPIEGEL: How strong are the ELN, the so-called National Liberation Army, and FARC?

Santos : The ELN is very weak, and the FARC has an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 fighters.

SPIEGEL: Álvaro Uribe boasted that he had convinced the right-wing paramilitary groups to lay down their weapons. Now it turns out that the disarmament was apparently a bluff ...

Santos : That refers to no more than 30 or 40 cases among the more than 30,000 men who turned in their weapons, and they are being investigated. There are no longer any paramilitary groups. Their leaders are all in prison.

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